Off the page: meet the director bringing Russian literature to life onscreen

Off the page: meet the director bringing Russian literature to life onscreen
Still from Keep My Words Forever (2015)

Filmmaker Roma Liberov brings his quirky and touching documentary series about great Russian authors to Calvert 22 Space this summer. We met up with him to talk about his artistic vision and his philosophy of "creative justice"

15 May 2017

One of the most oft-repeated lines about Russia is that it’s a country where literature really matters, where the average citizen has a heightened sense of spiritual connection with poets and novelists. At times this line of thinking descends into self-parody: American foreign policy wonks now seem to think that they can get to the bottom of the Kremlin’s nefarious scheming simply by brushing up on their Gogol and Dostoevsky. Filmmaker Roma Liberov isn’t so naive, but he is unequivocal about the role writing has played: “Literature in Russia is a big deal. I’ve got no romantic illusions about Soviet times, but we used to be a reading nation. And people died for the right to write.”

Liberov is more committed than most to getting to the heart of Russia’s relationship with its authors. To that end, he has spent most of the past decade producing a series of fascinating quasi-documentary films, each concerned with a different 20th-century writer. Three of these – Written by Sergei Dovlatov (2012), ILFANDPETROV (2013) and Keep My Words Forever (2015) – are screening at Calvert 22 Space this summer as part of the Calvert 22 Foundation’s season exploring the centenary of 1917, The Future Remains: Revisiting Revolution.

A softly-spoken man who comes to life when he starts talking about his favourite writers and texts, Liberov began thinking about combining screen and page when he was at film school. “Not everyone realises that cinema works with visual language,” he says. “I’m interested in finding that language. That’s why we use animation and puppet theatre and graphics and actors – just to unite it all into one movie language. I want people to take cinematography as the art it is.”

His literary-cinematic hybrid is certainly striking: celebrated actors intone the verse or prose in question over landscape photography and disarmingly simple animations. For Keep My Words Forever, about the tragic early 20th-century poet Osip Mandelstam, Liberov hired out a puppet theatre in St Petersburg for a week, filming specially designed puppets with the likenesses of the writer and his family. The resulting footage demonstrates the ambiguous naivety that characterises Liberov’s films, with the puppet figures capturing the old world weariness and powerlessness of Mandelstam in the face of the Stalinist regime.

“Literature in Russia is a big deal. I’ve got no romantic illusions about Soviet times, but we used to be a reading nation. And people died for the right to write”

Liberov has completed six films so far. After scraping together money from sponsors for the first three films, Liberov decided to go independent for his fourth, 2012’s Written by Sergei Dovlatov, which is one of the films screening at Calvert 22 Space. Working as screenwriter, producer and director, Liberov travelled to New York to retrace the steps of the titular émigré hero. After hearing from “a hundred distributors” that his work would never find an audience in Russia, he became determined to distribute it himself, too. “By Russian standards a huge number of people saw it,” he recalls. “Maybe 40,000 tickets were sold for this very modest and fragile film.” Eventually the Dovlatov and all subsequent films were shown on primetime national television. The premiere of Keep My Words Forever was held in a cinema in the GUM shopping centre on Red Square itself (the irony of a film celebrating Mandelstam being feted next door to the seat of the government that had him killed is not lost on the director).

While passionate, Liberov is not idealistic about his work. “I love movies. They’re little miracles. But making one doesn’t mean the next one is easier. No, unfortunately there’s no creative justice. You create and if you have another chance, thank whoever you believe in and keep going.”

That there is no such thing as “creative justice” would hardly have come as a surprise to the writers who Liberov chronicles, all of whom had to contend with the realities of Soviet life, often with tragic results. His series of films is envisaged as one long response to the question: how can “someone who works with his brain, his talents, his intellect” survive and thrive in a society that limits creative freedom? Each of the writers Liberov has chosen to document represents a different “model” for responding to this existential question, one which has plagued Russian writers since the time of Pushkin.

The irony of a film celebrating Mandelstam being feted next door to the seat of the government that had him killed is not lost on the director

His first film, Yury Olesha, aka “Writer” (2009) was about the Odessa-born novelist who wrote two of the most popular and inventive works of the 1920s, The Three Fat Men (1924) and Envy (1927), before falling into alcoholism and inactivity. For Liberov, Olesha is symbolic of a failure to adjust to the new exigencies of Soviet literature: “He wanted a rich and easy life and he knew he was talented enough to have it. But after 1917 people wanted him to build a new culture, a new civilisation. And he was a weak man so he broke. From 1931 until the ‘50s he didn’t publish a single thing.”

Next came Joseph Brodsky: Celestial Conversation (2010), about the Nobel Prize-winning poet who was forced to emigrate to America in 1972. In Liberov’s reading, Brodsky is “absolutely the opposite” of Olesha: “not just a poet, a success story. Brodsky was so ambitious and he became a really powerful person. Being in prison and going on trial became part of that biography. At the same time he sacrificed everything he had to prove how important poetry could be: he lost his home, his parents…”

Emigration ties together the following two authors to get the Liberov treatment: Georgi Vladimov (in One Day in the Life of Zhora Vladimov, 2011) and Sergei Dovlatov. Vladimov, who wrote his famous novel about the gulag, Faithful Ruslan, in 1963-65, is what Liberov calls “a lonely boxer, a wolf. He almost didn’t notice the regime. He was not a victim.” Vladimov’s pugilistic relationship with the authorities saw him leave for Germany in the 1980s. In contrast, Dovlatov was “an exceptional figure: the only non-martyr in the history of Russian literature. Dovlatov was unrecognised, he didn’t have a single book published while he was alive. He didn’t resist the regime – he was laughing and smiling. He didn’t fight. He was just extremely unsuccessful.” From the late 1970s, Dovlatov published his works from his new home in America before dying from a heart attack at the age of 48 in 1990. Now he is one of the most popular writers in Russia, a beloved cult figure. “I’m sorry for him,” Liberov sighs. “He couldn’t wait to be a writer and he still doesn’t know that he is.”

That sense of tenderness, even pity towards these frustrated and persecuted figures is most evident in Keep My Words Forever, Liberov’s tribute to the man he calls “the greatest Russian poet of all time.” In the filmmaker’s version of events Mandelstam symbolises a kind of absolute identification with literature that transcends any question of political loyalty or dissidence. “He is not Soviet, not non-Soviet, he’s just a poet. His fault was poems. He was arrested twice and died in a camp because of poems. He was the pure essence of poetry: honest, nervous, fighting for something he didn’t know, fighting with someone he didn’t know. This butterfly, this bird, this poor sick man was trapped.” Mandelstam died in a camp in the Russian Far East in 1938.

It’s not all tragedy – in 2013 Liberov made ILFANDPETROV, about the legendary Soviet satirist duo Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, who “lived as if there were no Iron Curtain”, and whose novels about con man Ostap Bender – The Twelve Chairs (1928) and The Little Golden Calf (1931) – are amongst the most beloved and oft-quoted works in Russian literature. Liberov already knows who the next two films will be about: first the cult modernist Andrei Platonov (“the worker”), then finally the comic absurdist Daniil Kharms (“the performer”). After this he will have completed his exhaustive, loving examination of the myriad ways in which writers responded to the pressures and opportunities of Soviet life. On the way he will have taught anyone willing to immerse themselves in his cinematic world some timely lessons about where Russian literature has come from, and where it’s going.

Keep My Words Forever will be screened on Thursday 29 June in Calvert 22 Space in London. Written by Sergei Dovlatov will be screened on Thursday 27 July. ILFANDPETROV will be screened on Thursday 31 August. All screenings start at 7:00pm. Find out more and book tickets here.

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