Russia from the rails

Russia from the rails

This year’s Cinetrain project sees international filmmakers traveling the country in search of stereotypes.

Published: January 16, 2013 (Issue # 1742)

The groundbreaking documentary project Cinetrain visited St. Petersburg this weekend on its drive to break stereotypes and capture Russian reality.

The Cinetrain project sees foreign film crews travel around Russia for one month, stopping in cities for two or three days at a time and ending up at Lake Baikal in Siberia. On the four-day train journey back from Baikal, the crews will edit their short films, which will then be given pre-premiere screenings in Moscow on Feb. 6. Later, the films will be edited into one full-length movie and shown at international festivals.

“This year we decided to explore stereotypes about Russia,” said Tatyana Petrik, the project’s executive producer.

“Our country suffers from a bad image abroad: Bears on the streets, vodka… So we took the most common stereotypes and are exploring them while we travel on the following route: Murmansk, St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Kotlas, Tomsk and Irkutsk (Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal). We want to unite the short films into a full-length documentary called ‘Russian Winter,’” she added.

Seven film crews are working on the following stereotypes, titled: Vodka, Bears, Lada Mystery, Russian Women, Russian Winter, Russian Bath (banya) and Russian Soul. The crews took a train to Murmansk on Jan. 3 and will return to Moscow from Baikal on Feb. 1.

“It is a challenge, to be able to focus and shoot on location with such limited time,” said Petrik. “We can’t really prepare anything until we arrive in the new city. You’ve got to run about, search for your characters, film them, think about your concept and edit. But on the other hand this is what makes our project so unique — the tight schedule brings out the liveliness, the moment right here and right now.”

This year, 24 young filmmakers from 15 countries were selected to take part.

“After we had chosen our participants, we formed them into film crews based on their personal qualities and characters,” said Petrik.

“We sent them information and links to literature and films to learn more about their topic, because it is impossible to have a foreigner land in Russia for the first time and next day shoot a good-quality documentary,” she added.

“This was a great opportunity for me; I have never been to Russia, never shot in these kinds of cold conditions, and have never really shot in snow,” said John Craine, director of photography for the Russian Soul film crew.

“The Russian soul is mostly seen as a Dostoevsky-type, but really that is idealistic in a way. Talking to some of the guys on the Cinetrain crew, I realize it is not entirely true,” he said.

“It’s difficult to film people when you don’t know what people are saying, because when you know, you can respond with the camera in a certain way,” he added.

To prove the stereotypes wrong is not the key idea. The filmmakers simply want to shoot their own view on the topic.

“When you start looking more closely at something simple, it is not simple anymore; it’s the same with stereotypes, you start exploring them and they are no longer there,” said Fyodor Druzin, director of the Russian Bath film.

“My topic, the Russian bath, isn’t so much a stereotype, it’s just an image that lots of people have seen. Russian men and women run naked in the snow, and it adds to the image of the crazy and wild Russia. I want to show what the banya is, what it means, why people go there really. It is very important for me to show the atmosphere of the banya,” he added.

St. Petersburg, the filmmakers’ second location after Murmansk, seemed much more European to the Cinetrain participants, they said, citing different styles of dress and architecture and a different atmosphere.

The history of the legendary Cinetrain project goes back to Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin. In the 1930s he organized filmmaking train cars that traveled around the Soviet Union. Film crews not only shot and edited straight away, but also screened their movies on the spot to the people who took part in them.

“In 2008 we did the first Cinetrain using modern equipment: Small but high-quality cameras, and editing on computers,” said Petrik.

“We took the Trans-Siberian Railway and traveled from Moscow to Vladivostok and back. We had six international film crews, who each shot a 10-minute film about finding the border between Europe and Asia. There were no specific topics assigned, they all filmed what they wanted. We just wanted to see how it would work out. Our project premiered at the Cannes Film Festival,” she said.

The success of the pilot revival led to a second journey in 2010, as well as this year’s project. Each time, the Cinetrain explores and documents different regions of the former Soviet Union.

“The second time, in 2010, we went from Bishkek to Moscow, traveling through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia,” said Petrik.

“We explored the idea of these countries and people living as neighbors.”

The results of this year’s Cinetrain project will be screened on Feb. 6 at the DOC Documentary Film Center in Moscow. For more information, visit

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