Picture of a Revolution

Project: Russian Avant-Garde: A Romance with the Revolution...
October 1, 1999

Project: Russian Avant-Garde: A Romance with the Revolution

Description: The 1 x 52-minute film explores how the destiny of three of the Russian avant-garde’s greatest artists (Malevich, Filonov and Tatlin), and that of the critic who supported them (Punin), reflects the destiny of the Russian people at the turn of the century.

Executive Producer: Sonja Vesterholt, Vesterholt Film & TV

Director: Alexander Krivonos

Coproducers: Quadrat Film (Russia), Cobra Films (Belgium), Danmarks Radio TV, Danish Film Institute, RTBF (Belgium), AVRO (Holland), YLE (Finland), NRK (Norway), SVT (Sweden), MEDIA.

Budget: Euro 140,000 (US$148,000)

At the time of the Russian revolution, the ideal of an egalitarian utopia inspired countless working class souls – including artists – to dedicate their talents to the cause. Such high profile figures of the avant-garde movement as Kasimir Malevich, Pavel Filonov, Vladimir Tatlin and Nikolai Punin embraced the revolution wholeheartedly, only to later suffer the same disillusionment that would plague generations to come.

Punin, an art scholar and critic, was devoted to the cause. In recalling the early days of the revolution, he reportedly said, ‘During the first morning after the revolution, I dropped into an absolutely empty Winter Palace to the Commissar Lunacharsky and offered my collaboration. He warned that the revolution would not last more than two weeks and then all of them would be `hanged from the balconies.’ But I was quite resolute to answer him, [saying] `All right, let them hang us together.”

The artists believed that the socialist revolution coincided with a revolution in art, and wished to bring their works to the ‘masses.’ But their ideas were hardly appreciated at the time. According to one story, when Malevich led an excursion of workers around the first exhibition of Russian avant-garde art in 1923, they responded by yawning and blowing their noses.

By the 1930s, the ideas of the avant-garde were considered counter-revolutionary, and the former artistic icons became outcasts. Their demise was symbolic of the revolution’s aftermath: Punin’s expulsion to the Gulag in Siberia; Malevich’s grotesque funeral; Filonov and Tatlin, hidden away and left to wilt in obscurity. For the next 50 years, their paintings were put in storage in state museums and prohibited from public viewing.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, director Alexander Krivonos and producer Sonja Vesterholt wished to tell the story of these artists. To accomplish this, they had to convince a raft of international partners to contribute to the filmmaking process. The end result is Russian Avant-Garde: A Romance with the Revolution.

Summer 1997: Director Alexander Krivonos pitches his idea for a film about the Russian avant-garde artists at Denmark’s annual Balticum Film & TV Festival, and catches the attention of Tue Steen M-ller, director of the European Documentary Network. M-ller encourages Krivonos to contact producer Sonja Vesterholt, who immediately takes to the idea.

‘As a Russian living in Denmark, I have always felt as though one of my abilities is that of a bridge builder between East and West. Having lived on both sides, I have gained a greater understanding of both worlds, not to mention the expectations of audiences in both,’ Vesterholt says.

The producer had met Krivonos at the Balticum festival in 1995, after seeing his ‘poetic’ short film Hold the Line, Please. ‘It was here that I realized the great potential in him and his wonderful cinematographer, Sergey Dubrovsky,’ she says.

Karolina Lidin of the Danish Film Institute is the first to get on board and provide development funds (around 10% of the budget). The Russian Museum cooperates from the beginning (and throughout), providing key resources, including hundreds of pictures. The Danish Ministry of Education also pledges support, amounting to about 5% of the budget.

November 1997: Vesterholt arrives at the Amsterdam Forum to pitch Russian Avant-Garde. ‘I was nervous about the response I would get as an unknown producer, with an unknown director, pitching a film about some Russian artists,’ she says.

The idea generates little initial interest amongst commissioning editors, until Vesterholt gets the chance to make her case at the table. ‘I reinvented the pitch, adding some elements that I wasn’t completely sure about, [making] educated guesses about the available archive footage, which, fortunately, proved to be true.’

Danmarks Radio TV is the first to offer their support to the project, contributing about 15% of the budget. ‘Sometimes you have to go into projects that might be heavy,’ says commissioning editor Flemming Grenz. ‘We knew Sonja as a producer who we do believe in, and when she told us she could take care of it for us – with an unknown director – we said `okay.”

RTBF Belgium (the RTBF slot, Carré Noir, was inspired by the ‘black square’ painted by Malevich), Dutch pubcaster AVRO and Cobra Films (Vesterholt’s link to RTBF) follow, adding about 10% each.

March 1998: Vesterholt applies for funding from the European Media Development Agency in London.

June 1998: The media loan comes through for a further 10% of the budget and Vesterholt receives letters of intent from SVT (Sweden), YLE (Finland) and NRK (Norway), for about 5% each.

July 1998: Krivonos returns to Denmark for the 1998 Balticum Festival, and meets with Vesterholt to discuss the film’s structure. In the producer’s opinion, the greatest challenge is to turn the film into a human story with sound dramatic composition.

They enlist the help of Mogens Rukov, a screenwriter and head of screenwriting at the National Film School, who helps them find the structure of the film. With Rukov’s assistance, Krivonos settles on the thread that will run throughout the film – Punin, the critic who supported and defended the avant-garde movement and the artists.

‘We wanted the film to appeal to everyone, from art experts to people who knew nothing about art, the avant-garde, Russia, etc. The film had to inform and entertain,’ Vesterholt explains, adding, ‘It was important [for us] to preserve the tradition of Russian metaphor and visuality while maintaining the structure of a western documentary.’

October 1998: After researching various aspects of the film, a production crew starts filming. The first location is the Gulag where Punin spent the last years of his life. If the crew is unable to get the necessary footage now, filming at the Gulag will have to wait until the late spring of 1999, due to the harsh winter in the Arctic Circle. But the weather gods are on side and they manage to capture some amazingly beautiful footage.

‘Like the weather, most things in Russia are unpredictable,’ says Vesterholt. ‘One thing is agreed today and another thing happens tomorrow. While our agreement with the Russian Museum was in place from the beginning – with the invaluable help of museum director Vladimir Gusev – we needed several other agreements regarding archive footage. We never could be sure what could happen.’

November 1998: The production crew attends an exhibition in Hamburg of Russian avant-garde art, to get shots of some of the paintings.

December 1998: Financial support is received through MEDIA Program Assistance, in the form of a distribution loan (less than 10%).

February 1999: The first editing takes place in St. Petersburg. Vesterholt and Krivonos work together to maintain the structural elements that had been laid out with Rukov’s help. ‘Throughout this process I once again found myself acting as a kind of bridge builder between the artistic imagery of Russia and the documentary style of the West,’ Vesterholt says.

March 1999: They finally succeed in gaining access to the film archives, and are also able to retrieve paintings from storage rooms in the museum’s cellar. They hang the paintings on the walls to re-create the first and last Filonov exhibition at the end of the avant-garde epoch. It takes place at night with the help of museum staff, so as not to disturb the daily exhibitions.

In 1929, Filonov’s works were exhibited under a storm of controversy. As a result of the dictatorship’s changing attitude towards the avant-garde movement, the paintings were hung but the exhibition was never opened. They remained on the walls, unseen by the public, for two years.

May 1999: DRTV provides the facilities to do the English-language version, which is intended for international distribution. The broadcaster also absorbs the cost of a Danish-language voice-over, for the version DRTV will air.

June 1999: Russian Avant-Garde premieres at the Balticum Film & TV Festival.

October 1999: DRTV International represents Russian Avant-Garde: A Romance with the Revolution at MIPCOM.

About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).