How would you cope with being told you have a terminal illness?
That is a question I’ve asked myself often these days, as I deal with people I love getting ill and the recent death of my father. Where do you find the strength to go on, when you know the days are numbered, and how do you continue to be a functioning member of society when probably all you wish to do is go into the woods and hide?
Well, in Natalya Merkulova’s and Alexey Chupov’s haunting, beautiful and at times painfully truthful film ‘The Man Who Surprised Everyone’ which screened in the Orizzonti section in Venice, the real life husband and wife team tackle this difficult question. And their film, their particular answer ended up becoming the antidote to modern day intolerance, to fight the kind of ugliness that made one young man blurt out sexist obscenities at the end of the press screening of the work by the only woman filmmaker in Competition.
Egor (played to vulnerable perfection by Evgeny Tsiganov) is a handsome, strong yet sensitive Russian man living in Siberia and married to the beautiful Natalya, who is pregnant with their second child — a daughter. He is told he has two months to live and, after visiting a Shaman, a strange looking woman in the forest, Egor decides to trick death by wearing women’s clothing. if Death can’t recognize him, well, she won’t be able to catch him right?
For the answer to that question as well as finding your own truths within this poetic work of cinematic art, which BTW won its female lead Natalya Kudryashova the Orizzonti Award for Best Actress, you’ll have to find a way to watch ‘The Man Who Surprised Everyone’.
But following is an insightful interview with the filmmakers from this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Your film for me personally is very much an antidote to intolerance and how sometimes when we let go of our own prejudices we can heal ourselves. I wanted to know where the inspiration for this film comes from — I heard that it is inspired by a true story?
Natalya Merkulova: I heard the story when I was living in Siberia as a little girl and we were constantly listening to this legend that there was a man during the Soviet period who had cancer and how he managed to heal himself. By dressing in women’s clothing.
All of a sudden, accidentally, I talked about this story that I had in my childhood to Alexey and he said “wow, that’s a great theme for the script, lets do it!”
What appealed to you about that story personally Alexey?
Alexey Chupov: First of all it was interesting to place this story that Natalya heard that probably took place in Soviet times — when it was told to her — in the present day and to look at what would happen in the present day. With a guy who behaved like this in modern Siberian society, and I also liked to make a story about the battle with death. A lot of people before us have tackled this subject trying to analyze it, since the Ancient Greek times, and for me, a human life is already a battle with death. Each of us is battling with death every day, by living. And we are all different, have different ways of living and different endings and we should respect other people’s way of battling with death.
That’s a beautiful point! So there is tolerance to be learned also in how we view our own personal connection with death?
Chupov: That’s a complicated formula. We agree with what you say, but you took it to a more philosophical level.
And the wife at one point, says to the man, “why couldn’t you die like everyone else?” And I thought that was interesting. Each person around me dealing with illness or after an accident has dealt with it in a different manner.
Merkulova: It’s one of the most dangerous and one of the most interesting things to explore, how a person changes while facing something serious like an illness or death. In our perception it’s more clear with Egor’s transformation, it’s easy to understand what he’s going through.
And at the same time Natalya his wife is equally suffering and transforming herself. And probably her path is even more serious than his. Starting from her fear to accepting her husband’s behavior in total contract to the public opinion, the norms and rules that are part of their society. Because she has a very traditional family, she has a son, she is expecting a child, she can’t become a hermit and live in the forest. And she has never dreamt of going to live in the forest.
Chupov: In the end, we’ve got two people who surprise us!
Merkulova: And when she goes finally to the forest to follow her husband, this is my favorite thing about it, it’s a kind of genetic, inherited information that she has inside herself, it’s inherited from previous generations. Our protagonists are about 35 years old which means they were born almost at the end of Soviet times. Their parents were purely Soviet people. And in their minds and the ways of life of their parents there was a kind of a break that happened, the break of understanding in the traditional way of life that was before the Soviet way of life.
So we are talking about three different kinds of families: Czarists before the Revolution, seventy years of Soviet times and now we have a new modern Russian way.
I am talking about the 19th Century and the Decembrists for example. They were exiled and sent to Siberia and their wives followed them there. Because there was no other way, they had no other option, they had to follow their husbands. And it was equal both for peasants and aristocrats. In the Soviet times this kind of relationship between husbands and wives was broken — they could have easily divorced and lived their lives separately. And when Natalya follows her husband to the forest, she instantly taps into the genetic information of the previous generations and following them, she goes and joins her husband in the forest.
Chupov: The story that she told you about this historical parallel took place in 1825. The attempts at the coup d'état, some officers went against the Czar Nicholas I. But after the coup d'état failed they went to exile and the wives had the choice to follow them to Siberia or stay in St. Petersburg. All the wives followed their husbands even though society would have allowed them not to do it. They lived in Siberia, under very harsh circumstances to be with their husbands and for Russians this is a symbol of true wives.
I love that you’ve told me this story because it adds a whole new dimension to the story. But what it meant to me, that moment when she follows him into the forest, it was true love. It was a beautiful love story!
Merkulova: Of course.
Can you talk about the father figure, Natalya’s father, who actually defends Egor in his moment of need?
Merkulova: It’s literally based on my own grandfather.
Chupov: Natalya’s grandfather was a Siberian cinema projectionist. In the Ural mountains and he went from village to village showing movies to the villagers because they didn’t have theaters in those days. And I always joke that Natalya became a movie director because it’s in her genes.
He was a very complicated person with a very complicated character. And he is played by Yuriy Kuznetsov a famous actor who has played in many classical Russian movies. It was an honor for us that he actually made up his mind to be in our project but he also looks like Natalya’s grandfather — like his twin.
I want to know from you both, since your film features the figure of the Shaman, this woman who helps Egor deal with his illness, do you each believe in magic?
Merkulova: On the eve of the start of the production, during the pre-production we understood that we didn’t have the possibility to make the shoot in the Siberian village where we wanted the story to be set. And I asked some people from near Lake Baikal — the Shaman region — to send me a small statue of a Shaman fisherwoman. I asked for the statue because I believed I needed something to help us, to agree with the place so that we were permitted to shoot where we ended up — in the suburbs of Moscow.
And so we went together with Alexey together into the forest, with this statue in the Tver region near Moscow and we made a small ritual. I asked the place to help us so we could possibly feel as if we were in Siberia.
Also we went to the church there to pray, so that’s the answer to your question!
Chupov: Now this Shaman statue stands in our bedroom on a shelf and reminds us that actually when we succeeded in making this movie, it was a miracle. So yes, we believe in magic.