By Paul Risker.
If the world is a stage in its own right then one of the enduring and timeless dramas is that of the division between East and West. It is a division that extends from political and communal ideas of otherness to employ sport, art and culture as agents in this conflict. The former Soviet Union’s use of sport and the arts as a means to project ideas of the superiority of the communist system over the capitalist West is well documented, and the suppression of art, sport and culture at the hands of the Soviet state remains a dark chapter in the story of twentieth century.
Gabe Polsky, who has produced the narrative features Bad Lieutenant (Werner Herzog, 2009) and Little Birds (Elgin James, 2011), offsets his own narrative directorial feature debut The Motel Life (2012) with the award winning documentary Red Army (2015). From the perspective of legendary Soviet and former Detroit Red Wings defence man Slava Fetisov, the film tells the story of the famed Red Army Hockey team. Looking back to his own youth – the son of Soviet immigrants, he was raised in Chicago – Polsky recalled: “When I was a youngster and I saw the Soviet Union play hockey I realised that it was a creative revolution, and what they were doing on the ice was one of the most fascinating and important things happening in sport. It was like the Beatles in music. They were sort of revolutionary in the game and it was just amazing to watch.”
In conversation with Film International, Polsky began by sharing with us a personal moment of transition between hockey and a creative career, before then reflecting on his intention to make a film that would exist beyond a one dimensional hockey or sports story. He also took us behind the scenes of the filmmaking process to discuss the need to be flexible in adjusting and reshaping the story, and spoke of the relationship between narrative and documentary, as well as the way Red Army will hopefully play across the different generations.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I went to Yale and I wanted to see how far my hockey career would go. I thought I was talented enough to play professionally at the highest level, but when that didn’t happen for me I obviously started to think about what I was going to do next, or what I liked or could be passionate about like I was with hockey for the rest of my life or for a long period of time. One of my roommates in college was doing sketch comedy – writing and doing little videos, and so that’s sort of where it started. It looked fun and interesting, and I thought about what that career would look like if I started studying and figuring it out. Basically I thought I’d be a good storyteller and so I started learning as much as I could. Eventually I moved out to LA and started working for some other people, while gradually developing the skill set that I needed.
I always wanted to be creative and I started producing films with my brother. But we realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t satisfying enough for us on a creative level – we wanted to go much deeper. So then we started directing and with this documentary [Red Army] I wrote it myself and basically did the whole nine yards. I really liked it and I want to continue doing it, to keep improving.
Of all the stories you could tell, why this one and why now?
My parents are from the Ukraine in the former Soviet Union – they emigrated in 1976. It is a story I didn’t know, but when I was a youngster and I saw the Soviet Union play hockey…[i]t made me curious about my own heritage and what was going on there with the Soviet Union. And the more research I did, the more I realised this story was huge. It was emotional and it was this unknown story in the West where people really didn’t understand who these people were in the Soviet Union/Russia. This was a way into the story that was unique, but could also be fascinating and which I could say a lot about the culture, the society and the sport. So many different things grew through this team.
Red Army features the big scale drama of East versus West, of communism versus capitalism. Yet at the heart of the film you touch upon the personal stories of the players that effectively strikes a balance between the big scale drama and it’s more human heart. When you were approaching making the documentary was this something you were consciously aware of?
Yeah, I was aware of it because the last thing that I wanted to do was to tell a hockey or a sports story. I really wanted this to be big and to give people something that they could learn that’s new about this culture and society, while at the same time make it clearly a “movie.” It doesn’t matter that it is a documentary, but it has to be emotional, it has to have humour and it has to entertain. In my opinion the more dynamic and personal it is, the more it is going to interest people. Intellectually I am stimulated by ideas, and so I wanted to make sure this film was generating interesting ideas so that people can take something away from it. And if it has all those things then it is going to satisfy me, and if it satisfies me then I am going to have faith that it satisfies a lot of other people too.
But on just the most basic level, if you don’t have a story that is very emotional and dynamic then you’ve lost already because that is sort of the fundamentals of any film. But if you want a film to last in my opinion, if you want it to be timeless and a classic in certain ways, then you have to strive for that big thing, otherwise it is just going to get lost like too many other films.
Documentary filmmakers frequently encounter the daunting task of sifting through and condensing a mass of rushes. In talking to some documentary filmmakers I get the impression that they have an idea of what they want to say, while others don’t necessarily plan what they want to say but rather let the story find itself. How do you personally approach a film?
I had an idea about the film before I started shooting, and once I got the material then it started to change a little bit in terms of what the story was, and who the focus of it would be. And then depending on what kind of archival [material] I was getting the story would then change as well. I wasn’t editing it around the archival [material] necessarily, but the archival was more supportive to the main story, and sometimes it was the main story. You just have to keep adjusting the story based on what you have and it is really a step by step process. So as a storyteller you have to keep being flexible while adjusting and adapting what you have. I have been writing quite a bit now – feature films and adapting a couple of books, and I think it is really the same thing where you are just adapting material – that’s all it is. You are doing the interviews and then you are adapting everything that you have to sort of try to write the story, and basically that’s exactly the same thing.
Looking through your filmography you have worked across both narrative fiction and documentary. The distinctions between the two seem to have diminished, and continuing from the above how specifically do you view the relationship between these two forms?
I think about them a lot, and a story is a story. I am working on a film now that is a little more conceptual, and it’s not necessarily going to be a narrative story as Red Army was. But there is a little more flexibility where you can kind of get into the history and some other conceptual things, whereas with a narrative you have to really stick to the story. But I think the bottom line is that you are telling a story either way, and the better the piece is then the more tight and engaging the story is because the story and those are the same concepts. Basically it doesn’t matter how you do it, but you have to engage your audience. You have to keep people excited and interested in what is going to happen next and that might be a science, but I don’t even know the science – I just go from my gut.
I have ADD and if it is not smart enough then it is not going to interest me. So I feel like my detector is a little bit higher and it takes a lot to get me interested. If it is interesting then it stays in, and if it’s not then it needs to be better. And that applies to both formats, but I think just philosophically, documentaries are probably a little bit freer in style, whereas in narrative maybe people aren’t taking as many risks. But everything’s changing and I guess you could do whatever you want to do as long as you get the money for it. Nobody makes the cuts for you [laughs].
It is interesting what you are saying about people taking risks because I always ask is the filmmaker that shapes cinema or cinema that shapes the filmmaker?
It is both because people are used to something, and in order to get the money they have to feel as though they know what you are talking about. Often times when you are a filmmaker – especially with documentaries – there is so much in discovery, and it is about the filmmaker’s taste and that he’ll get it there, he’ll figure it out and he’ll do something creative. But in order to get the money it has to be on the page for a narrative, and even then you can still go off page so much. But it is like a business plan and no one is going to back it if someone says: “So I’m going to do this and it’s going to be great… trust me.” People invest when it sort of makes sense on the page.
Red Army’s prominent soundtrack leaves an impression that the sound and music was an aspect of the production that you spent a great deal of time considering. Would this be an accurate impression and could you discuss the inspiration for the film’s music?
Sound and music is incredibly important – it gives it scale and it does do much. The key is for you to not necessarily feel the filmmaker or that they are trying too hard to make a moment better with music. It has to work with the image and to obviously not be the crutch. But beyond that it clearly has influences of Russia and that sound palette.
I worked with a very talented composer Christophe [Beck] and his colleague Leo [Birenberg]. I described the kinds of things that I was interested in and pretty quickly they just nailed it. The musical themes were very important to me and they just did a tremendous job. I went in there and gave him notes and so on, but they just got it.
There are moments in the film’s interviews that are void of dialogue in which the interviewees silently sit lost within their own thoughts. It allows us a moment as an audience to sit in silence with them and to simply interpret them as personalities through their body language that in turn offsets the prominence of the soundtrack.
Yeah, people comment about that, but it’s a hard thing to talk about other than to say that’s sort of what I like – I like those strange moments. Clearly it says a lot more than when people talk, but there is a lot of meaning in these moments, and that’s what kind of makes these characters unique and what makes this film unique. There is just this strange meaning in those kinds of moments, and I find them to be very helpful in telling the story and I enjoy it too. So it’s just what I like.
How do you think the film will play across different generations, between those who lived through this time, those who studied it and the future generations?
Well, I know already how it is playing for different generations, but the future I don’t know. The younger and older generations seem to respond very well to it. The younger generations are just amazed at how life was back then and what these people went through – [these viewers] love the story. I think the older generations are learning new things about what they thought they might know, but they don’t really know. And then also there is a sense of nostalgia of taking them back there.
As for the future, the bottom line is like we discussed earlier, you just have to tell a tight, fun and interesting story with great characters, and so they are going to like that. But historically this may also be something that people will refer to for this time period – a story that really gets to the heart of it because as we discussed, these characters reflect society at that time. They reflect the pathos of that country and a lot of that comes through in those silent moments – it is just who they are; it is how they behave; it is sort of this pathos.
Hopefully this film will be around for a while and people can learn from it or experience it in different ways. It is the kind of film I think you can watch a few times and still enjoy. Not to pat myself on the back, but people tell me all the time that they saw it two or three times, and if I could make all my films so that people would want to watch it more than once, then that is something because I don’t watch films often more than once… I don’t know about you?
Very rarely nowadays.
If you can get people to watch a movie twice, then in my opinion that’s insane because there is so much out there; so much people can spend their time on nowadays. So if you can get an hour and a half twice of someone’s time, then come on!
Red Army is available on DVD courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.