An Interview with Oscar hopeful Karen Shakhnazarov from Russia
BY DAVID DAVIN
The Russian Director discusses his new film, Ward No. 6, about Russian vs. American Society and what he might say if he were to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Russian director Karen Shakhnazarov has made a number of films, but as he told me recently, none have resonated quite as much with him as his latest, Ward No. 6. The film is based on the ubiquitous short story of the same name by Russian writer Anton Chekov. The story centers on Dr. Ragin who is the Director of a psychiatric ward in a small Russian town. He is later committed as a patient to the ward after he begins having lengthy philosophical conversations with one of the ward’s residents. Shakhnazarov has chosen to shoot Chekov’s film in modern times, in a faux-documentary style that increases its realism and immediacy.
The picture is this year’s official entry for the Academy Awards on behalf of Russia. I sat down and spoke with Mr. Shakhnazarov recently at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel where I first discovered the director outside enjoying a smoke, sans coat or sleeves. We talked about his latest film, about Russian society, and about what he might say if he were to win an Oscar.
DD: You’ve worked with Vladimir IIyin, who plays Dr. Ragin, the main character in this film, before, is that correct?
Yes, I’ve worked with him in two films. But he played smaller parts.
DD: Why did you choose to center this film around him for this project?
Before this, I did the film “Vanished Empire” and he had a small part in that, I worked with him, and suddenly I think – in fact, this is the reason I think I returned to this script which I originally wrote in 1988 – because I think suddenly, ‘this is Dr. Ragin.’ He’s so good, he’s just – he’s very good. He is the reason I thought to return to this. And after I saw him, I didn’t audition anyone else, I just knew it was him, I knew I had my Dr. Ragin.
DD: What was one of the things that surprised you during the making of this film?
The most unexpected thing was I suddenly started to realize how Chekov was so brilliant. I found that a lot of people really appreciated what I had made – what Chekov had made, really. I think that Dostoevsky is very religious but Chekov is not considered to be so much, for example. They are very different in that way. Dostoevsky wrote a hundred pages about faith and believing but Chekov never did this. But I believe Chekov is very religious – it is obviously more subtle, but he is very religious.
DD: Is this what attracts you to Chekov as opposed to someone who is perhaps more ubiquitous like Dostoevsky?
Yes. Chekov is very simple, like me. He’s very sharp too. He’s very contemporary and timeless. What others say in two hundred pages, Chekov says in two pages. He’s very popular now [in Russia]; more popular than ever. Even in America, he is popular, I went to a bookstore in New York recently, and what was the first book [on display]? Ward No. 6.
DD: Were you happy with the response in Russia?
Yes, very much so. Certainly it was an art-house film, but the amount people related to the film took me by surprise.
DD: In the film there’s a lot of talk about the town – how small it is, how there’s not a lot of intelligent people to talk to. Do you think this is indicative of Russia only, or is there a larger theme you’re exploring about humanity in general?
That’s a main theme of Russian Life. Because in Russia there is [a] Capital and [a] Province. In America, Capitals are smaller, but in Russia, Capitals are a whole other world. In provinces – they live a life completely separate from those in the Capital’s in Russia. But everywhere there is this struggle; this search for answers in our little worlds.
DD: Did you relate to the main character, Dr Ragin?
Do you mean: am I him? No.
DD: Well, do you see any aspect of yourself in Dr. Ragin?
Well, yes, I think you can in anybody. In one aspect, he is very curious about his nature – like anyone. But in another, he does many despicable things and I do not relate to that. He does a lot of awful things. But, yes, for many people they only see bad or good things. But in life there is so much in between. Chekov saw that.
DD: Any idea what you would say, if you win the Oscar for this film?
I just hope people see the film; the rest does not matter to me.