Not Black or White

in 27th Warsaw International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

Hailed as one of the year’s bold and challenging surprises when it premiered at Venice, Russian director Angelina Nikonova’s debut feature Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh) has continued to attract attention and debate on the festival circuit, and recently picked up the prize for first and second features at the Warsaw Film Festival in Poland. It centres on an affluent but disillusioned social worker, Marina (Olga Dykhovichnaya — who co-wrote the script) who resorts to bizarre measures after she’s raped by traffic cops, embarking on an affair with one of the assailants. The film has been divisive — especially at home, given that in its bleak and scathing, in-your-face depiction of social ills it couldn’t be further from a promotional tourist board clip. I spoke to Nikonova, eager to get her take on the controversial film.

The reaction to the film has been divided. In Russia in particular, it’s been quite harshly received — were you expecting that?

My biggest surprise was that foreign audiences accept the film better than Russian audiences. This is a big surprise. You see, a foreigner who doesn’t know Russia that well might think that all these things might be exaggerated. But they don’t ask me. But in Russia they ask me why it’s so exaggerated all the time and I look at them in the eyes and I say are you really kidding me, you totally don’t see what’s happening? There are lots of times I am blamed for my American experience, the fact that I went to film school there and they say well, that’s your point of view because you’re from America, and I say no, I’ve lived in Russia for the past ten years. I guess that those things are hard to digest. But it has to happen, people have to see what’s going on, it’s a must. so I’m not sure what’s going to happen after the film is in foreign international festivals, maybe it will change the reception over there, we’ll see. It’s really hard to be recognised in Russia, it’s a tough, tough situation there. It took me ten years to prove that I could do it.

The film presents a society that’s completely rotten through and through. How much did you want to comment on the current state of Russia?

Of course message is very important, there’s always a message in all the artwork and here my message is for my country, my people to pay attention to the things that have to be changed.

There’s a sense Marina has all the material comforts and her life ticks all the boxes but she’s not happy — is her disillusionment something indicative of Russia at the moment, in its transition to capitalism?

In order to feel what Marina’s feeling you have to be a very deep person. There are not many people like that. Quite often the people we meet are shallow people. And the deeper you are, the more you need to be happy. It’s just how it works, right? So when you’re talking about this situation in Russia with the classes there is really no middle class so far. Russia went capitalistic and people were so hungry for consumption that simultaneously there arose lots of consumers. People buy so much stuff there it’s incredible, they waste so much money. They’re being impractical, but I understand it. It’s the opposite of what we had in the Soviet Union where we had to be equal, no individuality, no way you could have a better lifestyle than anyone else. So that caused this terrific imbalance. There’s the centre of a town where everything is posh, and then the outskirts of the city where it’s poverty. That’s why in my film you see the character with a suitcase all the time, it’s like she’s taking a journey, but she doesn’t leave the limits of her hometown, it’s just the neighbourhoods she would never go to she decides to move in and see. And she’s very observant, you see her looking around as if she sees it for the first time. And it is the first time she sees it, because it’s easier not to notice, it’s easier to look away, but looking into it she discovers lots of things in it and she really decides to go deep into this world that is there.

I read that Olga has a background in child psychology?

I think her observations as a child psychologist were quite similar to Marina’s observations as a character. It’s the point of desperation, the point of despair where you think this is it, I cannot do anything about this. I try, but I really doubt if my intervention will be productive. But in the case of Andrei, Marina starts taking action, she actually goes out of her office and acts on something. By using love as a tool to break the vicious circle of brutality she’s actually changing it. For the first time in her life she doesn’t actually talk about it, she does it.

With the character of Andrei, actually all the men in the film,there seems to be a crisis of masculinity — they’re either really brutal or portrayed as weaklings. There seems to be some kind of yearning for strong men but the men don’t know how to fulfil this role. The character is a cop, and basically Olga and I were looking to create a character who has power, and there isn’t much choice out there — he could have been either a bandit, a mafia guy, or a cop. There aren’t many choices if you want to create a man in power who abuses that power, and that was very important for us. Of course this macho type that we’re talking about it often comes along with brutal qualities. It’s part of the package, and it’s everywhere, not just in Russia. He’s got lots of primal and very animal qualities and that’s why it was very important for me for the actors on the set to look at each other as an animal and a trainer who tames the animal. But in order to tame the animal, you first have to get closer. In order to change, you have to tame, and Marina finds quite unordinary ways to tame him.

Marina is quite an enigmatic character and she’s very hard to read. Would you say she’s quite masochistic and she’s seeking her own destruction, or is there something else in her that’s motivating her to act the way she does?

There’s certainly this thing called mid-life crisis. It happens to most people at a certain age, and that’s why Olga’s age was very appropriate for this character. But also the stress that the character’s going through makes her re-evaluate her life and the atmosphere she’s living in. We are all enigmatic when you’re lost, when you’re not whole a lot of the time your behaviour is irrational and illogical because it comes from the inner state. Marina’s state is basically chaos, and the destruction came from outside not from inside, it came from this violence that caused this volcano of reactions inside of her. Therefore I really think that masochism has very little to do with this, just the opposite. When she confronts this animal with her feelings, she’s basically taking charge. I truly believe that physical pain is much more endurable than emotional pain and then when you look at Marina and Andrei’s relationship you try to see who’s more hurt. What she’s doing with pronouncing what she’s pronouncing all the time, she’s trying to break the mould. I wanted to use the opposite of the rule Chekhov has that if you see a gun hanging on the wall at the beginning of the play it has to shoot towards the end. I wanted the gun to be there but never shoot. Because you would be waiting for it to shoot. Sometimes in an impassioned relationship people really feel like killing each other — that’s normal.

In regard to the title, and the camera-function it references, who or what is the film a portrait of?

For Olga, who thought of the title, this photo-camera function is very poetic, and it always mesmerised her. To me, it’s a metaphor. I’m always asked is the film about evil people or is it about kind people — are they assholes or not? But I’m always saying that we have many qualities inside of us, everybody’s very complicated and there are no black or white people. We have a whole range of colours. So twilight is the state between darkness and light, it’s somewhere in between. For me it’s the symbol of us complicated people. It’s a very interesting moment, twilight — you can be seen or you can hide, it’s very ambiguous. This is exactly what the story is to me, what the characters are to me – they all have different sides to them, they’re all multi-dimensional.