Uzbekistan-born Michael Borodin makes a searing feature debut with the Russia-Turkey-Slovenia co-production “Convenience Store,” a story of modern slavery in Moscow, taking places under the noses of thousands of indifferent witnesses. Demonstrating his interest in pressing social issues, Borodin’s Berlinale Panorama selection was inspired by his personal experience as an illegal immigrant to Russia and the 2012 case of the “Golyanovo slaves,” which is now making its way to the European Court of Human Rights.
Developed through the Next Step program of Cannes’ Critics’ Week and other co-production markets, the film, like the case of the Golyanovo slaves, centers on citizens of the former Soviet Republics, who are illegal migrants to Moscow and forced to work long hours, unpaid, in 24/7 convenience shops, without being able to leave the premises. Their documents are taken away and they experience physical and sexual violence.
“I would be happy if the film had a positive influence on the lives of migrant workers, but I realize that there is little chance for this,” Borodin says. “If you want to change something, you must adjust the political situation, the society’s and the government’s attitude toward the problem. I think that is a very difficult and slow process. I believe that only political will can really change something.”
Nevertheless, he thinks bringing awareness to the problem is important. “If even a single person in the audience stops to think about the issues we bring up in the film, that would already be great,” he says.
While shooting a documentary about cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan (forced labor of another sort), Borodin first heard about the Golyanovo slaves. He recounted the case to Metrafilm producer Artem Vasilyev, who said, “This is a story that must be made.” As he launched his research, Borodin received considerable help from the Civil Assistance Foundation, which has been working on the case for more than 10 years. He also met several of the original laborers from the case who shared their stories about life in the store with the cast.
The cast is a mix of experienced actors and non-pros. “The professional actors understood that they needed to stop acting and the non-professional actors ended up looking quite organic in all the scenes,” Borodin says. Having time for rehearsals and a pre-shoot also benefited the final result.
The character of Zhanna, the brutal owner of the store, is utterly chilling. Borodin says, “We couldn’t find an actress for Zhanna until the beginning of the shoot. Thankfully we met Lyudmila Vasilyeva, who is great theater actress and who even looks like her prototype, the actual store owner. It is her first role in film, although she has been acting in theater for 30 years.”
Depicting the real and tangible violence in the workers’ lives was a challenge to film for Borodin. He handles it carefully and delicately, expressing it through the characters’ behavior, camera movement or in the aftermath of an act of violence. As Borodin says, “[a] direct demonstration of violence doesn’t serve artistic tasks.”
First-time DP Ekaterina Smolina helped bring Borodin’s artistic concept to the screen. “We worked thoroughly through every scene. I would say that lockdown even helped us here, since we had time to work on more details, to find our own visual voice,” Borodin says.
Next up for Borodin are a couple of additional projects for Metrafilm, a leading Russian independent production company specializing in features, documentaries and series by auteur directors. He says, “I can’t say anything in particular. Perhaps we will try out a genre film.”