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Conversation with Ralph Fiennes, Oleg Ivenko and Gabrielle Tana about the film The White Crow

‘I just want you to know that we made this film thanks to Belgrade. We would not have been able to shoot it without the wonderful producers from the Work in Progress Production Company and their support. This film is very difficult to shoot, and this city, the government, and many other people gave us an incredible support without which there would be no film. So, if you did not know, your country has the extraordinary capacity to support and help the international film industry, and I am deeply grateful for that’.    

‘Since the first time I felt very pleasant and welcome in Belgrade, so it got under my skin and I am very happy to be here’, Fiennes said at the very beginning of the conference, and then talked with the media representatives about his new film, The White Crow.

What drew you to this story?

I was too young to see Nureyev live, but I came across this story when I got a few chapters of his biography. The few years that preceded his defection were in the early chapters. I was fascinated by the spirit of this young man and his iron will to become an artist at the time of Cold War, the conflict of Eastern and Western Europe. This young man in the centre of the story was carrying so many topics and ideas about artistic expression, ideological conflicts, so this is what drew me to this story.

Is the character that you interpret in the film authentic? It is a man who deeply understands art, has the nobility and knows how to give support to his students. Do we have people who relate to art and artists in the same manner today?

I think that is an excellent question. The essence of the question is this - what is the value we place on discipline such as ballet, music, acting? For me, Pushkin is someone who deeply understands the importance of pure artistic expression and the discipline that goes with it. He has a very pure spirit. I believe people who are fully dedicated to art, that foster artistic skills, are very rare. Nureyev had an instinct, he quickly realized that only Pushkin could teach him because Pushkin is a rare spirit. I believe that such people still exist.

One of the most important questions in the film is the question of freedom, in artistic and political terms. Nureyev found freedom by defection. Where are we today when it comes to freedom?

We could have a long conversation over a beer about this topic. I was born in the West, in England. I was only able to read about life in the Soviet Union and that ideology. I do not live in that kind of oppression. I can find a lot of reasons for criticism if I want to, but I am free to stand in the street and say what I want, or to express my opinion in the book. This world Nureyev left was horribly cruel when it comes to the oppression of individuals, and individual expression. But for this film, it was important to present the Soviet world in which this young man was nurtured and taken care of, nurtured by people like Pushkin. A very important scene for me is when he goes to visit his friends, two sisters. They are still alive and one of them told me: "I never felt oppressed when I was a young student, I felt free." This is very important. Even though there was control carried out by the KGB, there was a network of human kindness and tolerance. I wanted to present all the scenes in Leningrad in a slightly richer color palette. I wanted to point out that it was a world that had color, although our experience of the Soviet world is mostly black and white. This everyday life was full of joy, hospitality and celebration despite all the negative things.

Your character does not have the need for freedom neither in professional nor in private life. We see a man reconciled to fate, he does not seem to have the courage to take a look at his marital life, or the society he lives in.

You might say that he lacks courage, but I instinctively feel that he has created a life around his work, and that is enough for him. His character touched me deeply. The people I met to whom he was a professor regarded him as a very special, unique man. We could criticise him, of course, but I find this dedication to work that keeps him going very touching. I would not call him a weak person.

Is there much less essential freedom today and do people have much less need for freedom?

I think this question would require an answer too long. It depends on the countries we are talking about. In some countries there is control, and in others, people are free. However, I think that there is a change in perception of what freedom is, even liberal societies have a low tolerance for things they consider wrong. I think that true freedom should be sought within oneself, one should not rely on the system. Some of the greatest poets and artists were oppressed and had to survive relying on inner freedom.   

Your roles came from top literature, and your directing seems to emerge from poetry. How important was the inclination towards literature in your career?

My mother is a writer and she would encourage us to read when we were little. My earliest memories of childhood are when parents read to us. I definitely got into acting through love for Shakespeare and theatre. Reading is my favorite activity when I am not shooting a film or preparing for a play.

In the film you speak Russian. If you choose to dedicate your next film to an Iranian artist, would you master Persian?

(In Russian) My God, I do not know.

One line from your film says that behind each top artist there is a story he or she wants to tell. What kind of story do you want to tell through your films?

I suppose everyone wants to say something with the film they make, but one often does not know what it is exactly. That is the truth you have to say. I do not think you should make a film if you do not have something important to say because it is very hard to make films. I have got to have a strong feeling that drives me to direct something. It is hard to do it if you do not have that inner feeling.

A question for Oleg, what did the whole creative process look like, and how satisfied are you with the collaboration with Mr Fiennes?

Oleg: I am very pleased. It was a wonderful experience, especially with Mr Fiennes. He worked with us all, explained to us how we should deliver our performances, inspired us and helped us move in the right direction. For me, this work was exciting, it was my first film experiment, it was difficult, but on the other hand I was not afraid because Mr Fiennes was there to teach me everything when it came to acting.

How do you see this relationship between political pressures, personal and artistic freedoms, and do you think the character you interpret is born again when the plane lands at a Paris airport?

Oleg: We wanted to show a young dancer who wants to dance and I presume that at that time it was very difficult to dance the way he did. I think it would be much easier for him today because the world changed, it moves forward, and at that time he was so far ahead in comparison to others, he had the need to say, ‘Look at me, see what I can do!’

With Mr Fiennes, you go from project to project. What kind of understanding connects you, do you share the same views when it comes to filmmaking, the search for the same stories, the truths?

Gabrielle Tana, film producer: I feel like we are soul mates. I think we have the same values, so we have made a wonderful creative partnership


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