‘Dau’ Director Defends Controversial Russian Competition Film: ‘It’s Not Hollywood’

Dau. Natasha,” the Russian art project-turned-movie franchise competing at the Berlinale, has triggered headlines in the local and international press over the years due to its epic scale, scenes of graphic violence and anecdotes of an allegedly oppressive work environment for women.

Hours before the film’s premiere at a presser on Wednesday, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who co-directed “Dau. Natasha” with Jekaterina Oertel, addressed several questions from journalists about claims of harassment and a difficult on-set environment for women, saying that such accusations were “a bit fashionable” and a byproduct of the immersive nature of the film.

“I think what you’re referring to didn’t happen. It’s a rather odd project, so people go digging around, (saying,) ‘Surely someone raped someone,’” he said. “This project was running for a long time and we worked with a lot of different people, and there were various conflict situations — but they all had to do with the work itself.”

He implied that being cloistered on the enormous, closed Ukrainian set — where his team recreated over years every detail of life in Moscow between 1938 and 1968 for a cast and crew immersed in the world of the “Institute,” as it was called — created situations that may have been experienced as oppressive to some.

“If you are implementing a project like this within a group, you have a very different emotional dynamic, and of course rumors are likely to happen. What else can you talk about?” he said. “It’s not Hollywood. This is a project about how people consciously decide to go on a journey, a difficult emotional journey, that is very honest.”

The shoot involved hundreds of thousands of non-professional actors, including real-life prison guards, artists and scientists, who lived full-time on site, cut off from the outside world — even when cameras were not rolling.

Lensed by famed cinematographer Jürgen Jürges and originally conceived of as a more straightforward biopic of Soviet Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Lev Landau, “Dau. Natasha” is one of what is now a planned series of 13 films culled from more than 700 hours of footage shot on the “Truman Show”-esque set. A second film, “Dau.Degeneratsia,” is set to premiere in the Berlinale Special selection Friday.

The project was recently accused by Russia’s ministry of culture of being “pornographic propaganda” — charges that Khrzhanovsky dismissed as “ridiculous and absurd.” In an unsimulated scene, lead actress Natalia Berezhnaya is violently penetrated by a bottle. She explained the experience of acting in the film as “going with the flow.”

“We were in charge of our own senses and emotions,” she told journalists today. “We were well aware of what we were doing. We took that action independently. Of course we were a bit scared, yes.”

Actress Olga Shkabarnya also described the project’s intensity. “In some ways, it was scary, in some ways, it was oppressive. We had fear, we had love, we had relationships,” she said. “We didn’t work according to a screenplay; it was our life.”

Reports in GQ from 2011 and Le Monde from 2019 detailed instances of the helmer speaking to and about women in a derogatory way, calling his actresses prostitutes and asking women very personal and sexual questions during casting calls.

Khrzhanovsky and his editor Ilya Permyakov said in a written response to the Le Monde article that they “formally contested the truth” of the paper’s claims, which were “clearly the product of misunderstanding and miscommunication.”

Khrzhanovsky brushed off a question Wednesday about harassment claims reported in the press by saying they came from anonymous stories reported in Russian-language sources that were picked up by other outlets. “They have no names; it’s a very Soviet practice — let’s call people ‘N,’” he chuckled.

He said he needed to ask his extras and actors intimate questions in order to vet them for the experience.

“Of course we talked about violence and love and sex and death — there are very private scenes. How can you implement this project without being a part [of it]?”

Khranovsky ultimately deflected responsibility for what happened over the course of his shoot. “This project was all of us working on something together. This whole team working together — with lighting, equipment, sound, the whole crew — had to maintain its atmosphere. We’re all a part of it.”

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