Just what is it like to survive as a little girl in a big World War?
That is the basic, deep and haunting question that Russian filmmaker Aleksei Fedorchenko asks in his latest 'Anna's War'. I've been a big fan of the director's work since his 2011 oeuvre 'Silent Souls' because somehow, in a very grand cinematic way Fedorchenko manages to portray the most intimate of emotions, the basic core fears and passions we all carry inside.
With 'Anna's War' the filmmaker gave himself an extra challenge. I mean, remember that quote about never working with dogs and children? Yeah, Fedorchenko throws all caution to the wind and features a six-year old girl -- Anna, played by the spellbinding, silent throughout Marta Kozlova -- as the lead of his film. Even more daunting, we only see the world through her eyes, experience her terror, her delight and most importantly, watch her survive WWII. The result is another winning work of art by Fedorchenko.
By the end of 'Anna's War' I found myself quite sure that I never needed to hear of another war ever again. And perhaps it would be wonderful required viewing for all world leaders to sit with a link to Fedorchenko's film, co-written by Natalya Meshchaninova and filmed by Alister Khamidkhodzhaev, before making any more life-changing decisions that affect the planet. War is useless, so Anna teaches us and that's all the lesson I need to learn.
Following is a short email interview I conducted with the great Aleksei Fedorchenko just before the film world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Next stop is the Göteborg Film Festival in early February.
Why did you choose ‘Anna’s War’ as your next project?
Aleksei Fedorchenko: I don’t choose a project I usually work on a number of projects which make up my major portfolio consisting of about 5 films. I consider it foolish to work only on one screenplay as you never know whether it will shoot or not. I feel more secure if I have some more projects available. This time 'Anna’s War' was the one that shot. I just wanted to launch and I launched what had inspired me. Artem Vasiliev and Andrey Savelev, my producers, helped and supported me in this. But as filming is an expensive process and money plays a great role in our work, sometimes my choice depends on the money available.
Was it difficult to write the film with another person, Ms. Meshchaninova? And how was it working with a woman’s POV always present?
Fedorchenko: I feel quite comfortable working with my authors. Since I’m often short of time, it’s convenient for me to have a helping hand around, especially one I love so much.
I thought up the story about Anna some years ago. I came across a very small story on the internet based on real events about a girl who had hidden in the German military police. I wrote the beginning, the final part and all that turned into a good story. But the beginning of the work wasn’t as easy, I thought that I needed a woman, who had experienced the feeling of loneliness in her life. Quite by chance I spot out Natalya’s stories on Facebook. She wrote about her childhood in one of the southern towns. Then I understood that she was the one I needed. I went to Moscow to meet her. At first she found the suggestion interesting and agreed to try. Then she refused saying that it wasn’t up her street, as she was unfamiliar with the material and what not. I understood her and was ready to wait. However I was sure that she would agree to my proposal. And I was right. In a year or year and a half she phoned and said that she could start. As for me… I had been waiting for her all that time. Despite the fact that we aren’t working together now, we are still on friendly terms with her.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so deeply haunted by a portrayal of war, and what it really must feel like to be in the thick of it. Probably because your protagonist is such a young girl, with such vulnerability, we finally realize what it is to be ravaged by war, both as a country and personally. How did you manage to infuse your film with such poignancy?
Fedorchenko: I have long thought if it’s possible to make a chamber [intimate] film which will cover a gigantic historic event. As I said before, money matters much for me. I live in Ekaterinburg and it’s impossible to find enough budget for such a gigantic topic as for example “War and Peace”. I was more interested in chamber films where action takes place in limited surroundings and I wanted to make a film about it. For example, where people are stuck in the lift or “Buried alive”, the scene is set in the coffin. I was wondering what drama techniques were to be used to keep up the spectators’ interest when the action took place in limited space. The chance turned up, the topic was scary enough and up to the point. Thus my two such significant for me interests came together (one is the interest in a large historic event, two is the effect of working in limited space). So I set off working on it.
I’ve got another, documentary film 'David', 2001, it’s my first film, which is about a Jewish boy for whom Halakhost is only a beginning of his nightmare story. It took 20 years for Anna to appear and her life story also only begins in that deadly place. I’m the kind who takes such stories to heart and feel very much horrified as I have got a son and a daughter and these my emotions are so well reflected on the screen.
What do you wish your audiences to walk away having learned from ‘Anna’s War’?
Fedorchenko: Frankly I don’t think about it. I would be happy If it sets them thinking. As far as I ‘m deeply involved into a new film now, I can hardly say anything for sure. But still I hope that it may stir them up and after watching it, they would like to read a couple of books more.
I believe filmmakers are the prophets of our days. How do you feel about my statement?
Fedorchenko: I don’t think that a prophet has anything to do with a person’s occupation. The film-makers can be as prophets as craftsmen who do their job well or badly. This job is like many others. The only thing that makes them different is that each film has its own audience with their own opinion. But it’s really very difficult to sort out whether the film-makers are prophets or not. As for me I can’t judge on myself.
And finally, how have you changed since making ‘Anna’s War’, did you find or lose certain parts of yourself through this film?
Fedorchenko: Obviously I’ve gained. When you live through a new work, story, emotions it’s likely to grow on you. Such professionals as the director of photography Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, a young production designer Alexey Maksimov, an actress Marta Kozlova enrich your life and fill it with new senses. I felt quite content working on that film with such a talented team. I’m really pleased with the result and what is more feel calm before the first night.
I want to add that we’re finishing the film called “Keys to Happiness or The Last Dear Bulgaria” in cooperation with the same producers, Artem Vasiliev and Andrey Savelev. It’s based on the novel “Before Sunrise” by Mikhail Zoshchenko. I think this book is one of his best published in Russian. I have liked it since I read it in my childhood. Even when I wasn’t any close to the cinema I thought about the great prospects it may open for those who would like to film it for it is so spacious and colossal in terms of geography and time what is more it’s not meant for shooting at all. It’s a psychological detective where the author entwines the story of his life. On surface, the idea may seem difficult to realize but challenging. Two thirds of it has already been filmed. We’ve found a perfect manner of execution and style. Now I like it.