Home > articoli > A conversation with Ksenia Okhapkina, director of the russian documentary Immortal
During the PÖFF fest in Tallin, this year, in the Baltic Film Competition I had the chance to watch Immortal, the team of the festival helped me to do this wonderful interview with the Young director Ksenia Okhapkina.
First me: “ Thank you so much Ksenia for you wonderful movie. I’m Ginevra Gadioli from Italy. I’ve been living 3 years in Estonia and spent 1 year between Kaliningrad and Moscow and Trans Siberian trains. I’ve studied European and Russian studies bringing with me the passion of art and in particular of cinema, that’s why the best expression of art-knowledge are for me documentaries. I’m organizing an indie- festival in Verona at the moment about documentary: Bridge Film Festival. I’m impressed by your movie and honored to have the opportunity for a written interview with you.”
She answerd:
“Dear Ginevra, thank you for the deep conversation! It’s such a pleasure to get so sincere and thoughtful reflections! Hope to meet you one day!
Let’s start with the title: “Immortal”. I have the impression that in this movie the adjective Immortal has two meanings: an explicit one about the Soviet Heritage which survives everything even the fall of the Soviet Union itself, and one implicit through the explanation of the boys while talking about that particular Jellyfish … the fact that this animal get old and then regress …? How do you explain the choice of the title?
The film is very decided and its structure is intellectual as well as the title. On the other hand this is an observational film and when I was devising its structure, I was looking for some suitable key to the reality, which we observed. It’s impossible to make the film without the keys, sometimes they don’t survive the reality. The key «Immortal» appeared after the very first expedition and surprisingly survived the whole project. From the very first footage I got the feeling that the events we observed exist in a logic of a myth, some idea of life, in which people strongly believe. This idea should be strong enough to make people ignore the real circumstances, which take them away from everything, including the life itself. Nevertheless people continue taking part in some strange activities, which looked like dancing at the edge of the abyss for me. I got the question: «Why do the people live like they were immortal?» It started like the game of words and then I’ve found out that the concept of immortality actually makes sense and helps to explain quite a lot of events, looking weird and random from the first glance. For me this dialogue about «immortal jellyfish» tells that my characters actually understand what happens around them and look for the way to live a long and happy life like the jellyfish. The only thing is that this jellyfish has to fall apart to continue living and in the new jellyfish, live forever. We can say that it is Immortal only when we devaluate its unique integrity (personality). If we talk about the jellyfish as a unique object in time and space, then we can say that it actually dies: it stops existing as integrity (a person), when it falls apart. If you devaluate the idea of personality and treat somebody as the material substance, mechanically acting like a soldier or the worker, or the mother, producing the new material substances, then it stops being important, which person is taking part in this process. This process can deal with immortality if there is no personality in it.
You managed to create a truly sci-fi situation, Blade Runner style, only that instead of rain there is a lot of snow, but in this village with dull, opaque and monochromatic colors there are many interferences.. I saw the presence of two yellow paintings of suns (one in the dancing class and another one at the bus stop) giving a taste of hope and then there is the amazing apparition of the yellow and desolate tree (of life?) surrounded by beehives of houses without identity. What do these elements represent for you?
Actually, the Blade Runner wasn’t in our reference. We were thinking more about the cosmos than about post-apocalypse. This association appears very naturally, when you see huge metal constructions in the moon-like landscape. We were treating the trains and buses, which run through the town and the factory as a cosmic shuttles in the open space. In this situation, our characters are definitely cosmonauts, hiding their faces into the deep hoods from the unbearable cold of the open space. In this cosmic polar night people definitely miss the sunshine, its warmth and light. In Apatity you can often meet the painted sun on the walls, all kind of electric lighting of the acid colors and «trees of life» made of metal and plastic, shining from the inside. You can see such trees in many northern countries. This aim to paint the dark reality is understandable since the people can’t see the sun for half a year at all. When some light comes through the clouds, everything looks grey and faceless and even more depressive than at night at least coloured with electric lights. That was one of the reasons why we decided to film during the polar night. It is a very interesting process of colouring the reality, which you can’t really change. Another layer is that together with making a labour camps there was an idea to make a blooming garden on the far north. These electric trees is the only thing left from this dream. A cheap and artificial substitute for the promised paradise.
I find very important the work that countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and others are doing in order to don’t forget what has been and what is still is Russia, a country still attached to the concept of imperialism. Did you not fear the choice to collaborate with countries that have been not always politically in line with Russian politics, or as a Russian young woman to make a film that is openly a criticism of the concept of Soviet nostalgia- ностальгия ? Who supported you and why they considered it important?
I already made two films with my Estonian producer Riho Vastrik. In Estonia, I’ve found colleagues with whom we share the same views on cinema and a friendly environment without the censorship. I can say that particularly our team unites the art. In this sense my gender is not really important as far as we do the art. I think for my Baltic colleagues,it was interesting to explore this topic as well, since there are very interesting processes in ex-USSR countries, which try to do their best in getting rid of the Soviet heritage. The countries you named aim to build their independency on the national idea. The USSR was a multinational country. The official position was that the Soviet system is equating all nations, yet all the national cultures were just equally repressed including the Russian culture. Instead of the national culture some artificial construction was suggested, which we tried to explore a little in the film. I think that the huge work was done during the last 30 years in the countries you named. I know that the new generation in Estonia and Latvia is totally non-Soviet, yet they are still being frightened by aggressive Russians behind the border, as well as in Russia, the young people who are frightened by aggressive NATO people. That’s the same process of closing the borders of the community and uniting people around the figure of the enemy outside which was in the USSR and which unfortunately continues in the ex-Soviet countries, which do so much to get rid of the Soviet heritage. I think that there’s still a need to analyse what really happened in the USSR.
Is it Moscow, Vladivostok, Apatity like talking about cities that are not even in the same country, or in your view the now a days propaganda widespread throughout the country with the same strength? Why do you think that in this historical period the need to come back to a reassuring and glorious past has increased? How do you see the future of the young Russian generations?
Russia is very different in different regions, mostly because of the local traditional cultures, where they are sustained in the Soviet regime. Though, if we talk about the propaganda, then it’s good to mention that people in Moscow, Vladivostok and Apatity watch same Russian TV channels, transmitting the same propagandistic ideas. The Young Army appeared in Apatity while we were filming there. It has started from the small towns at the local patriotic clubs and then came to the bigger towns. When we were finalising the project the Young Army with all its activities, which we showed in the film already came to St.Petersburg schools. I think that the same processes happens all over Russia. Actually I could make such film in St. Petersburg or Moscow as well – the industrial districts look very common. The nostalgia for the USSR is a common thing as well. The situation is just more vivid in Apatity – in the place where there was no settlement before the USSR. The Soviet Union was quite a safe place for the people who followed the rules: mainstream ideology and the Soviet way of living. Repression for the people who didn’t follow the rules in any way were on the opposite side. I think that nostalgia is possible because the victims of repression and the reasons for such repression are not publicly named and are not considered to be a crime. The people who organised this repression like Stalin are still national heroes. I think that this is the main thing which slows down the development of the civil society in Russia. I can’t make any global conclusions regarding the fates of the new generations. I don’t have the receipt of happiness. I just think that if the people had chance to breath out a little and realise that they live only once and they have a real power and right to change things, instead of thinking about how to survive inside suggested circumstances, they would really make a positive change.
In one of yours’ video interview you said something like: “We adapt ourself to the environment where we live in order to survive, it’s our instinct” , I come from a really controverse country, Italy, it’s impossible of course to compare it with Russia but during time I found so many similarities. I come up with the idea that people are not acting or adapting in order to survive but just as a consequence of “following the leader”, who has the strongest power. I reckon that in some countries, like Russia, Italy, China and others, a strong political power is necessary, it seems that people get almost lost without a strong leader. What do you think will be Russia without a strong political leader? How could be the situation in those cities, far from the decision making context?
I think that the social relations in the countries like Italy and Russia is based on patriarchic mentality. You know that in Russia and Italy there has never been a female leader… The vertical structure with a so- called strong leader, representing the strongest male creature on top of this pyramid is based on feeling of belonging. And aiming to belong to the community, protected by the strongest male creature, who is able to suggest some manifest to unite the people under his protection is based on the survival instinct. What the leaders really do is protecting people from themselves, since they don’t take part in the everyday life of the people on practice. That is why they do their best to draw the attention to their existence in any ways, creating a virtual figure of the protecting father in the public opinion. This is kind of a substitute for the real values, which can effectively unite people, an easy way to «keep the order» without working on opening the personal creative potential of the people, rising the level of understanding of the life around and responsibility for it. It is much easier of course to have «a strong leader», somebody who suggests the receipt of happiness and the figure of the enemy beside the border, instead of being responsible for their own life and respectful to the world around them.
I’m such a great sustainer of independent organizations, movie makers and festivals, how is the situation in Russia at the moment among the independent production of movies? How is the situation actually for women willing to create and develop their on art and research?
There are some nice independent film productions in Russia, yet they have lost quite a lot of opportunities during the last years. A few years ago it was possible to make projects in coproduction, sometimes The Ministry of Culture supported some really independent initiatives. Now the borders are getting more closed and the rules are becoming more strict. It is much easier with fiction films because fiction can stay a little outside the painful topics, which can’t be said about the documentary. In Russia, the only source of financing a documentary is The Ministry of Culture now. There were some private funds, which stopped supporting documentary. There was a coproduction, which is quite problematic to do now because of the repressive law about foreign agents, and there are no legal ways to raise the private money. So, the independent companies are getting really locked on The Ministry of Culture, which is a state institution. There are a lot of women in art in Russia since it’s a very unsafe and low paid profession and every project, which happens to survive, is a real wonder and a product of bringing to life something impossible. To be an artist you need to be subtle, but to make at least some product in Russia, you need to be a fighter. Now mostly women take the risk of making such things happen in Russia.
Baltic Film Competition


Historical, Documentary, Social Issues
Director: Ksenia Okhapkina
Country: Estonia, Latvia
Year: 2019
Film duration: 01:01
Language: Russian
Producer: Riho Västrik
Screenwriter: Ksenia Okhapkina
DoP: Aleksandr Demyanenko, Artem Ignatov, Ksenia Okhapkina
Editor: Stijn Deconinck, Ksenia Okhapkina
Music: Robert Jürjendal, Arian Levin
Production: Vesilind OÜ