When he arrived in Russia six years ago, director Tony Pemberton didn’t expect he’d end up making a film there. Nor, he candidly admits, did he expect that the resulting “Beyond the Ocean” would be among the 16 pics chosen from 800 submitted for Sundance’s drama competition.
Even by fest standards, the pic has an unusual international pedigree.
Pemberton worked with an Austrian producer, a British art director, a Scottish cameraman and local Moscow professionals. A largely Russian cast, speaking English and Russian dialogue, plays against a background that jumps between provincial Russia and contemporary New York.
Add to this a soundtrack “with various trip-hop vibes” and some input from Austrian electronica wizard Christian Fennesz, and you get a fairly weird pic, but one that seems congruent with a director who names Fernand Leger and Luis Bunuel among his early influences.
Ohio-born, Pemberton, 33, drifted into New York’s indie film community in the mid-1980s, where he made a handful of experimental films (and played the role of the young Genet in Todd Haynes’ “Poison” (1991)).
Pemberton shot “Beyond the Ocean” intermittently over a three-year span while working in advertising to earn funds to continue the pic.
The project evolved from what was initially going to be a “fake foreign film” about an enclave of Hungarian coal miners living in a depressed part of eastern Ohio.
“After finishing the script,” says Pemberton, “I went along with a friend to Russia for a few months. I thought I would shoot some backgrounds for the film that I would eventually make in America.” Instead, Pemberton fell in with a cadre of Russian filmmakers and decided to make a real foreign film.
“Financially and artistically this seemed like the right thing to do,” Pemberton says, adding, “Well, as usual, you plan the film and when you have no budget, something always happens and you end up somewhere else.”
When asked what the film actually cost, Pemberton jokes, “Somewhere between ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and (the Nikita Mikhalkov-helmed) ‘Barber of Siberia.’ ”
“It’s a low-budget film,” he allows. “But in a format — 35mm Cinema-scope — which is an anomaly for low-budget cinema.”
Pic’s acting belies the financial constraints, especially its central role of Pitsee, played by three actresses at different ages. Following her emigre boyfriend to New York, Pitsee attempts to get along in the strange diaspora world she finds there — atmospherically shot in soft, blurry colors. And she tries to make sense of traumas from her childhood, shown in B&W flashback.
The film’s inclusion in the dramatic competition pleased Pemberton, not just in terms of his own future, but also for what it says about the festival. “After reading the notes of the other films in the Sundance Film Festival, I was excited knowing that my film seemed to be from a completely different place.”
And it is.
Russia now looks like a long-term part of Pemberton’s creative landscape. His current project, “The Children Met Lenin in the Spring,” is a docu about contempo Russian views of communism’s most revered figure.