No solemn monolith: Aleksandr Lungin on his debut film, Great Poetry

Aleksandr Lungin is one of a generation of exciting new directors who have come of age in the middle of the boom in the Russian film industry of the last decade. He hails from a prolific film family as the son of the famed Russian and Soviet director Pavel Lungin (Taxi Blues, 1990 and The Island, 2006). With years of success as a scriptwriter under his belt, his first film Phenomenon of Nature (2010) directed alongside Sergei Osipyan, a long time writing partner and friend, shone on the festival circuit. Great Poetry his first feature, reigniting the global attention around his works. Klassiki sat down with Aleksandr to talk about his directorial debut, directing his first film at 49, and the Russian film industry.


Let’s start at the beginning, you’ve talked about the script being written 10 years ago and only now being turned into a film. Could you tell us how the project came about?

As happens in most cases, the project happened spontaneously, accidentally and unexpectedly. We wrote the script 10 years ago, it was really different although the main body of the script was quite similar: cash handlers transporting money from banks, heists, etc. But the rest of it was quite different; it was a comedy, it was funny, the characters were similar to Sergey Shnurov [Russian musician and personality known for his punk style and controversial lyrics]. We wrote it and it was shelved. And then it so happened that my dad suggested I apply to the Ministry of Culture’s Debut Award and I didn’t have another script that was ready.

Great Poetry was fully finished. When I applied with it, no one thought it might actually win any funding. I didn’t think so either!  I don’t know if it was corruption or accident, I guess both.

But we got the funding. I was so surprised. It’s been 10 years, times have changed, I’m so much older and life is so much less funny now. I didn’t know what to do with the script! I thought for 6 months and then re-wrote it completely. And we started filming. The film’s pretentiousness has to do with it being written 10 years ago. But the content has nothing to do with the old script anymore.

Russian festival cinema is trying to limit itself to social and psychological melodramas of varying levels of gloom
Behind the scenes of Great Poetry (2019)

That’s interesting because I thought there were moments in the film were there were leftover elements of that comedy, but turned toward something much more sinister and adult

I think so too, you can’t wash everything out.


How relevant do you think the script is right now? How relevant was it to film it now rather than 10 years ago?

It’s such an interesting time in film now; it might be the only positive thing about this time, actually. It’s changed so much from when I was young and film was similar to literature in the 19th century. Now it’s a field like any other, just regular work, just art. Film has become much less strenuous and more interesting to do. There’s so much more freedom. Then you had to hit a nerve, blow up Sundance and festivals. Now you don’t have to do that at all. You can just do what you like, just like in theatre or other types of art. I think this period will be very short.

Film is so expensive, even a cheap film is unnecessarily expensive to make. So, I doubt we will exist in this time for long, but right now you can definitely use it. So, I didn’t even question how relevant the film might be, I knew it was slightly orthogonal to festival politics of recent years. But 2020 was the year when it all blew up. Not just because of us but globally. Which further confirmed my conclusions. You can still do this now, but who knows if you’ll be able to soon.

The cast of Great Poetry at Kinotavr (2019)

It is a special and unusual film. A thriller is such an unusual genre for festival films, especially in Russia. Could you even call it a thriller?

It is unusual for Russian festivals, yes, but not for the international festival scene. Russian festival cinema is trying to limit itself to social and psychological melodramas of varying levels of gloominess. They see that as the only god-given genre. But it is not true if we look at Venice or any other film festival, there are so many other genres. When it comes to our film, I would call it a melancholic Western. It was always intended like this. it starts with a bank robbery and ends with a full inversion of the plot, the finale was built up to be like this.


I love the term ‘melancholic Western’

Yes, so that’s why I can compare it to S. Craig Zahler and his ‘Bone Tomahawk’. These real psychedelic Westerns. Maybe not in mood but formally, it is the same style.


Talking about festivals blowing up this year. The film was released right before the pandemic started?

That’s true, but I wasn’t actually talking about just the pandemic. This year in Venice really showed that the system has started to work differently. There is no agenda, no politics, not really. No one determines the agenda, not the critics, not other forces. The bubble just burst. We don’t know how the industry is going to recover. But I know that the age of arrogant and passionate festivals has passed, it will never be the same.


It’s interesting because festivals have gone online and fully become public platforms. How do you think this 8-10 months where we’ve only been watching things all day will affect the industry, particularly in Russia?

I’m sure the Russian film industry won’t be affected that much. It exists almost outside this international process because the funding all comes from the same window. The industry does not feel pressure from international processes. It will change and evolve, of course. The Russian film industry has grown so much.

Before the pandemic we were making more than 150 films a year, now it will be even more. The sheer number of films made will have to change the industry soon. We will need to learn how to find different funding streams, evolve, film cheaper, find ways to pitch things. All of these are things that we don’t know how to do yet in Russia. Right now you stand in this long line and wait until you are given funding.

From the outside we look like a single solemn monolith. In reality, the system is not that solid, consistent, or powerful

Is everything really funded through a single window? 

Primary funding, yes. You sometimes get other sources of funding later on, but the basis of funding when you turn words into millions, 95% of the time that comes from the Ministry of Culture.


Now that I think about it I can’t think of a recent film that wasn’t funded by them? 

That’s why the environment is so narrow, so specific, so rarely reacts to our neighbours. Kazakh film has learned this for example. Nazarbayev (President of Kazakhstan) would never give that amount of money to the film industry; Kazakh filmmakers had to find other ways, learn how to work with international funds. If you go to any film festival right now, Tallinn or anywhere else, there are at least 5 Kazakh films. More than half of those are in Russian. And in Russia, no one knows about them, as if they do not exist. The same with Eastern European films too. Maybe now we will finally start to mix into the international film scene.


What do you think of Russian film’s position in the international film scene right now? Do we just sell depressing melancholic stories?

Yes, definitely. It’s always been like this in art.  Eastern Europe is well known for this sort of thing. We made this film Phenomenon of Nature 7 or 8 years ago. It wasn’t like that.

And Marco Mueller (Former Director Venice Film Festival) said to us “it’s a good film, but you’re from Eastern Europe, and this style doesn’t fit.”

So, you have to take that into account as well. On the other hand, there was a moment when our films were not interesting to anyone, even the tragic aspect. Now because of the heightened war of Putin’s Russia vs the World, our films have become much more intriguing. It’s not as easy now as in the late 80s – early 90s when Russian films were so easy to sell. But still, now it’s better than the early-2000s.


Do you think there’s a lot of censorship right now with films? Kirill Serebrennikov, of course, comes to mind.

The situation is quite difficult to describe to the outside. It’s strange. From the outside, we look like a single gloomy monolith. But in reality, the system is not that solid, consistent, or powerful. And censorship is so specific. For example, in Eastern Europe everyone has told me “My God, you’re talking about Russians fighting in Luhansk (Ukraine), you will probably get arrested upon arrival back home! So brave!”

I say that no one really cares about these things. And they really look at me like I am being shy but this really was the way it was with my last film. This is what it looks like from the outside. In reality, if you’re not messing with World War II or doing anything that could be interpreted as religious strife, no one cares. The only censorship that matters is swearing. There is a whole programme about it. My wife and I actually wrote a script, it was set in 1976 and one of the characters said ‘Don’t blame your whoredom on the revolution’. They said, “Please take out ‘whoredom’ and you then can get your certificate”. It’s so ridiculous, so absurd. And it’s really hurting the industry because how can we talk about portraying life in a country where everyone swears all the time, when you can’t even say ‘whore’. But this is unchangeable, no one can convince them otherwise. It’s the rule for everybody. But apart from that, no one stands behind your back and tells you what to do. The only thing is the war. But that’s not just cinema, even studying history is practically impossible, it’s their Holy Land.

We promised three cases of beer to whoever wins and one of their poets won.
Behind the scenes of Great Poetry (2019)

What about the propaganda of homosexuality? Whatever happened to Outlaw this year…

Yes, I guess so. But that also really depends, the same with drugs. Maybe you can’t show it on TV, but in film, you can do whatever you want. Maybe it’s not such a big theme in films like it is in the West. But it’s not like you can’t make a character gay, that’s completely possible.


There’s a quote from the film that I really loved. “There is no big poetry anymore, not right now. One can only work with poetic discourses.” Do you think that can be related to art in Russia right now, to making films?

It’s an international trend right now, for sure. And it’s said by Tsypin and I feel the closest to him in the film. I relate to him the most, that’s what I think. But it’s true and untrue at the same time, it’s just what we think. For Viktor, it’s not true. And the poetry is still there. And when it comes to contemporary slam poetry, it was a complete revelation to me. I have never thought that was what it looks like. But what you see in the film is the real deal. It’s Andrei Rodionov’s poetry group, he’s the biggest poet of that genre in Russia right now, the most well-known. He is publishing book after book and it’s his group at Theatre.doc (a Moscow-based contemporary theatre) which was filmed. What you see is exactly what is happening right now. The slam that we filmed, we did organize it but it was a real event. It was their slam, we filmed our bit and then left and they continued. We promised three cases of beer to whoever won and one of their poets won. This is how it works, a slam in Moscow, then you go to the nationals in Krasnoyarsk. There you can get a little more money, let’s say 7500 rubles instead of 3500 (£75 vs £35). And then if you win at nationals you can go to an international competition in Paris. Don’t know what that would look like, how they solve the language problem.

But nevertheless, it’s such a strong movement right now. All the poems we used were real, Andrei Rodionov wrote the poems for us along with Fyodor Svarovsky, a famous poet. They were so gracious and patient with us. Poetry is very hard to portray on screen, you have to cut them up anyway, people only really hear the last verse when watching a film. And they let me do that with their poems. Andrei even had a cameo as the chicken keeper with one ear.

We are from the same generation, it was so easy to find common ground and write together. He was so proud of them. I found one poem online, the one that Tsypin was meant to read for Lesha but we couldn’t use it because of copyright. But this is how it goes:

в нашей гребенной жизни все как-то двояко
где же ты Морфейус, ебать тебя в сраку”

In our fucking life, everything is somehow twofold
where are you Morpheus, fuck you in the ass.



But we, obviously, couldn’t have that one because we couldn’t find the authors. But the one Rodionov wrote instead, he was so proud of because he doesn’t normally write funny poems, it’s not his thing. And the first rap was written by the actor, Aleksey Filimonov himself. He plays Lehka. He came up to me one day and said he wrote it. The world of poetry is so small and so vast at the same time, you know. Once you get in, you realise every other person writes.


The relationship between rap and poetry is so interesting. They are often compared in the film and the soundtrack is full of familiar well-known names like FACE. What do you think about this new wave of Russian rap?

I tried, but I have to say, I’m old now. I listened to Kendrick Lamar, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrics. But he does it too quickly for me, I do not have time to follow the flickering images. So, I really do not presume to judge. It’s for young people, let it stay that way. But slam poetry and rap are so close, the lines are blurred. It seemed like a natural progression, this lad from Zheleznodorozhny, of course, should be listening to Russian rap. And talking about rap, it all seems to me like echoes of generations that came before. The Saint Petersburg rap club with Oxxxymiron and Slava KPSS is reminiscent of the rock scene in the 80s. But of course, it’s such a massive jump, in the early 00s there was nothing of substance to for such a long time

It just looks so similar to my youth and counterculture. It also seems like it’s on its way out as well, the hype has not lasted that long. But it’s helped young people, for sure. For the first time in so long, they’ve started to look like a generation, not just scattered, squashed single units. And this is the result of this change. Starting from January 23, we can see it happening on the streets.


This is your directorial debut, the first time you directed a film on your own. Could you talk a little bit about this new experience? Plans on doing any solo projects in the future?

I have never wanted to direct that badly, I feel right now like I’m a writer out of my element. I’m a writer and a scriptwriter, not a director. It felt like I really tried to avoid it and still, it just happened to me. But now after the festival success, it’s had, I’ll have to try at least one more time. But if you’re asking if I liked it, it’s a difficult question. It’s a task for adrenaline junkies and I am indeed one of those. I had been missing this rush in my quiet, simple writers life. On the other hand, there’s so much ugliness in directing.


Like what?

It teaches you to compromise. And that’s difficult for me to do. Directing has a negative effect on your personality. It’s not actually a very intellectual activity, it’s so much harder to write, especially if you’re writing scripts. But it takes a neurological toll on you, for sure. It’s exhausting. But you also get this strange level of power. Filmmaking has this power hierarchy and as a director, you’re at the top. It’s the art of a single touch.

As a writer, you could be writing all night, think it’s great and then re-read it in the morning and realise it’s crap. You don’t get that opportunity with directing. You’ve filmed it and that’s it. That exacerbates nerves. It doesn’t have an ending.

When you finish writing a piece you’re done, you feel like you’ve done all you could, you’re exhausted.  But you never feel that as a director, you never know what the finished product looks like. You finish filming, then post-production happens and that’s just a hysterical experience. And I’m not that hysterical a person, I rarely depend on other people’s approval. It’s hard. So many things that are so ugly about it. So I really don’t want to rewatch the film. I’ve seen it so many times while editing, that I have no desire to watch it again. I’ve said all I wanted to say. I thought it was just me, but then I read an interview with Takeshi Kitano where he talks about the special pain you feel when watching your own films.

So, I do feel in two minds about it. But of course, it was uplifting as well. It was the summer, it was crazy, such an adventure. A long and tough journey, not as picturesque as you’d think but still there’s something beautiful about it. It was also just such a small project, almost a student film, you have to pretend you know what you’re doing when you really do not.

Filmmaking is like praying at the end of the world, even the words don’t echo back to you.
Behind the scenes of Great Poetry (2019)

I think it was worth it. It turned out to be a brilliant film, unusual too. Maybe the fact that you were so aware of your inexperience paid off?

I should watch it again sometime. I do have a great skill in scriptwriting, I’m a good writer, that’s my one skill. And as a director, you really need to pay attention to the story. I always wanted to protect the script. But that is also one of my weaknesses that I’m trying to overcome. In this film, you can really see that I trust the words more than I trust the actors. It’s a balance. And when people read your script, they read your words and know your intentions. With a film, it’s not like that at all. People leave the cinema and say “I loved it so much, especially the scene where he shoots himself in the head. Or… There’s a bench there that looks exactly like the one next to my school! Almost exactly the same!”


That’s funny!

I’m telling you a story about the death of a god and you’re telling me about a bench. But that’s exactly how it works. Filmmaking is like praying at the end of the world, even the words don’t echo back to you. That’s normal, that’s just how it is. And we’ve always known that regular people wouldn’t watch our film.


Do you have another project in mind right now?

Things have stopped for a while, but now it’s opening up again. This summer I’m meant to be filming a series that my wife wrote the script for, a Scandinavian noir. But this year has just been entirely not what we expected.


This year has been quite something

We just need to regroup now, we’ll try. It’s unclear what world we’ve ended up in. But people have been craving something new, for sure. I feel like that too, I haven’t been anywhere new in so long. Everything is so bleak and snowy right now, it really feels like that’s enough; it’s time for a change.