My Perestroika

PBS Premiere: June 28, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: So, Robin, in your own words, tell us what My Perestroika is all about.

Robin Hessman: My Perestroika is the story of a key transitional generation of Russians. They were children in the Soviet Union, had completely normal Soviet childhoods like everyone before them and never dreamed that the Soviet Union would ever cease to exist. They were just coming of age when Gorbachev appeared, and all of a sudden the foundations of their country started to shift — they graduated from college just as the country collapsed. So they had to forge their own lives as young adults with no models to follow and really no idea what the new society had in store for them. The story is told very intimately through five very different people — Ruslan, the punk rocker, Olga, the single mom who rents out billiard tables, Borya and Lyuba, who teach history in a grade school, and Andrei, the businessman. It's not the view of historians or political analysts, but instead a very intimate, personal story of people who were at a certain point in their lives while these sweeping historical and political changes are occurring.

POV: And how did a nice girl from Boston end up in Russia? In Moscow?

Hessman: Well, I guess I was always curious about the Soviet Union growing up. I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it was still the Cold War era, and Russia was the evil empire and in the first videogames that came out and the movies, they were the bad guys and there was also, in the 1980s, this heightened fear of nuclear war. I think even as a child I was a little skeptical that a country could be full of evil people. Just on the simple level of the fact that you are taught to empathize, I knew there were kids there, too, they had grandmas and grandpas, and I think also as a child, you think a lot about well, you know, my life is like this because I live here, but what if I had been born in Peru or in Sweden or in the Soviet Union, which of course was the country we heard about most and was explained as the place that was so different from our own. So when I was 10, I started subscribing to Soviet Life magazine which was really a kind of propaganda magazine put out by the Soviet Foreign Ministry in English, sort of their version of life, and my parents were utterly horrified. They told me I would get on a blacklist and never get a job when I grew up. They had lived through McCarthyism. But I guess I whined and cried enough and prevailed and so I started getting Soviet Life. And in the film Olga talks about what was on TV, and [on television and in Soviet Life] there was a lot about the harvest, a lot about technical achievements. I can't say that for a 10-year-old it was really juicy thrilling reading. It was a little dry and kind of technical, but the photographs were incredible. What I remember most of all was when a new issue would come, wrapped in a brown paper wrapper like pornography (which I later found out). I guess it was kind of political pornography, but I remember really poring over the photographs and especially the photographs of kids. I was just always curious about what it would be like to live there.

POV: What happened next? How did you end up in Moscow after that?

Hessman: Well, I started reading Russian history and Russian literature in high school and studying the Russian language in my senior year of high school. That was an exciting time: The Berlin Wall fell in my senior year of high school and Gorbachev was already in power and it seemed that every day things were changing. There was all of a sudden this excitement and hope that the Cold War was ending and these two mortal enemies were now at least thawing, if not becoming friends. So instead of waiting for my junior year abroad, I went off my freshman year of college to Leningrad — the last year it was still called Leningrad — in January of 1991. From there, I wound up at film school in Moscow. I graduated from the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography and made short documentaries, and along the way, I was found by Sesame Street to be the on-site Moscow producer of the new Russian Sesame Street, which was called Ulitsa Sezam. So before I knew it, I had lived in Russia for the entire 1990s. I lived there basically between the ages of 18 and 27 with a semester here and there that I had to do at home to finish my undergraduate degree.

POV: So, how did you embark on making this film, and how did you meet the people you featured?

Hessman: I didn't meet any of the five people in the film during my years and years of living in Russia. I began working on the film in the fall of 2004, when I was a filmmaker in residence at WGBH in Boston. I spent the first year raising money and sitting in the archives outside of Moscow looking at official state archival news reels — which was really wonderful — and also looking for home movies. It was a long, long search for 8mm home movies, because not that many people had cameras back then.

Finding the 8mm home movies was a long grassroots search: I put ads in magazines, contacted bloggers, asked friends of friends of friends, and any time I met anybody, I would ask if they knew somebody who had an 8mm camera in the 1970s or 1980s. That was very important for me, because the images that we got in the United States were of tanks in Red Square or people in bread lines, and we never saw the kind of beautiful personal human stuff of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain. And in a sense, these images are the most unmediated, pure representation of what life was like, because there's no agenda behind them besides capturing family memories. So I always thought that I would have 8mm home movies of people who were the age of my subjects, but at that point I still didn't have anybody for the film.

At the same time I was speaking to dozens and dozens of 30-somethings and thinking about where to begin. I thought that focusing on people who were in the same class at school would be a good framework, because in the Soviet Union, and in Russia today for the most part, people are with the same 20 or 25 people from first grade through the end of high school. That's an enormous amount of shared experience.

My approach was to find a person who should definitely be in the film, and then meet his or her classmates. I started thinking about history teachers, because a history teacher of this generation would have been taught a certain kind of history in the Soviet Union and today is teaching children for whom the Soviet Union is more like ancient Rome than a country where their parents grew up. I started talking to history teachers without knowing yet how they would fit in to the film.

I went to School 57 and met Borya. He invited me home the following night for dinner and I met [his wife,] Lyuba, who is also a history teacher at the same school and they're wonderful and very funny. I love the fact that they grew up on opposite sides of the same street from each other but had very different childhoods. We were always given the impression that everyone in the Soviet Union believed the same thing and felt the same thing, but here are two people growing up right next to each other and one is from a family that is very grateful to Soviet power for everything their family has, and the other is from a family where they turn on the faucets and Voice of America so nobody can hear that they're listening to it.

Lyuba, especially, has a very amused and loving view of the person she used to be and the beliefs she used to have. That first night at their home, we spoke for hours. Of course along the way I asked if they knew anybody who had taken any home movies in the 1970s and 1980s, and Borya said, "Are you kidding? My father was obsessed!" And he opened a closet and there were stacks and stacks of 8mm films. And right then and there, he took out the projector and set up a little screen, and for the next few hours we watched some of his home movies. [Their son] Mark was 8 at that time and had never seen them. And so, at the end of that evening, it was just clear that I had landed — that this is where the film begins.

POV: It sounds like a filmmaker's dream and a magical moment. Were they feeling the same enthusiasm about participating in your film, or was there a process of convincing them to step in front of the camera?

Hessman: They were very excited about the idea of the film and, I think, also as historians, they really liked what I was trying to do: telling a personal human story of the transition as it affected people, not from the political point of view. But I have to say I don't think that they had ever seen a long-form documentary of this kind. So, we've since laughed about this, but I think they thought that night was the interview and that that was the extent of their involvement in the film, and when I called and said, "Okay, I'm coming over with the camera," they said, "Oh, OK, great!" But they didn't share with me that at first that they were a little surprised. But we connected very strongly and they embraced it. They were really wonderful. I can't say that any of the people in the film were people who were desperately seeking 15 minutes of fame and felt this burning need to get a story out and have their voices heard, but they were all generous and willing enough to open up their lives and stories for me. And because the pace of life is just so relentless, it's a funny thing that after 20 years, I think all of them in their own way appreciated the excuse to stop and reflect on how life has changed. Otherwise, there really isn't the time in daily life.

POV: Tell us about your filmmaking process in terms of starting with the archival footage. It sounds as if you knew what you were looking for and had a sense of how you wanted to craft this film. In what ways were you surprised and did you witness the film diverging completely from what you had expected?

Hessman: Well, in the very beginning, I thought of the film as [being about] four stages of life, Soviet childhood and Perestroika youth and life today. And I thought there would only be three or four people in the film. I didn't want too many subjects, because I really wanted the audience to connect and feel that they got to know these people very well. And interweaving the home movies and the archival footage and the five stories of individuals was really challenging. Along the way, I started thinking about how to make it resonate for audiences who grew up in Russia just as much as I wanted it to be relevant for people who didn't have a Russian connection.

POV: What are some of the differences in how Russians react to the film and how Americans react to the film?

Hessman: Americans react to the film with fascination — Who knew that they were really so much like us? and Who knew that there are such incredible parallels? Especially the moment where the little boy says, "We want Mr. Reagan to know that it's bad that he wants war." I'm paraphrasing, but of course we always thought it was the Soviets who were the aggressors. It's kind of an interesting eye-opener to find out how similar the two countries were. For Russians, it's often a very emotional experience watching the film, because there is their childhood, and many Russian-Americans have said that they think the film is the best thing that they can show their own children to give them a good sense of what their childhood in the Soviet Union was like.

POV: That's nice to hear. For people who haven't seen the film, can you describe what the film looks like stylistically and how you interweave the stories?

Hessman: The lives of the five protagonists evolve along the course of the film, but they are also tied in historically with what's happening as we go. They each, in a sense, narrate a different part of childhood, but what's also important is how different they are [from each other]. There are places in the film where people directly contradict each other. There is no one true history, especially if you look at moments of political change like the [1991] coup. Lyuba talks about being on the barricades, her heart bursting with freedom, and the next moment, someone else says nobody cared about freedom. It was just that there was no food in the stores and people wanted to hang out and drink. And someone else says they were offended that people say people were just going to drink and not to demonstrate for freedom. The fact is they all have completely different points of view. They're all five very different people, and that's one thing that I like about the film. For me, it's really about all of the [everyday] things that are eternal. The human story is the most important story, and these political and historical changes are often in the background. As Olga says, despite everything that was happening, if you were a student, you went to school. If you were working, you went to work. And I remember that myself very well. You'd hear on the radio or read in the papers that Yeltsin had just dissolved the parliament another time, but I had an exam to study for and I had to go buy laundry detergent and the balance of these front-page capital-letter events and the things that are happening in your own life really are... When you read the history books, the balance perhaps seems one way, but for people living through it at that time, sometimes it's a very different thing.