When director Angelina Nikonova’s debut feature Twilight Portrait was released in 2011, it won widespread praise outside of Russia but sparked controversy at home. The film, which picked up awards at festivals including Reykjavik and Warsaw, is a tense and twist-laden portrayal of a woman attempting to regain control over her life after she is raped by traffic police. Shot on a shoestring budget, the film shows a society in the grip of callous disregard and corruption.
At the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July the Moscow-based director was back with her second feature, Welkome Home, showing in the main competition. The film, a comedy, is a departure from the bleakness of Twilight Portrait. Filmed in New York, Welkome Home tells the tale of a group of immigrants, including a former Russian model seeking a new job (Twilight collaborator and co-writer Dykhovichnaya), an Armenian carpet salesman, and an aspiring actor (Karren Karagulian) and his transvestite cousin (Ara Woland).
Now, with her much-needed moment of comic relief out the way, Nikonova tells film critic Carmen Gray about her plans to return to drama back on Russian soil.
The Calvert Journal: Welkome Home has a lighter, more comic touch than Twilight Portrait. Why the change in tone?
Angelina Nikonova: I was pretty exhausted after Twilight Portrait. It was a very emotional and deep drama. I wanted to do something lighter this time. I watch many different kinds of films and I like to make films in different genres. The worst thing that could happen in my life would be if I had to do similar things. That would be very uninspiring. Change inspires me and challenge inspires me. And, I know that it's much harder to make people smile than to make people feel strong emotions of sadness.
None of the Russian TV channels bought Twilight Portrait. It wasn't received well there. This time I made a film about America and now Russian film critics tell me it's not a Russian film but an American indie and what do they care about America. I don't know how to take it. As a compliment or an insult? The fact that I studied in New York is an argument that they use. It feels like I missed the goal but what's important for me is people feel for the characters and are entertained. Welkome Home is definitely more audience-friendly.
“You can't have people smoke on screen, you can't have sex scenes on screen, you can't have people swearing. There are so many limitations”
TCJ: But it still has a socially challenging aspect to it.
AN: Yeah, I think I can't work around that (laughs).
TCJ: Your attitude to your filmmaking is quite inspiring. I remember the last time I spoke to you, you said you were determined to make a comedy in New York and would not sit around waiting for it to happen despite any funding challenges.
AN: Of course you can shop around and look for producers but it takes time. This is a film I really wanted to make and I'm glad I did because you can see how the situation is changing in Russia with all the new laws that censor films. We got the film permit to screen it at theatres at the last second.
TCJ: In your films you're quite confrontational and determined to show the state of how things are. You must be concerned about the direction these laws are taking things?
AN: Concerned is putting it mildly. We're shocked. All the filmmakers are totally lost, they don't know what to do, what films to make. You can't have people smoke on screen, you can't have sex scenes on screen, you can't have people swearing. There are so many limitations.
TCJ: You are again working with co-writer and actress Olga Dykhovichnaya. What is it about your working relationship that fits so well together?
AN: Well, we’re a creative team and we're inspired by each other. This time I wrote the screenplay myself but Olga brought in so many wonderful ideas and details as well as Karren Karagulian who plays the lead role. They both input a lot of memorable things that are there. It's partly based on his [Karagulian’s] story. He'd been working in a carpet store for like 20 years. He got into acting by accident — he starred in one film that travelled the world and then he got the bug and wanted to be an actor.
TCJ: The film portrays immigrants who are trapped by their life choices and relationships. What were you thinking about this elusive concept of “freedom” when making it?
AN: It was important for me to explore a few things: freedom, dreams and home, and what those things have become in the modern world with the borders being open and with us being able to choose any country to live in and with so many opportunities that our present time offers career-wise and family-wise. I find that many modern people are lost in the abundance of those choices. People differ from animals partially because we want something all the time and it's very hard to make up our minds whether what we want is an illusion or a true desire. So lots of us come to a dead-end at some point. We look at the situation and see it was exactly what we were striving for, yet it doesn't bring us happiness. How come? At some point we took the wrong road.
In the film, immigrants are a symbol of modern people who are free to choose where to live and who to live with, which is a great thing. But on the other hand, what happens to our traditions? One of the characters moves to New York away from a homophobic father, but his family is there and Armenians are very close to their families. He cannot live with or without his family and he has to hide his sexuality from his aunts. Freedom is a very relative term.
I love my country dearly but I feel like I cannot meet the standards of a patriot — it feels like somebody else created these standards
TCJ: I read that you're hoping to collaborate with a Japanese team next?
AN: Yes we have this idea to make a Russian-Japanese film. But we'll do another project in the meantime, another hardcore drama with Olga playing the lead again. It's based on Marina's Thirtieth Love, a book by Vladimir Sorokin, a prominent Russian writer, which was very scandalous in Russia. The film is called Thirtieth Love and I hope we'll start filming in Spring. It takes place in Moscow in 1983 when it was a very hard time for the Soviet Union when [Yuri] Andropov, a very cold KGB guy, had become leader of the country and lots of people were jailed for minor things. It's the story of a character's love for her country which is very challenging.
TCJ: How would you describe your own relationship to Russia, in terms of making these socially critical films?
AN: I love my country dearly but I feel like I cannot meet the standards of a patriot — it feels like somebody else created these standards. There are certain things you can and cannot do to be considered a patriot so I often feel that I am proving that I love my country all the time. But this is not something you should have to prove. And it's a sign of caring to want to change something, of course. It must be a major coincidence but after Twilight Portrait the police changed, we have new police now. I know it's a huge coincidence but it feels nice.
TCJ: What role do you see for cinema in Russia today and what direction do you hope it will take?
AN: It's going majorly downhill. We had a wonderful time in the past and didn't know it would end. We had freedom of artistic expression; it was all there. Now it's been taken away from us and we have no idea where we are going. I just hope that in a year or two when the heads of the country get what they want they'll look at it and realise that it's bullshit, it's not working, it's all very boring and fake. Maybe we'll get our freedom back, and be able to portray problems on screen and talk freely. I hope that what's happening now is not serious but is some sort of trick to make Russians more focused on their own country and care about it even more.