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Guilty consciences and a state of political denial in the West greeted Régis Wargnier’s remarkably accurate portrayal of the horrors of post war Russia’s handling of returning emigrees in East West, the story of a family caught in the barbed wire of Communism. From France, Wargnier talks to ANDREW L. URBAN.

French film director Régis Wargnier speaks English fluently and Russian rustily, he explains. But he tried. He wanted to learn to speak to his Russian crew in their native tongue during the filming of his latest drama, the deeply moving, powerful (not to mention historically & politically important) story of naïve Russian émigrés returning home after the war, in East West. But language was the easiest part of a tough job.

"There was no shortage of difficulties"

"I thought: ‘The Russians will come to us, I must also go toward them’," he says. "But the Ukraine is a difficult country to live in, an economically gaunt country that is drifting into a Mafia state. In addition to this, the Ukrainians' relationship with existence is very different from ours. There is something fatalistic and resigned about it. For the studio sets, I would have liked to shoot in Prague but, for budgetary reasons, we had to shoot in Sofia, where the working conditions are decent but daily life is difficult. I found a very harsh mentality there. The crew members we worked with were rather guarded and somewhat wary of us. Hope came from our interpreters who were college students in their twenties and in love with our culture. They were delighted to work with us but were quickly denounced by Bulgarian crew members, as being pro-French. As you can see, there was no shortage of difficulties."

Holidaying at a friend’s house in Brittany (before going on to Corsica) on the eve of the film’s Australian release, Wargnier now talks of making East West as a memory, although its impact continues to reverberate. Although the film’s characters are fictional, the setting is factual.

After the war, Stalin invites all Russian emigrants to return home. All is forgiven, help your country in post-war reconstruction. Many return, including medic Alexei Golovine (Oleg Menchikov), taking his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their young son Serioja (at 7 Ruben Tapiero, at 14+ Erwan Baynaud) with him. But the promised land turns into hell as the Communists either execute the returning Russians, or send them to forced labour camps. Marie is accused of spying and her passport is confiscated. They are made to share a room in a shabby communal tenement and their misery deepens by the day. Marie finds a companion in 17 year old Sacha (Serguei Bodrov jnr), who is a champion swimmer with an earnest desire to flee to the West. The relationship builds as Alexei finds a different sort of companion in their neighbour Olga (Tatiana Doguileva). Seperated, the couple - each with a different approach - do their best to survive in a system that won't let them breathe. Then, in a combination of self help and outside assistance - in the form of touring French actress Gabrielle Develay (Catherine Deneuve) - their fate is changed forever.

Wargnier’s film opened in France at the end of last summer; "It looks a serious movie," he says, "and not the ideal movie for coming back from summer holidays…it didn’t open very strongly, but word of mouth was very good and it played for a long time."

"It has given us a guilty conscience"

But Wargnier realises that in the West, his subject is fraught with difficulties. First of all, there is the collective guilty conscience in Western Europe, whose countries had sanctioned Communist parties as a valid part of the political landscape. "These parties depended on Moscow; they were official parties, and then people finally found out that behind the name was a dictatorship. It has given us a guilty conscience."

The French intellectuals are all on the Left, he says, "so we got bad reviews. I tried my best not to deal with the politics of it as far as France was concerned….but while it’s a love story, all filmmakers will tell you they make a love story, so that’s not enough to define it."

In America, however, "they felt reassured that they were right (about the evils of Communism)."

The film is hardly a political tract: it deals with the family unit under incredible stress from the two faced political system that ruled Esatern Europe and the Societ Union until communism simply imploded under the weight of its own impotence and its anachronisms.

Wargnier, who co-wrote the screenplay with two Russian writers, Serguei Bodrov and Roustam Ibraguimbekor, has nothing but praise for his co-writers. "I definitely couldn't have written the film without them. It was Bodrov who convinced me of the historic importance of the topic. We spent five days together, working out the basic plot lines and coming up with the main characters. We spoke to the producer who said "done deal". I then developed the project with Louis Gardel. Together, we wrote thirty or so pages, then Bodrov came back to Paris and Roustam joined us.

"It was a fascinating exchange. The Russians took our romantic impulses and placed them back into a reality that totally escaped us. They broke down our Western point of view. I was, for instance, fascinated by the thought of filming a communal apartment. Putting twenty or thirty people together in the same place, the famous writer, the whore, the postman and the milkmaid and watching what happens: betrayal, suspicion, but also love, friendship, solidarity. This, to me, is an incredible dramatic device. But we couldn't have written such a realistic "kommunalka" if two of our authors hadn't lived there as children. They lent the film all its authenticity."

"The writing adventure was extraordinary"

There were times when the writing team clashed harshly. The challenge was to end up with a screenplay that would appeal both to the French and to the Russians. "I absolutely wanted the Russians to be free-handed. The last phase took place in Los Angeles, when Serguei Bodrov and I ironed out the structure. In the end, Roustam told me: ‘I wouldn't have written it this way, but I accept...’ The writing adventure was extraordinary."

After completing east West, Wargnier’s "first reaction" was to make a contemporary film shot in France. "It’s a kind of thriller mixed with adventure and a detective story, with the working title The Hunters," he says. "A new genre for me…" Indeed, it’s a challenge for him. Although his producer and the cast are urging him to start shooting, he’s less than satisfied with his script. "I’ve been focusing on the plot and I feel I need to do more work on the characters…."

 (August 10, 2000)

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Régis Wargnier


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