Popogrebsky bemoans lack of funds for indies

Helmer Aleksei Popogrebsky sees a big shift coming in how Russian independent films are made as drastic changes in how public funding is doled out begin to impact prospects for filmmakers.

The 37-year-old director, whose film “How I Ended This Summer” is the first Russian movie in competition here since Aleksandr Sokurov’s “The Sun” five years ago, believes more directors will be turning to co-productions as state funding becomes more bureaucratic and harder to access.

“The (public funding) situation in Russia is changing and it is very uncertain and ambivalent at this point,” said Popogrebsky, one of the few young Russian directors who speaks fluent English, adding that back in 2008, when he began work on his film, “there was a well established system with the Ministry of Culture providing a large part of a film’s production budget.”

Back then most indie filmmakers could get grants of up to around $600,000 and more established producers could tap up to $1 million for a feature.

All that changed dramatically last year when prime minister (and former president) Vladimir Putin announced drastic changes in public film funding.

Although no details have yet been made official is seems likely that money will be channeled through a limited range of up to 10 major Russian production companies.

“What will happen to debuts or arthouse movies no one knows, but whenever two filmmakers meet now in Russia this is the only topic of conversation,” Popogrebsky said.

What is certain is that after a long boom in the Russian film industry, the state funding cash cow has gone dry — scarcely any films received public money last year apart from some of those that had pledges from previous years.

“My film had a long post-production period, but the so-called ‘Kinotavr 2009 generation’ have not been able to get any feature projects off the ground in the past year,” Popogrebsky said in a reference to the young generation of directors whose films screened at last year’s Kinotavr festival in Sochi.

The situation demands a response and he feels, like many others repping younger Russian filmmakers and producers, that European and international co-productions are one way forward.

“There has been interest in co-productions for many years but they always met two obstacles,” he said. “Not that many Russian companies or producers have international experience or speak English, French or German. And we had enough funding in Russia. When you co-produce, overheads increase by around 20% , so it was not worth the fuss.”

That is now set to change: two of Russia’s top indie directors, Alexey Balabanov and Andrey Zvyagintsev (both in association with CineMart

Rotterdam) have projects at the Berlinale Co-Production Market (“Leather” and “Elena” respectively) and the Moscow film festival in June will host a three-day co-production forum.

Popogrebsky’s film, produced by Roman Borisevich of the Koktebel Film Co. and partially supported by the Siberian region of Chukotka, where it was shot on location, has Bavaria as its world sales company and benefits from the director’s track record.

His first movie, “Koktebel,” a two-hander he made with Boris Khlebnikov in 2003, established a talent that his second (and debut as solo director) “Simple Things” in 2007 confirmed. That film picked up a host of Russian and international awards.

Each of his films have been different genres – “Koktebel” was a road movie about a father and son’s journey through rural Russia; “Simple Things” concentrated on family relations and was mainly shot in interiors; “How I Ended This Summer” pitched two men into an Arctic environment where time seems to stand still.

Popogrebsky sees his next movie being set on a studio lot and with a female protagonist. He says he will use more music and may even go for an English-language international co-production, drawing talent from countries other than Russia.

“I am thinking about language. Perhaps there is a way to make it universal without pinpointing a particular language, region or nationality,” he said.

For a director who spent nearly a decade studying – and teaching – psychology at a PhD level, such questions come naturally, although he is quick to dismiss notions a film can do much in a 90 minutes or so to plumb the depths of the human psyche.

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