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San Sebastian: Natalia Meschaninova on ‘Core of the World,’ Inhibited Masculinity

Russian director’s second feature segues from Toronto to San Sebastian

In one scene in Natalia Meschaninova’s “Core of the World,” animal rights activists free some caged foxes from a hunting dog training farm in the forests of Russia. A few days later, two of the foxes reappear at the farm and climb back into their cages: They cannot fend for themselves in the wild.

The narrative vignettes stands metaphor for Egor, the film’s protagonist, a 20something vet who lives at the farmsted’s outhouse and is in desperate need of a controlled environment with no complications after a past history of violent confrontation with his mother, whose funeral he refuses to attend.

When Belta, one of the dogs, is mauled by other dogs, he tends for her like his child. He’s hugely patient with Ivan, the attention-seeking young grandson of the farm owner. But it seems only a question of time and circumstance for his tight-wound violence to explode again. He heals a dog, seems hard put to heal himself, or find any kind of forgiveness or redemption.

Variety talked to Meschaninova before the European premiere of her second feature, which screens in San Sebastian’s New Directors competition:

The setting is highly unusual: A training center for hunting dogs. Where did it come from? The film seems in a way to criticize the animal rights activists whose intervention proves disastrous for the animals they’re trying to help…

Actually, one of my favorite challenges is to place my characters in an ambiguous setting that bolsters the plot as much as their biographical circumstances. The training facility (which is the term I prefer) is a place with an innate conflict concerning the relationship with animals and hunting. A conflict of beliefs, I would say. The more complex and provocative is the setting, the more it excites me, the more challenging it becomes to use this environment for placing real people I know some fundamental things about.

The conflict between the animal rights activists and the hunters arose in Russia when our filming period was already over, and I think it means we have actually hit the right spot where society really hurts. The green activists in the film are a childish bunch that dreams of saving all the pretty little things on the planet. A great motive for sure. The problem is, they do not even try to understand the complexity of all the processes that are going on in the world. It does not even dawn upon them that the animals are doomed if they are let loose. They ignore the fact that bears and wolves will come after us in our villages, homes and schools if we stop hunting them. They have no clue about the balance of nature. They only want an act of salvation, their thinking does not go any further. I am not saying all green activists are the same. Some of the communities are really smart and relevant, but they are not the ones we are talking about in the film.

Egor seems more comfortable in a parental role, healing Belta, caring for Ivan, than as a partner of Dasha, the farm owner’s daughter. The Variety review of “Arrhythmia” commented that “Khlebnikov’s approachable movie takes contemporary urban Russia as its backdrop rather than its subject.” I feel equally that “The Core of the World” does the same, not talking about Russia but talking about the more universal subject of inhibited masculinity. Could you comment?

You are absolutely right. Russia as a whole is too abstract a notion for me. What I am interested in is an intimate, private story of a person, the inner struggle, the wounds, the pain. But I cannot say the Russian cities are just a backdrop. I always deal with very precise places, with cities that shape the characters. In my previous film, “The Hope Factory,” the city of Norilsk is actually one of the protagonists, an entity both cruel and difficult. In “Core of the World,” the village also determines many things, including the pace, the image, and the format.

I must admit that time and place are essential for me. I need my characters to inhabit a very precise setting, otherwise I can’t see who they are and what they do in my story.

What were your guidelines in directing “Core of the World”? 

It is very hard to speak about guidelines when you are filming. You just need to be on top of everything, try not to lose any ends, to get everything done and understand if it works, otherwise you need to start again from scratch. There were no guidelines at all. When I got on location in the morning I would just walk to and fro while the director of photography was setting the lights and the makeup artists were working with the actors. I was trying to feel what my characters (and actors) were about to feel. Replaying their feelings in my head. Trying to leave no detail to chance.

How was the film financed? And can you talk briefly about the production company?

STB is one of the major Russian studios that focuses both on mass audience projects and independent films. It is the best studio for aspiring talents. This is already the second project I am doing with them, the first one was “Arrhythmia” for which I had written the script. “Core of the World” is the second one.

The producers, Sergey Selyanov and Natalia Drozd, believed in my story, so we got one half of the funding from the Ministry of Culture and the other half in Europe, notably from Eurimages and the Lithuanian Film Centre.

Having won at Sochi, how easy will it for you to make a third feature? and do you plan to continue combining screenwriting and directing?

Probably yes. But I am not sure. What I can be sure of is that I hope this award won’t make me think I have become a person who can do anything and kick any door open. Hey, I’m a genius, come and greet me! Seriously, I think that a good script is first and foremost, then you can come across the necessary funding and it all happens. The rest is from the devil. I feel bad when someone gets a big budget for a bad script just because he had won something sometimes. The awards do offer some leeway along with respect among professionals. But I think it is important to reset yourself after any prize and get back to work. I don’t like taking advantage of my previous achievements.

And of course I will go on writing. I have a nice alliance now with Boris Khlebnikov. We invent stories for both of us and then I write them. We understand and complement each other perfectly so there is no need for external writers.

An inevitable question in the wake of the MeToo and Time’s Up movements in the U.S. and beyond. Do you think that being a woman has slowed your career in Russia? 

I have never had any professional hardships just because I am a woman. I have been a filmmaker for 11 years already, starting with documentaries and then venturing into the realm of fiction. And for all these years it has been the other way around. Everyone did their best to help and support me. The men I deal with in the cinema world are always proper and super respectful. Hard as I try to think of difficult moments, none come to my mind.

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