Filmmaker Lado Kvataniya made his name shooting Russian music royalty, including everyone from local rap star Husky to foul-mouthed rock giants Leningrad. Now, the director is shooting his first feature film, after working alongside co-author Olga Gorodetskaya to write the movie’s screenplay.
The Calvert Journal spoke to him about music videos with a political punch, the beauty of working with film, and why Tarkovsky remains unsurpassed in Russian cinema.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
There was this prophetic moment in my childhood when I said that I wanted to become a director, without having any idea what it meant. But it took me a while to fulfill that presage. I went to an acting school, but soon realised that being on stage made me feel deeply uncomfortable. What I enjoyed was directing fragments of plays, which my teachers noticed and encouraged. At the end of my studies, I had three different production proposals, and I was really interested in immersive theatre, which was only just starting to become popular in Russia. It would have been hard to realise those plans as a young graduate. But at the same time, I had been writing screenplays for a living and experimenting with video myself, so the move to filmmaking came about quite organically in the end.
You’ve largely worked with music videos in the past. What is special about that particular format?
I don’t really think of my works as “music videos.” For me, they are short music films, which I approach with all due seriousness, and this kind of work has provided some great lessons before venturing into making a full-length movie.
I would say that I am both very selective, and very keen to experiment with different artists and music genres. I love working with people who have clear ideas—not necessarily in terms of shooting a particular video — I’m the one building the concept and the vision, after all — but in terms of music and artistry.
Your works often have implicit or explicit political messages as well — could you comment on that?
Let’s say that I don’t really believe in censorship. My video for Husky’s track Judas was blocked in Russia, supposedly because of its imagery alluded to illegal substances. [The video shows film being grated in a meat grinder, before the resulting black powder is weighed and sprinkled into cigarettes.] I found it really strange, to be honest. It was a metaphor of art and music; I wouldn’t want to promote drug use. Other directors show people with white “flour” in their music videos and I don’t see them blocked online.
As for 387, [а video with Russian musician Dolphin which also has some very political imagery of a totalitarian state] , I’m just a big fan of the dystopian genre. For me, the tragedy is that the system often has very little to do with the state. Most often, it is the people we know personally who make the decisions and do the torturous actions you see in the video. The elimination of individuality happens in almost any society, and you often have to pay a price if your ideas are different from convention.
When I was working on the video for Manizha, which was about domestic violence, I realised just how ineffective our own PSAs on the subject are. They’re so straightforward that people react against them and block the information out — it’s just a defence mechanism. The same happens when we see the statistics of deaths per year; it’s too hard to react emotionally to these unimaginable numbers. So I wanted to find a way to build this message into the story and let the viewer identify with a single person: the video’s main character.
You often use genre tropes in your work: there are elements of horror in your videos for Manizha and Leningrad, and we saw your take on dystopia in the 387 video. What does genre give you as an artist?
Using genre tropes is a form of camouflage. It’s like looking through a prism of a distorting mirror: for instance, horrors will always explore human fears but they can also have other subjects, like Get Out, for example, which was a satirical horror. That’s why I am passionate about genre films: they allow you to hide things that could look too straightforward or obvious otherwise.
You tend to prefer working with film, rather than digital — why?
Sometimes I have to work with digital for one reason or another, but I do prefer film. There are aesthetic distinctions that you can feel intuitively in the colour and light, but more importantly, it’s about the process. With digital, you have an almost unlimited number of takes, and it wears out both cast and crew. Working with the limitations of film is more challenging, because you can afford only so many takes and you want to make them all count — but it also saves energy. When we were shooting the video The Untitled for musician Maslo Chernogo Tmina, we barely had enough film to take more than one or two takes. That’s why I admire Soviet directors so much: sometimes they would rehearse the whole film before shooting to make sure that all takes would work, and work they did.
You mention the Soviet school of cinema: are there any directors, Soviet, Russian, or otherwise, whose influence was important for you?
Yes, and most of them come from the Soviet Union, in fact. There is Fellini, of course, the great Italian director whom I have to mention. I love Tarkovsky, which, I suppose, is not too original of me — but what can we do if he still remains unsurpassed? Sergei Parajanov’s works are stunning artistic masterpieces. And I am a big admirer of Georgiy Danelia: the love and empathy he has for people is incredible, and his films strike a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. I also love his books and would recommend them to anyone.
You have recently started working on your first feature film — can you tell us a little about it?
My amazing co-author Olga Gorodetskaya and I have finished the screenplay, and we have just started the production process. We actually already have distributors, which is a rare case at this stage. As for the subject and plot, I would rather not comment on that, as there are some strange rumors spreading about it. Hopefully, the work will speak for itself soon.