Deep Dive: Boris Akopov & The Bull

Filmmaking is Moscow-born Boris Akopov’s (b. 1985) second career.

He danced with the Kremlin Ballet and the Bolshoi Theatre before becoming a director. Graduating from the prestigious Russian State Institute of Cinema (VGIK) in 2016, his short graduation film, Paradise, won him first prize. The Bull, which he both directed and wrote the screenplay for, is his first full-length feature. Klassiki curator Olga Doletskaya sat down with Boris to discuss independent filmmaking in Russia and making a ’90s nostalgia film at age 34.

The Bull (2019)

O: So starting off, the film is set in 1997. I was actually born in 1997. And it’s rare I see a representation of that time made by someone of my generation. Why do you think it’s so important for us to reflect on what happened in the ’90s? Do you often get asked why you decided to make a film about that period?

I often get asked that, and it’s a very fair question. I was born in 1985. So, 1997 and even a bit before that was the time when I just started to see myself as a person, recognise myself and make memories.

My memories of that time are filled with love. The paradox is, there were so many scary things happening at the time. I grew up just outside of Moscow, in Balashikha, it’s quite a rough area. But to me, it still felt so interesting and somehow mysterious. I wanted to figure that out by writing about it. What was the world I first remember myself inhibiting?

O: And what was the answer?

I really managed to grasp the feeling of my childhood in the film, the world I remember excising 20-odd years ago. I think I managed to lock that world, embed it into the film.

O: What have you heard from people who were adults in the 90s about the film? I wonder if the feeling you were trying to reflect is in any way different for them.

Everyone says different things. When I was preparing for the film I was talking to many people, people older than me, asked how they feel about that time, how they lived. I was doing proper research. It really surprised me how differently people feel about the ’90s.

Some people say they want to forget that time entirely, some people say it was the best time of their lives. That’s the paradox. Watching the film, some people walked out of the theatre. We had one screening in Estonia, I remember standing in the hall and seeing people run out mid-film.

I’m guessing these were the people who emigrated at that time, they ran away from that life and were now forced to look back at it in the film. Who would like that? I guess any reaction is a reaction. I presented the film and people were furious, they asked me why I would make it and remind people of something we’ve been trying to forget for such a long time. Everyone has their own opinions, I have a deep love for that time of my childhood, but others do not.

The ’90s was quite a dark time for us, the last dark time we had. But so many artists and filmmakers create works about other dark times that they definitely did not live in. Or the future. At least I have lived in that time, I try to reflect on the identities of that time from things I do remember. Of course, I was quite young, but maybe that’s quite interesting too. Looking at the time through the eyes of a child, in a way. While making the film it was important for me to romanticize the characters and the time a little bit. Because I was romanticizing the time when it was happening: the older boys like Anton Bukov, I wanted to be like them. I thought they were cool.

O: You’ve said before that a lot of the film is inspired by real events or real people. Could you talk a little bit about that?

It was so important. There are barely any made-up characters in the film, almost all are based on real people and events. The whole film is like a quilt made from real stories and real people. These characters might have not met or interacted in real life, but I put all the patches together to make a single story. Real stories and real-life are such important sources of inspiration for me.

O: What about the story of Tanya who decided to emigrate?

That’s a great question. That story might be the most fictional of all. But even though I did make it up, the story did happen. There wasn’t a prototype for Tanya per se, but there were definitely people who have asked me if I meant someone they know because their friend did the exact same thing, you know. The situation was typical for the time.

I was romanticizing the time when it was happening: the older boys like Anton Bukov, I wanted to be like them. I thought they were cool.
The Bull (2019)

O: Have you ever seen Crystal Swan?

Of course, it is actually a funny story. When I was editing The Bull someone sent me a teaser for the film where the main character played by Alina Nasibullina is wearing headphones and singing on a bus. I was so shocked because I had a scene exactly like that where Tanya is wearing big headphones going to Moscow and jamming to a song. It sent a shiver down my spine. Turned out that the film came out just a bit earlier than mine – maybe six months earlier. But we were filming at the same time, Yuriy Borisov starred in that film too and didn’t tell me anything! Good decision on his part, I probably would’ve started asking questions.

O: I asked because Tanya’s story is so similar to Velya’s from Crystal Swan. It felt to me like the Bull was a ‘boys’ version and Crystal Swan was ‘the girls’ version of the same time and the same story.

These stories were so common at the time. For our generation born in the late 80s, these problems are so deeply dramatic for us, they’re almost asking to be put on screen. This conflict where a young woman does not have an opportunity to be the strong character she is. She can only see one way in her own country – the way out.  The time was so difficult, so dangerous, so dark.

O: I wanted to ask about your past, I know you were a professional ballet dancer before you started directing. I wanted to ask how this ballet experience translated into this other form of art? Did it have any influence or help you in any way?

I won’t even joke here, my previous profession gave me a lot of skills, resilience being the main one. Filming is a complicated, long, tiring process. You need to be resilient to be able to do it. I’m so thankful to ballet for that, it’s easy for me to be on my feet a lot. I’ve done ballet since I was little, I don’t actually know how much it influences my work because it’s such a big part of me.

O: How did you move from ballet to film?

I’ve always loved writing and I first applied to VGIK to be a screenwriter but didn’t get in so I continued with ballet. I’ve always loved film, even when I worked at the theatre, me and my friends would always run to the cinema and watched indie festival films. I’ve always been interested in that world and I wanted to be a part of it. I worked as an extra while I worked at the theatre too. It was all so interesting to me: the filming process, the crew. And when you do ballet, eventually your injuries pile up. Our careers are so short, people retire at 28. So I had to change into something else, I pushed myself and decided to apply to VGIK again. I studied documentary filmmaking. I got kicked out though, at the end. But that’s a different story.

O: Really? [laughs]

Yes. I can’t tell you why though, it’s a secret.

O: Well you did well, I bet they regret it now! What was it like working on a feature debut film as a director? Was it quite different from your student films?

It was so difficult and I’m not fully happy with the result, you never are. I guess it feels like I’ve had a baby. I worked on all of these inner feelings and memories for a year and a half and now I have this baby, it’s separate from me and is living a separate life. So really, you should ask the baby [laughs]. Documentary filmmaking is so different from feature films as well. I work on documentaries and there’s so much adrenaline, it’s a wild chase trying to catch the right moment. A feature is more of this meticulous work piecing this puzzle together from the pieces you created. It never quite works out as you expect it or how you wrote it. You have your chair, you have a schedule. Of course, some things do not go according to plan. It is a weird job but different from documentaries for sure.

O: Do you have a dream project for a documentary?

Yes I do. It’s about ballet, of course. Another question I often get asked is why I didn’t make a film about ballet. I always say that I do want to make something about ballet, I’ve had an idea for a long time. But it’s quite hard to find funding. I wanted to make a comedy road movie about a ballet tour. Ballet films are always so sophisticated, beautiful and high art. I want to make a grimy comedy instead.

O: Ballet is either about high art or about all the pain and suffering…

Yes, exactly. Both have been done so many times. And as an insider, someone who’s done world tours many times, I know exactly how everything happens. It’s an interesting world with weird, fascinating people. Maybe someday I’ll make it happen.

O: If you could have one thing from the 90s back, maybe an artefact or a trend, maybe a feeling? What would it be?

A feeling maybe. Actually, I wouldn’t want anything back, time moves on, there are new trends, new things. Things from the ’90s are buried in our memories and that’s where they should stay. I would not want to bring back the dead. May they rest in peace.

Things from the '90s are buried in our memories and that’s where they should stay. I would not want to bring back the dead.

O: Do you think there’s a resurgence of trends from the ’90s? There’s so much nostalgic ’80s and ’90s content right now, why do you think that is?

Definitely, there was a certain style there. Style right now is so fragmented, there are so many different ways you can take it. ’90s was a simpler time. And the nostalgia is so strong, any generation, boomers, millennials, zoomers, X, Y, they’re all from there. Some were born there, some grew up there or lived there. It’s really cool to be a part of that time.

Nostalgia is a good feeling, actually. I hope there are more films about the time. Someone said no matter who makes films about the ’90s, Balabanov, Akopov, Zhuk, anyone else, the most important things are still unsaid. I would agree with that.

O: I like thinking that we are all rooted in the ’90s no matter what age we are. So, speaking about other filmmakers, do you have any recommendations for favourite directors or films that particularly influenced your work? Maybe something you would recommend to our audiences.

I absolutely love Soviet film despite all its criticism. I don’t actually know how well it translates. Although I thought that about the Bull too, that it’s something international audiences wouldn’t get. But then we went to Karlovy Vary and so many people from different countries came to the screening. And they all reacted in the right places, laughed at the jokes. Art is an international language and that’s great. I love I Walk Around Moscow, for example. I think it’s so much better than any French new wave film out there. It’s such a brilliant film, the acting, the visuals, it’s just stunning. Jean-Luc Godard couldn’t dream of making something like that [laughs]. Another less known example is To Love by Michael Kalik. Inspired by the French New wave, of course, but made in our own Soviet way into beautiful works of art.

O: Any contemporary Russian films that inspire you or you are more into Soviet films?

I watch everything, I love going to the cinema.

O: Do you think festival cinema is fading out?

It’s always been hard to make independent films. It’s been even harder during the pandemic. When they announced cinemas should only sell tickets to 25% of the seats, I wasn’t worried because the films I watch usually don’t have that many people anyway [laughs]. I like that too, I like watching films not many people like.

O: One last question, how do you think covid is going to change the industry and the reality of filming?

Actually, I filmed a project in the middle of the pandemic. I don’t think it will change much, at least not for long. Of course, there’s a certain regression of festival independent cinema with so many online platforms launching.

Filming wasn’t that different either. We had 12-hour filming days; wearing masks was completely unrealistic. We realised pretty early on that we need to either film now or wait for everything to pass and we could be waiting for years.  It was a risk, but ultimately I’d say it paid off. I think it’s quite an interesting question whether to talk about the pandemic in film or make it more timeless. We had a few crowded scenes we couldn’t really get rid of. We decided to just go ahead and film those. Although at the Berlinale this year, the Golden Bear went to Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc), a film where everyone is wearing masks and everything is really covid-safe.

They managed to write it and film it all during the pandemic. But the difference with my script is that it was written way before this started. To suddenly make it relevant and having everyone wear masks would’ve been a weird decision for me, it wouldn’t have been true to the film.

Either way, filming in a pandemic is not a great experience, it’s still dangerous, there’s a lot of fear about other people and the project itself.  I would not want to ever do it again. But I hope this goes away soon and we can make a film about it.

The Bull (2019)