Angelina Nikonova on her film Twilight Portrait and life between Russia and America

Angelina Nikonova is a director, scriptwriter and producer. The prominent Russian director graduated from New York School of Visual Arts in 2001 and returned to Russia after graduation. In 2011 Nikonova and Olga Dihovichnaya shot Twilight Portrait, her first feature film. For the film, Nikonova worked as a director, scriptwriter, producer, location manager, casting director, make-up artists, and art director. Nikonova’s work has caused controversy among Russian film critics, although the film did exceptionally well at international film festivals. Klassiki curator Olga Doletskaya sat down with Angelina to discuss returning to Russia after film school in New York, censorship in Russian cinema and her 2020 film Anybody Seen My Girl?


I wanted to start with some questions about your background, I know that you went to the US, to New York, to study film and then you came back to Russia and have worked in film since then. Could you tell me a little bit about this decision and how you decided to return to Russia?

It’s a very good question, actually; I’ve never been asked that. You make me think hard… what was it? Did I know I would come back..? No, I didn’t know, actually. It so happened that in 2001 when I graduated so many interesting things began to happen in Russia, in Moscow in particular. I realised I’m missing out on something really… a historical moment. I didn’t want to miss out. So, after graduating from New York School of Visual Arts I moved back. It was very exciting; many things started changing suddenly at that time.


In the industry or in general?

In general. It started to become more civilised. When I left in the ’90s Russia fell apart; the Soviet Union fell apart, of course, but Russia too. It was, basically, in ruins. But Russia has a tendency to revive itself very quickly. I started to see that Moscow was suddenly becoming a cultural centre.

You know I like the fact that Russia is located between Asia and Europe and there were so many festivals that offered a chance to meet artists from all over the world. This is something I missed in America because America is still, unfortunately, very separate.


It’s interesting deciding whether to come back to Russia or when to come back. It seems like there’s a degree of collapse of those freedoms happening right now. Do you feel that?

Of course, we all feel that. The early ’00s was a time of big hope. Now we’re in a shaky position. But it’s also very exciting. It’s never boring here. Things are always happening.

Russia has a tendency to revive itself very quickly

So how did your first film, Twilight Portrait come about? How did the project happen?

It happened as a result of my very long and torturous path towards my profession as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, it was still a time when women were not perceived as designed to be film directors. Male producers were certain that directing was a man’s occupation. I was trying to prove for 10 years after graduation that I am capable! I had become quite desperate when my friend Olga wrote a script. We worked on it together. I thought she wanted to direct it; she told me she might.

So, I helped her with the writing; but when it was finished, she said “I have a feeling that I said it all, there’s nothing else I can say. If you want, go ahead and direct it”. This was a great idea because all the scripts I had written were quite expensive for a first-time filmmaker. I was walking around with a stack of scripts and I couldn’t get a break! I offered Olga the lead, and she was surprised because she had some acting experience but not much. That is how our team started. We co-produced the film with the very little money that Olga had stashed away.

It was still a time when women were not perceived as being designed to be film directors
Nikonova directing Olga Dihovichnaya

I’ve seen the film described as a micro-budget film because of how inexpensive it was. How did you manage with such a small budget?

Firstly, we shot in my home town, Rostov-on-Don. If we had to shoot in Moscow, we probably would not have been able to shoot it. My home town is south of Moscow, even the rental prices are five times less than in Moscow. Secondly, by the time we started filming, I had worked on many positions in film production, so I had experience. I could combine five or six different roles. That allowed us to have a team that consisted of five people: me, two cameramen (director of photography and second camera), sound guy and my assistant.


That would be such a Covid-friendly shoot! And the film got so much festival success. How did you feel about the film’s success? Did you expect it to be that big?

No, we didn’t expect it at all. But we made it because we couldn’t not do it. It’s the only correct way to start anything, if you cannot not do it, then do it. We didn’t have a goal to conquer festivals, we simply realized that we had to tell the story and we were passionate about that. In Russia things have changed and now there are many women filmmakers. There are more and more women directors of photography even though sometimes it requires quite a lot of physical work. It feels like the chauvinism era is behind us. It’s amazing how fast it disappeared. But recently, I watched this documentary called Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché directed by Pamela Green. She made 1000 films, and she opened her own studio. At that time there were many women filmmakers. But we don’t know about them. They did not stay in history and that blows my mind.


It’s so surprising how women are erased from all forms of art.

We were made to believe when Hollywood happened that filmmaking is a man’s job. Many names were erased and that partially happened because men realized that there is money in this. It’s not just art, it can be business. Some people say that the fact that women filmmakers are coming back into the industry is a sign that there is less money in it, it’s becoming less of a business. Women tend to do things out of love, out of principle, out of passion. They’re not as money-driven.


Do you think this was the case in Soviet cinema?

There were few women filmmakers, but their films are very well-known.


Coming back to Twilight Portrait. What about it do you think made it so incredibly successful at festivals, what was so new about it?

I think it was the combination of social issues, the very Russian Dostoevskian philosophy that is based on Christianity and hot sex. The one twist that makes the film memorable. [laughs]


By Dostoevsky, do you mean the question of ‘am I able to kill someone’?

No, the question of forgiveness. Are you able to forgive the person who hurts you? Are you able to understand them? Those questions Dostoevsky often puts into his works. That’s something that we also wanted to include. That’s why partially feminists sometimes get aggressive with the film and with me for having this philosophy in the film. I had many Q&A sessions, some were in France and I was given a hard time sometimes. Feminists were offended that she went along with the rapist for a while. But we did not make him the rapist on purpose. We made him the guy who provokes it, but not the one who actually does it to her. And then of course, we offer another view, another angle. Because I believe that in order to forgive you should try to understand. We offered that point of view as well.

I think it was the combination of social issues, the very Russian Dostoevskian philosophy that is based on Christianity and hot sex

That’s what impressed me so much about the film, how not just black and white it is, how the violence is all around them, in the system, not just between them two.

Yes and it’s not just about the system, the worst thing is that sometimes it is the tradition. What we portray in the film is that violence can be inherited from a parent or a grandparent. It’s not even the social system, it’s almost a disease that spreads genetically.


Looking back at the film now, it’s been 10 years, is there anything you’d want to change?

No, I just wish I had a little bit more money. Then I would’ve created a film that deserved a higher scale of presentation. We didn’t even have lights, we used practical lights. There are a few entrances to this building and one of them had a lightbulb. So, we chose that entrance to the building.


Maybe that’s why some scenes are so breathtaking, like the rooftop scene. It’s filmed outside.

I tried to shoot outside scenes, most of them or all of them, I can’t remember, either at sunrise or sunset. It was my choice, magic hour.


I know that you’ve released a new film recently called Anybody Seen My Girl? (2020). I haven’t seen it yet, but the reviews I’ve read are quite brutal. I just wanted to ask how do you deal with good and bad feedback? What do you think about Russian film criticism in general?

Well, first of all, I think it’s a good thing. It was painful to me, of course, to any filmmaker, getting absolutely blasted, ripped apart… But the good thing is that I make films that make people feel strong emotions. If I made a bad film, I wouldn’t get those reviews. I wouldn’t get any reviews. If we talk about good or bad films, I believe that a bad film is a film that doesn’t make you feel anything. The fact that such strong reactions happen, of course it’s sad. Because it has created a wall between me and Russian film critics. From now on, the wall will always be there. I won’t make any attempt to break this wall. They’ve built it, now I’m behind it. To me, it’s such an absurd situation. Of course, I don’t expect apologies, that’s nonsense. I think I should thank them for those strong reactions. Why did they happen? I made a film based on a book, an autobiography by Karina Dobrotvorskaya who lives in London. She honestly told her love story with her late husband Sergey. Sergey was a phenomenal critic, a true professional, a true poet, a star. Since then, we don’t have film critics like him. People who really respected him and adored him somehow got offended by how he was presented on screen. By doing that they broke his main rule: his main rule in film criticism is to respect those who made the film first and foremost. They broke his major principle by doing what they did. The release of the film showed the sick situation of film criticism in Russia. It’s not a profession, it’s more of a love or hate situation. A film critic is someone who analyses and there was no analysis. After I did a few Q&As in Moscow I realised that young viewers, young audiences are able to analyse, they are able to see certain things that I put there, certain meanings and under-layers of the film. It’s amazing that the absence of professional film criticism in Russia pushes the viewers to look deeper into the films. And that’s amazing.

The absence of professional film criticism in Russia pushes the viewers to look deeper into the films

It’s the rise of telegram channel film criticism, I think, it quite interesting. I prefer reading my favourite telegram channels instead of big film journals like Iskusstvo Kino (a film magazine published in Moscow) or Seans (a film magazine published in St. Petersburg).

Those two journals that you mention basically decided to ban us. They decided to destroy us and write everything for the viewers to not go into the theatres. Their goal was to destroy the film. And so, I see the battle of two camps. A camp of viewers who go to see it and who love it, they sit through 10 minutes of the final credits, they cry, they go to see it again the next day. I know that even though the film is not high art, we deliberately did not make an art film, we wanted to make it very viewer-friendly. Not festival-friendly or critic-friendly, viewer-friendly. We achieved that goal with the producers. But now I see these battles going on between viewers and film critics, it’s interesting.


As you said, bad films are the ones you don’t remember

And you don’t talk about.


So how do you think this is going to change your approach to making films in the future?

I was thinking about making a film in English. Two years ago, I went to Mississippi and I shot a horror film there. I wrote it and directed it. It’s supposed to be released next year. Of course, my first reaction is “Oh, come on now.” I came all the way from New York Film School and this is what you do to me? Why? My first reaction was to just leave the Russian film scene. But on the other hand, I have offers here, in Russia. So, we’ll see what happens next. But what they cannot do is they cannot make me not make films. They cannot do that.


That’s interesting because I think a lot of Russian actors or directors try to break into the international market and you left Hollywood to come to Russia.

And this is what I get! [laughs]


I’ve read you’ve done a lot of TV work, writing shows and TV films. How is it different from directing a feature film? How was it working on Russian TV?

TV series or network series are content. You make content that entertains. Films are something that makes you think and makes you work as a viewer. You as a viewer co-create the film with the people who made it.

Because I try to make films that involve the viewer emotionally as well as intellectually. This is work that most of us don’t want to do any more, that’s why we want to be entertained. Here’s an episode of a series, let me watch another one, another one, then another season. That’s a totally different approach and a different goal. TV series have a goal of entertaining, films should make you think and reevaluate certain things.

I’m fine with more art films and TV series, I’m fine with both though they’re very different. What I stopped understanding is producing commercial films. Because these are films which are also entertaining. It’s very difficult for me as a filmmaker to work with producers on these kinds of films. Because then you compromise certain things and at the end, you’re the one responsible for what happens on screen.


Do you feel more comfortable on TV not being the only one responsible, being more in the shadows?

Yes, it’s very comforting when you have your chair, and you’re not responsible for the budget or the fate of the film. But there are downsides as well. You don’t call all the shots. In independent filmmaking you’re responsible for everything, it’s all you from A to Z.


I wanted to ask, there’s a lot of conversations about how censored Russian cinema is right now. I think Twilight Portrait is an example of a film that does not feel censored at all. What do you think about that? Do you think it’s hard working in Russian cinema right now?

We began this conversation by talking about how Russia is changing, it’s never stable. We go up, down and up again. There are certain times when it’s so free, you can do whatever you want. There are certain times like now when censorship is harsher. Because now our government feels really insecure about what’s happening in our country. The more insecure the government feels, the more fierce the censorship is.

Unfortunately, there’s a film that I’d love to shoot, I wrote the script 13 years ago, and I’ve been working on it throughout these years. It’s not that if I shoot it, it won’t be screened. I can’t even shoot it because I can’t find funding for it. People are afraid to be associated with the film. That’s why censorship sucks. It’s not official censorship, you see. The film is about the desperate love of a Russian woman to her country, she cannot live without her country, but she also cannot live with the regime. It’s set in 1983, but lots of parallels with what’s happening now. As I said, it’s not censored, but I cannot find financing for it.

The more insecure the government feels, the more fierce the censorship is

That’s a shame, it sounds like something I’d love to watch. Have you thought about searching for foreign funding?

That’s quite difficult, you’re automatically labelled as a foreign agent. In one of the Twilight Portrait Q&As there was this Russian guy in the audience. The Q&A was in English, but this guy stands up and asks in Russian “why are you making films about Russia like that? Why not something about Russia being a great country? Have you been paid by those festivals to make a film like that?” That was so funny. That was in 2011, and it was quite free back then, what can you say about now.


I know it’s a really hard question, but could you name some of your favourite directors? Maybe those who inspired you to make Twilight Portrait?

I was greatly inspired Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, Bob Rafelson and early Woody Allen.


That’s so interesting, especially early Woody Allen

That’s more in my Welcome Home.


What about Russian or post-Soviet directors?

I really like Oksana Bychkova, I think she’s really underrated. She’s excellent.


Last question, how do you think Covid and this shut-down of the industry will affect how we make films, how we watch films in the future?

You make me think a sad thought that I was trying not to think about. If the experience of movie-going is going to disappear… Let’s say Covid lasts for 3 years. This habit, this need of going to see and experience something together will diminish, disappear. It will be very very sad. Then what?

The habit of watching a film individually and experiencing it individually will take over. Maybe films will not survive at all. If movie theatres disappear, the film industry will probably disappear as well, there will be no money in it. It will be so difficult to finance the films, we will have to shoot films with no money. Like Twilight Portrait.