The Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky became widely known with his film Belovy (“The Belows,” Russia 1993) which won numerous prizes and is considered one of the most important documentaries of the 90s. In his film Sreda (“Wednesday,” Germany/Great Britain 1997) he searches for all the people in St. Petersburg who were born on the same day as him (Wednesday, June 19, 1961) and constructs a rich and vivid portrait of everyday life in the Russian City. Sreda was produced by Viola Stephan Filmproduktion, Berlin, and Jane Balfour Films, London, with contributions (among others) from ZDF/Arte, the BBC and the Baltic Media Centre. (see also review and festival update in DOX # 11, June 1997).
DOX: According to your research,101 people were born in Leningrad on Wednesday , July 19, 1961. 70 of them live still in St. Petersburg and 60 appear in your film. How did you find all these people who were born on the same day as you?
Kossakovsky: I thought it would be easy to find everybody through the hospitals but for same strange reason many hospitals only keep birth records for 25 years. So I had to write letters to 500 towns and city districts in Russia to track the names and then afterwards it took one year, and in some cases four years to find the people.With women it was extremely difficult because they change names! In St.Petersburg it was evident that many had been born in the centre of the city, but later had moved to the outskirts.
What kind of agreement did you make with the participants ?
First of all they had to agree to be filmed. I invited everybody to the editing room to see the material. There is a lot of very strong material that I decided not to use. I could have used such material in a feature film, but not in a documentary because here you deal with real people.
Was it easy to to concince them to take part in the film?
You know, I got very close to everyone – maybe because we were born on the same day. At the first contact I just told them I wanted to hear how they were.Many said no, but I gave them my telephone number and after a week or a month they called back and said OK. A week ago I showed the film to all of them and their families. It was a big day for me and they liked it. “There will always be a bed for you at my place,” they said.
What do all these people, who were born in the sign of Cancer, have in common?
I don’t really know. Maybe that they tend to say, “not today, tomorrow.” You know that when I was born there was a big questionnaire in the newspaper for young people aged 18. They were asked to list the ten most important things in life. 10.000 had answered and the most common answer was, “I like the Communist Party. I like Russia. I want to be good comrade” and so on. And later on in the month where I was born, Nikita Khrushchev declared that the newborn of this year would be good communists in 18 years. I never touched on this issue as I didn’t want to have politics or that kind of history in the film.
Before filming, did you have any idea of the structure of the film?
My inspiration was a painting by Brueghel with a hundred people in one picture, where everyone is doing what he wants to do. In film there is the element of time, which makes it different from painting, but the principle is the same: everyone is on his own. The cinema for me is the transformation of emotions during the narration. In the editing process I sometimes had several films in my mind. One for you, one for me and one for somebody else. So, I had to find one very important driving point, and I chose the child who is not yet born. He is still inside his mother and everyone around him has opinions about whether he should be born or not. When the child was about to be delivered, I cut from the screaming mother to white, because that was what it was like: for four hours we did not know if the child would be born. I stopped the camera.
How did you find the money to finance so big a documentary in Russia?
It is due to Viola Stephan,my producer, that the film was made.She did it. It was totally impossible in Russia, because they really have no money. The Russian funding covered only 10% of the budget. How important is money for documentary films? Everyone says that there is not enough money. I don’t think so. I think the problem is a lack of ideas. If you have a really good idea, you will find the money. He who has money waits for ideas…
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).