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Suspended in Time

An interview with Russian filmmaker Daria Khlestkina about absurdity, old glory of ZIL, and blending of the past and the present in her documentary film The 16th Republic (The Last Russian Limousine)

A new order from the government after twenty years triggers a chain of events at ZIL, a major Russian truck manufacturer. ZIL's legendary, hand-built limos were supposed to take the spotlight again at the Victory Day Parade. But things don't go as planned and the factory soon finds itself spiraling into bankruptcy. In The 16th Republic (The Last Russian Limousine), filmmaker Daria Khlestkina follows ZIL's struggles as well as the resilience and ingenuity of its employees.

The film will premiere in Autumn 2012; two years ago it took part in the East European Forum, in March 2012 it was presented at Doc Launch presentation that was part of the East Doc Platform.

 

I imagine there are a lot of factories in Russia with a similar fate. Could you explain what's special about ZIL? And what was in the story of a dilapidated plant for you as a filmmaker?

My former supervisor at the film school, Marina Razbezhkina, once suggested that it would be interesting to know what is going on with the working class today in Russia. I thought that was was indeed very interesting and immediately picked up the idea and wanted to develop it. I can't explain why exactly but I always was, and still am, interested in everything related to work in general and to what it means for people.

The transformation that's happened with the working class in Russia is striking. I was born in the Soviet Union and every day at school our teachers would glorify the working class and its contribution to the construction of Communism. The next day after the Perestroika the same teachers would say something completely different. Very soon nobody heard about the workers anymore. I was even wondering whether they were still out there.

I started my research. I wanted to find an old factory which could have preserved some traditions and have a classical factory look and I wanted it to be in Moscow. Not only because I am lazy and prefer to sleep at home after shooting - but mainly because there is no other city in today's Russia which would be so incompatible with the concept of ‘work’. Everybody is selling and buying but nobody is producing. My primary interest was finding a borderline situation - I wanted to find a factory that would soon be closed down - and to see how people deal with this looming danger. I was interested in the state of waiting, maybe even a frozen one. You may be waiting for something to happen but like the execution of a death sentence, it could take years to actually come.

The significance of ZIL goes far beyond Moscow. Its trucks were and still are all over the country. It is the oldest car factory in the country, located in the very center of Moscow, it has its secrets and high inaccessible walls. When a friend of mine found out I was going to make a film about ZIL he said: "You are raising your hand against the sacred!" When, during my research I read an article in a newspaper that after 20 years, ZIL again got an order to build the famous black limousines for the government, I had no doubts that I had to see what’s going on there, behind the mysterious high walls of this 'city within a city'.

 

The material you have opens with the manager on the phone over the theft of a metal Star of Victory that was made at ZIL and it is a nice introduction into the general sense of uncertainty and absurdity that permeates other scenes, too. While ZIL has to take orders from high places, the limousine order is eventually cancelled by the Ministry of Defence with no real explanation. Did you or the managers find out later any unofficial versions of why the order was cancelled?

I am happy if I succeeded to convey the atmosphere of Kafkaesque absurdity with this stolen Star of Victory episode. It will have its development later in the film. Officially they announced a tender for new Victory Day Parade limousines, but how could somebody else than ZIL produce ZIL limousines? However, this is what actually happened. At the same time ZIL was building from scratch its brand new limos ordered especially to commence the Victory Day Parade, a private company owned by an oligarch Oleg Deripaska took three old ZIL bodies and put it on American chassis. The car even had the ZIL logo on its hood but it was not made at the factory! For some obscure reasons, these fake ZIL's were taken for the parade.

In an interview Mikhail, the director of limousine production, told me that they were not allowed to test the cars at the military polygon, so that it was too late to get all the necessary certificates. Mikhail was implying that politics got involved. At that moment he couldn't tell me the exact reason even if he knew it. Rumors are that these fake cars were Oleg Deripaska's 'present' to the Minister of Defence. This is the unofficial version. And an official one simply does not exist because nobody knows that brand new limousines were actually made at ZIL! Very few people know what happened. Apparently somebody didn't want this fact to become public. So the factory just had to wait and hope that the Ministry of Defence would take the cars or certify them. That was a really big disappointment for the people who made them. Obviously, for them it was much more than just a job.

 

The camera stays inside and with the factory at all times, showing us its spaces, people, processes. It seems like an organism that's barely alive and waits for the 'final blow'. Is it also a portrait of a place that might soon be destroyed? How did you want to capture the building?

Yes, I think that we could say that the factory is in a way one of the film's characters. I wanted it to act not only as the link which connects to all the protagonists, but also as a powerful background on its own. However, I wouldn't say that my intention was to portray a particular place with a tribute to an endangered species. To me it is more a portrait of time - of a peculiar moment in time where the past and the present blend. But yes, I don't think it will last very long.

 

The place really becomes the '16th republic' again when we see the Victory Day Parade duplicated at the factory, with all employees watching on and a small group of war veterans as guests. It is at once funny and moving, the factory is like an isolated island that has to recreate its own holiday.

I think it was a special day for many people, both the factory workers and the guests. It was also a very special thing - not every company could have its own parade! And I remember that people were worrying about whether this parade would happen or not, they were really hoping that the factory bosses would find money for it. For me it was also funny and sad, but most of all very touching.

 

It is almost surreal the way we first see empty spaces, workshops, dilapidated equipment and then all of a sudden the finished limousines. And then again the cars being covered in plastic like giant coffins, as if marking the end of hope. What motivated the people to invest so much energy in all of this? Did they believe it would save the company?

I think in a way, yes. Or rather, I am not sure they thought of themselves as heroes saving the factory but restoring its past glory was in a way important. Because it would also mean restoring something of their own importance, wouldn't it? I am convinced that people never work only for money, they do have other motivations as well. And of course, it was just a few people busy with the limousines - the special department. The rest of the factory only heard some rumours. Some of the other employees would even ask me: "What's going on in there?"

 

In an interview for IDF, Vitaly Manskiy talked about Marina Razbezhkina as heading clearly the best school for documentary filmmakers in Russia today. What's special about Ms Razbezhkina's approach?

I think Marina's approach really helps you not only to learn filmmaking, but also to understand something about films and about yourself, whether you should do it or not. I don't know exactly how it works in other film schools in Russia, but I've heard that often these studies are more theoretical. With Marina we had pure practice. We had to do everything ourselves - research, shooting, editing. It was there where I took a video camera for the first time and where I opened an editing software couple of weeks before the first deadline, desperately trying to find out how the hell it works. The enlightenment hits you rather quickly when you have to edit your own terribly shot and messy material. It was forbidden to work with a cameraman during studies. Many other things were forbidden as well - artificial lights, tripod, music, everything that could help you to hide your creative inability. The technical quality of your material was not important during studies. Somebody had good camcorders, but it could also be a home video miniDV camera - your material and the way you captured it was the most important thing. Marina was trying to teach us to see the reality. She rarely talked about filmmaking as such, she was mainly telling different stories from different people's lives, but somehow, at a certain moment you'd understand how to make films.

However, I knew that as soon as I'd finish the film school, I'll work with a cameraman. As opposed to the editing, which I like a lot, shooting is not my cup of tea. And now I'm getting even more spoiled and I'm thinking about working with an editor!

 

You've been consulting the material with the Dutch editor Menno Boerema who you met at the IDFAcademy. What have so far been some of the issues in the editing room with regard to this film?

Working with Menno was a great experience even if we had limited time. He is not only experienced, but also a very sensitive editor and I think he had the right feelings about the material, he understood it well and his questions helped me to concentrate better on what is or isn't relevant to the story, and to think more about the structure. I enjoyed that experience enormously. We worked only with the material I have already pre-edited, not with all of the material. During the IDFA Summer School and afterwards we were playing with different versions of the opening. Our discussions and work in the editing room helped me to confirm my vague feeling that I need to shoot more of the shots that would help to illustrate the former grandeur and size of the factory. The opening I have now is already a different version of mine. But I decided that I'd rather continue editing the story now instead of editing different beginnings, and go back to the opening later once all the important elements have been been set.

 

We're doing this interview at the time of the presidential election. Are there politically critical documentaries in Russia or do Russian filmmakers avoid openly political themes? Or isn't every film by definition political?

I can't say. Really. I think both. Yes, Russian TV would probably not broadcast a politically critical documentary, but they don't broadcast documentaries at all so that's very easy. I don't know whether people really avoid political topics out of fear, I'd rather say that people in Russia are not interested in politics at all. It's a totally apolitical nation if you compare it with Europeans who can talk hours about their right and left wings... However, it seems that things are changing now in Russia. People who wouldn't even dream of 'talking politics' now spend hours in debates and try to get everybody involved. "Who are you going to vote for?" becomes a special question and the answer is supposed to help you to tell friends from enemies. That's another extreme. Time will show whether this civic activity will influence documentary filmmakers as well.

 

ZIL employees wrote an official letter to Putin and even organized a movingly pathetic protest with banners. I presume they never received any answer? Do you think that given the recent protests, Russian society is getting a stronger voice?

I am not sure if they got an answer from Putin, but who knows, maybe the Moscow government got it? The protest itself was just a small showing, organized by the factory trade union. Soon after the protest - it could be just a coincidence - the new director was appointed at the factory and new investment came from the City of Moscow, its main shareholder, which helped to cover the debts and again avoid bankruptcy. Business and politics are very close in Russia. I am not sure if the protests can change something soon but I'm very happy that many people started to express their civic position. I think it is important and shouldn't be underestimated even if nothing changes after the elections.

 

How difficult was to get funding for the film? Especially on the Russian side...

Financing is the difficult part. The Russian Ministry of Culture grant is the only source of funding in Russia as there is no market for documentaries. Every now and again they announce calls. Apparently there will be one this spring so we will apply for this grant. However, it does not allow to fund the whole film. The question is, where to find any other funding sources? Russian broadcasters are out of the question because they almost don't broadcast documentaries, don't do co-production and pre-buy. So far I've worked with a contribution from Teatr.doc, some private donations from friends of mine and my own investment. That's also why I decided to go international. I was interested in learning from the professional environment, not to be a one-man production group anymore, and I wanted the film to be seen. There was interest from broadcasters after I took part in pitching forums (East European Forum, Pitch.doc in Tbilisi and IDFA Forum in Amsterdam). But I am not a good fundraiser. However, it seems that now things are changing for the better so I hope we will find funding and I can finish the film.

 

The material ends with the cars being sold to a private buyer. We don't know the conclusion to the story yet but everything looks hopeful again. Did this story keep surprising you?

In a way, yes, it is always something slightly different from what you expect. The conclusion would be that life repeats itself, among the different storylines of the film, the story of the limousines illustrates it quite well. After a joy comes disappointment, after activity stagnation, after stagnation a new activity which in turn could also probably bring the next joy and disappointment and so on... It may sound sad but I think it is beautiful and helps you to enjoy life instead of suffering through it. In the course of the film the situation at the factory progressively deteriorates, gradually enveloping all the main characters. The end of the film brings the different storylines together - the limousine drives off towards its new owner, a private client, leaving the ZIL factory to face its uncertain future and the protagonists to continue their struggle, each in his or her own way.

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This interview first appeared in IDF's Industry Reel, published in March 2012 at the East Doc Platform.

 

The 16th Republic (The Last Russian Limousine)

 
 
Production company: Marina Razbezhkina Studios, NRK, TVP S.A.

16-ya Respublika (Posledniy russkiy limusin) , Russia, 90 min, DVD, HD, Creative, Personal View, Social Issues

The ZIL truck factory, a giant in the heart of Moscow whose produce also included the showcase limousines for Soviet leaders, is now largely defunct. Suddenly, it gets a new order... Moscow giant truck plant ZIL was central for the lives of thousands of workers for more than 80 years, proudly calling itself a “talent foundry”, a “city within a city” and “the 16th republic” (the former Soviet Union consisting of 15 republics). Among other vehicles, it also produced the showcase limousines for Soviet leaders and the Red Square Parades. The plant is now unprofitable and largely defunct. Its continued existence depends above all on political factors, the protection of Moscow authorities, and the efforts of a handful of specialists and engineers who have dedicated most of their lives to the plant, which continues to be a great source of pride for them. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the plant receives an order from the Ministry of Defense - three new ZIL limousines are supposed to open May’s Victory Day Parade on the Red Square. Only few specialist workers from the elite, previously top-secret department of Original and Special Automobiles, are left – rare professionals, all of them old enough to retire. But the deadline must be met. Set against this backdrop, the film is a multi-layered collective portrait of the ZIL community as they struggle to survive.