Sybilla Tuxen on Silent Sun of Russia, her portrait of dissident community under Putin

Silent Sun of Russia (dir. Sybilla Tuxen, 2023)

The feature debut from Danish filmmaker Sybilla Tuxen, Silent Sun of Russia is an intimate but expansive portrait of a largely invisible demographic within modern Russia: the young and disaffected woman. The observational documentary, shot by Tuxen herself between 2018 and the present day, follows three young women – Katya, Alika, and Alyona – as they attempt to make sense of the disintegrating world around them. The choice to remain in Russia is a fraught one; migration, whether to Georgia or Spain, may offer only temporary reprieve. Captured at close quarters in bedrooms, clubs, and taxi cabs, these women are symbolic of a generational divide in Russia, while also remaining entirely true to themselves.

Tuxen’s film is profoundly empathetic to its protagonists, while never losing sight of the broader political context. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which occurs in the middle of the film, is an inflection point. Suddenly the talk is of 15-year sentences, of thousands arrested on the streets, of war crimes abroad. The ubiquitous smartphones, which had previously been used to listen to homemade beats or play Call of Duty, now provide constant connection to the catastrophe being visited in their country’s name. It is moving to watch these young women reckoning with their transformed new reality as it unfolds. The viewer, like Katya and co, is left asking: what can they do? What can we do? What do we even want from Russia and its citizens?

We spoke to Tuxen via email to discuss her relationship to her heroines, her approach to filming at such close quarters, and the relationship between European audiences and Russia.

 

First of all, it would be great to hear how this project took shape. What was your relationship to Russia before you began filming? How and when did you meet these particular girls; how did you make the decision to both film their lives in such detail, and then to fashion that material into a feature documentary? 

When I was 21 years old, I decided to move to St Petersburg for a shorter period. I had never been to Russia before, but I had a very strong desire to go there. I signed up for a language course at the university and learned Russian while I was there. I met a lot of wonderful young people who invited me into their lives in St Petersburg. Years later, when I finished my studies at the National Film School of Denmark, I wanted to tell the story of the young Russians I met when I was there many years earlier. But times had changed by the time I started filming: the young Russians I met couldn’t see a future for themselves in Russia, they dreamed of moving away.

I travelled to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, in the south of Russia, and there I met Alika. We met after she finished work and walked around the park at night until 3am. She only spoke Russian, and mine was not so good, but I immediately liked her, and I started to film her and her friends. My first meetings with Alyona and Katya also happened by chance. It is as if life offers these encounters when you are open to what happens to you and you meet it with curiosity. I immediately felt a special attraction to them and wanted to know them better and understand their motives for leaving Russia. The film is a way for me to understand the Russian youth I met when I was younger. At the same time, I am very moved by the communities they are part of and how they support each other and live their lives though the resistance.

I think it is wrong to perceive Russia as “far away” or something we shouldn’t relate to in Europe. I am always surprised how little Europeans know about Russia. It is our neighbor and Russians are not different from us

This is a question that gets asked of every documentary filmmaker, but it seems particularly relevant in the case of your film: how did you establish the intimacy necessary for this kind of shooting? We are right there with these girls and their partners during personal and political crises, often at very close quarters, but the film never feels manipulative or staged. 

I filmed the film on my own and with a small camera. We also spent a lot of time together when we were not filming, and I enjoyed being in their company. Our relationship during the process of filming evolved into a special friendship, which I think both for me and for them was necessary in the difficult circumstances and surroundings we were filming in. Sometimes, we shared uncomfortable situations together with the police. Especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I started feeling the same uncertainty as they had been feeling for a longer time, and it made us even closer.

 

I wondered whether you could describe your approach to shooting interiors and exteriors. There is a real contrast between the close, sometimes claustrophobic footage from bedrooms, taxi cabs, and clubs, and the open, often empty cityscapes. I was also struck by the choice to depict Russia (and Georgia) through interstitial or transitory spaces – bus stops, courtyards, petrol stations, and so on – and to use so much footage from dusk or nighttime. 

Home is where you feel safe, where you can talk about politics and be together with the people you love and trust. All my material just happened to be from the nighttime because that was when “life” happened. The night is the time of dreams and imagination, when you can escape your own reality. Later I also worked with the tension of the space: curtains that keep the lights out, the darkness enclosing the characters as an image of the claustrophobic feeling they experienced. Inside, hiding away from the society, [which is] depicted as the streets where you cannot feel safe, open deserted landscapes without people, maybe a police car driving in the distance. This is very much how I experienced these women’s lives and their perception of the contrast between “the state” and private life.

Silent Sun of Russia (dir. Sybilla Tuxen, 2023)

As someone who is neither Russian nor Georgian, how did you relate to the question of migration between the two countries, which becomes more and more fraught as the film progresses? Do you think the film has something to say to a “western” European audience who might not understand the complexities involved, for instance, for young people trying to move between Russia and Spain, as happens with Alyona?  

I didn’t make the film to explain the situations in Russia and Georgia to a European audience. Early on, we decided not to explain everything, but rather to depict the feelings and ambivalence that the young Russians experience through intimate scenery and with the political change as a backdrop. I think it is wrong to perceive Russia as “far away” or something we shouldn’t relate to in Europe. I am always surprised how little Europeans know about Russia. It is our neighbor and Russians are not different from us. Georgia was granted EU candidate status in December 2023. This is our reality too. If you as a European audience can relate to the young people in the film and recognise some of the feelings and complexities they are going through, there is a hope that we can stand together against Putin’s Russia in the future.

 

As the film progressed, I felt it became more and more an exploration of the question of agency: what can these young women do in this situation, and what should they do? And will that ever be enough? Did the experience of making the film change the terms of those questions for you?

The question of responsibility and guilt was something we discussed a lot during the editing of the film. The biggest part of the Russian population either believes in Putin’s propaganda or doesn’t care about politics because it is much easier and safer not to take a position. As long as the war is still going on, you can only ask the question: are you doing enough? And we should do that in Europe too. Europe’s two-sided activities are not questioned by the public. Europe gives money and artillery to Ukraine and at the same time Europe buys oil and gas from Putin and sends billions to Russia every year so that Putin can continue the war.

I hope that the film can help create a greater understanding of the conditions under which the younger generations in Russia have grown up. They are the first post-Soviet generations who can change Russia, but for the past several years fear and hopelessness have destroyed the fledging hopes and dreams of a future in freedom.

Watch Silent Sun of Russia on Klassiki from 18 January – 8 February as part of our partnership with Trieste Film Festival.