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Replay the Live Chat with Filmmaker Robin Hessman

Filmmaker Robin Hessman talked with viewers on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.



POV: We'll be starting the chat with My Perestroika filmmaker Robin Hessman in about 15 minutes…

POV: Please start entering your comments and questions and we'll get them to Robin as soon as she's in the chat room!

POV: We're just about to get started. Keep adding your questions and comments into the queue and we will get to them.

POV: Hi Robin! Glad you could join us the day after the big broadcast!

Robin Hessman: Thanks! It's great to be here. It was so great reading everyone's comments on twitter and on our facebook page during the broadcast!

Robin Hessman: (http://www.facebook.com/myperestroika)

POV: Just before we get started, we've got of comments in the queue…

Comment From Ashley Keith
This episode was great! The people featured were so endearing, they even brought me to tears a few times. It reminded me of the Seven Up/7 Plus Seven British docu-series that I really loved. Keep it up POV!

Comment From Chris Daniel
My Perestroika was an EXCELLENT documentary! My mother and I watched it together last night; we both enjoyed it immensely. P.O.V. is one of my FAVORITE TV shows on PBS; keep up the good work! :)

Comment From Dariusz Bródka
I grew up in Poland during the 80's and so many memories came flooding back while watching this program.. That was a different time then and the influence of the Soviet Union on all of the eastern block European countries was very strong. I'll never forget my childhood because of it all - rations for food, gas, nothing in stores and long lines to get anything (even toilet paper). GREAT JOB Robin!

Robin Hessman: Thanks everyone. Yes, Dariusz -it's been really interesting hearing the responses from people from other Eastern European countries. Sometimes at first they expect the film will not be relevant to their lives, as Russia of course, is a different country - but as the film is really about people in times of change - it's been nice to hear how deeply the film has resonated with people from Poland, Hungary, etc…

POV: Robin, our first question comes from Bob about the characters in the film…

Comment From Bob
Have all of the subjects been to America?

Robin Hessman: All of the subjects have traveled widely in Europe but not all of them have been to the US. Ruslan's father actually lives in Seattle and wants him to move here, but he doesn't want to. Andrei is most often in France - for work. Olga has traveled all over Europe and gone on vacation in Tunisia and Egypt. I know she was talking about going on a safari in Kenya someday. The Meyersons have been to the US twice, in connection with the film - and I can talk more about that.

Robin Hessman: Borya, Lyuba and Mark came to the US for the world premiere of the film at Sundance in January 2010. I think it was a bit surreal for them to be in front of 400 people at our first screening, only a few hours after arriving. They had a great time at Sundance in the few days they were there. And then they came back again in May to NY and DC and hit all of the museums.

Robin Hessman: When they were here in the spring- it was VERY strange for them to be recognized on the street by people who had seen the film in the cinemas. They were recognized in MoMA in front of the Warhols, and in Central Park and walking in Brooklyn. They never expected to be celebrities. They love New York, and loved going to the museums in DC. They have met a lot of my friends and people involved in the film, but they don't feel they know the country very well, having only been in 3 cities.

Robin Hessman: You can see a short interview with them from May on the POV website. Mark has grown a LOT!

POV: And we have the link for the video of the Meyersons here: http://www.pbs.org/pov/myperestroika/video_meyersons.php

POV: There's a follow up question from Melissa.

Comment From Melissa
Have they seen the film? What do they think?

Robin Hessman: Yes! They have seen the film - the Meyersons more than anyone since they were it at Sundance - but I showed everyone an ALMOST completed version in Moscow, before the premiere.

Robin Hessman: The Meyersons especially are proud of it - as historians -which means a great deal to me. They are really happy this film will exist for future generations.

POV: We have two related questions now about the genesis of the film.

Comment From Diane
Robin, I know your initial inspiration for the film came from your time in Russia, but what originally interested you in Russia and brought you to live there?

Comment From Jess
Hi Robin- I really enjoyed your film last night. What was the inspiration?

Robin Hessman: Yes - I lived in Russia from 1991 - 1999 for the most part. I was a film student, at the All State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow- graduating with a degree from the directing department. I made a few short films there - and also produced the Russian Sesame St - Ulitsa Sezam.

Robin Hessman: It was an enormously important time for me. All of my early adult years - and when I came back to the US I found it incredibly difficult to explain what it had been like. It seemed like people wanted me to sum up in a phrase or two what was the "takeaway" about Russia.

Robin Hessman: And the questions were so huge! So, what is Russia like? So, how HAVE they adjusted to capitalism/democracy etc. Or - Weren't you afraid of being murdered?

Robin Hessman: For every answer I had, or every story I told, from which you could wring a a conclusion about "what to think" about Russia - there were just as many stories I could have told to give people the opposite conclusion of what to think. In short - it's an incredibly complicated transition for the country, for each generation, and for every individual.

Robin Hessman: I thought a lot about the people of MY generation (more or less- the people in the film are about 6 yrs older than me) since they had really perfectly straddled both worlds. They had completely normal Soviet childhoods, were just coming of age when Gorbachev came to power - going through their own transitions of adolescence - and then graduated from college the year the USSR collapsed. They had to learn to be adults in a completely new world.

Robin Hessman: Why did I go to Russia? Well my parents joke that I am a contrarian - and if Belgium had been our enemy I would be speaking Flemish now - but I don't know if that's the case.

Robin Hessman: I certainly WAS very curious about this country I was told was the big bad evil empire. I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s - and there was a big fear of nuclear war, and we were always presented with images of the Soviets as scary and awful. I wanted to learn more for myself - and began to read a lot.

POV: And that brings us to making the film, and we have a question to get us started there from Ron Tory.

Comment From Ron Tory
How did you find all the subjects in your film?

Robin Hessman: I didn't film people I knew from my years living there. I wanted to cast a wider net than the world of film school - or Sesame Street. :) And I wanted to film childhood classmates from the beginning - since in the USSR (and in Russia today) people are with the same class usually from the first day of 1st grade until they go to college - so that is a very important shared history. I thought I'd find the first person who I knew should be in the film - and then meet his/her classmates.

Robin Hessman: So I started to speak to people from all walks of life. Oh - and here I should say that Moscow is a very specific place - and NOT representative of the entire country. I was adamant that "Russia" not be in the title of this film, because of it.

Robin Hessman: Moscow is to Russia and NY is to the US - as they say. But I stuck with Moscow for a few reasons. 1) the changes happened more quickly and more intensely there. 2) practical reasons! I am an independent filmmaker and it took almost 6 years to make this film. A LOT of the time was scrounging for funding. I had a network of friends and help in Moscow- couches to sleep on etc. If this were a dissertation, I would have LOVED to be in many cities, and many former republics too, but for a film of this kind it was not practical.

Robin Hessman: Back to the characters- I started thinking about history teachers of this generation. After about 18 months of meeting people from all background of this generation, I thought it would be really interesting to hear the perspective of people who now are teaching the new generation - kids who were born after the collapse of the USSR and for whom it is really ancient history. I set out to find history teachers - through friends, and institutes - not even knowing if it would have anything to do with the film in the end - but when I met Borya and Lyuba, I knew I had finally found my first subjects.

Robin Hessman: From there I met the classmates - Ruslan, Olga and Andrei.

Robin Hessman: I didn't want TOO many people in the film since I hoped that people would feel like they got to know the characters really well - which is hard with a lot of different talking heads. I hoped to keep a degree of intimacy in the film.

Comment From Eve
It would be very interesting to see the main character's kids grown up in lets say... 20 years from now. I'm watching 20 years olds and they are totaly different from us (the USSR kids). Robin, thank you for the film. It brough me to tears; I can relate to the people on screen -- the same era, similar childhood…

Robin Hessman: I agree Eve! I am really curious about the kids too. How is this generation going to be different? Thanks for your nice comment.

POV: And welcome to all the late additions to the live chat. We're talking with My Perestroika filmmaker Robin Hessman. Keep adding your questions and comments and we'll get to as many as we can!

POV: We have a question from Jerry…

Comment From Jerry Pavlore
Has the film screened in Russia? And what has been the response?

Robin Hessman: Jerry, the film has not yet screened in Russia but it will later this year! First at a festival, and then traveling to 7 different cities. I've seen people on the POV site ask about this too. To all the people in Russia - sorry for the delay! Poterpite chut chut! And join us on facebook for updates about where and when it can be seen in Russia.

Robin Hessman: (I just asked the people in Russia to be patient a little bit longer.)

POV: Thanks for translating :)

POV: Staying with the Russians we met in the film, Quincy has a documentary filmmaking question…

Comment From Quincy Ross
What steps did you take to build your relationships with your characters? I'm a young filmmaker.

Robin Hessman: Quincy, that's a great question. I think one thing that helped was that I also filmed everything myself. I did not have a crew -but for the most part (with a few exceptions) I was the camera person and did sound - so it was just me, and them.

Robin Hessman: I also speak fluent Russian (now - not when I got there in 1991!) and had lived through many of the same experiences they did. So I wasn't an "outsider" or stranger. I also spoke openly with each of them when I met them about why I wanted to make this film, and what I hoped it would encompass.

Robin Hessman: I spent time with them filming, but also not filming. The Meyersons have said in interviews that they often forgot when I was with camera and when without. I did film also for many years! I met the Meyersons in 2005 and the last shoot was 2008.

Robin Hessman: Be open with your subjects. Just as you wish they would be open with you.

POV: Our next question from Ayla relates to revolutions happening now in other parts of the world.

Comment From Ayla
Robin, I LOVED the film. Really well done. Do you feel like its release is particularly timely given the recent and current events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc.? Do you see any connections to the revolution in the USSR?

Robin Hessman: Ayla - yes! It has been so interesting to watch. Of course, during the events - especially in Egypt - I keep remembering being in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the August 1991 coup. I think I relate very well to the feeling that the people in Tahrir Square must have had. But this kind of change is really very difficult. While our hope and expectations are that everything will now be perfect from now on - in reality, as all of us saw, the actual WORK of building a new society on the bones of an old one is much more complicated and bumpy a process.

Comment From Gary
Can you talk more about the Brezhnev funeral game? Looks fun.

Robin Hessman: Those are home movies from someone who took a LOT of 8mm films his whole life. (I actually never thought I would have home movies from the people IN the film - as cameras were rare - but I got very very lucky that Borya's father happened to film a ton.) I had put out calls for home movies from all over - on bloggers sites and in newspaper ads and by friends sending emails. This film came from someone who emigrated to NY. When I saw the "Brezhnev Funeral" written on the side of the reel of film, I couldn't believe it.

Robin Hessman: On the film - they first filmed the actual funeral on TV! (A lot of people filmed things that were on TV - like you see Paul McCartney and the music videos later in the film.) Then they went out to play at their dacha and reenacted the funeral. I think this shows that while officially, on the surface - the Soviet regime was very much in control - privately, people were becoming more and more cynical.

Robin Hessman: Under Brezhnev rule, there were more underground political jokes circulating than any other time. One of my friends in Moscow, who was 8 or 9 when he died, cried in school, along with her class and teacher. And then was totally surprised when her dad picked her up after school and thought that Brezhnev's death was a cause for ice cream.

Comment From Harold
Can you talk a bit about the musical selections in the film? How did you choose the songs you did and why? They sound very authentic…

Robin Hessman: Thanks Harold! I knew, to some degree, about the films my friends listened to growing up. They talked about childhood books, movies, music, a lot when I lived there in the 90s. Some of the songs have personal resonance for me. Train on Fire- by Aquarium - I had the lyrics to that song (the one that plays under the funeral) written on my jeans when I lived in the USSR the first year. I also asked all of the subjects what they listened to, and what they liked. And I had some great collections of the children's songs. I sing also, and when I was in the Moscow Oratorio - we sang some old Soviet songs too. I worked with the editors together to come up with the right use and placement - but it was important to me that the songs follow the trajectory of the subjects' lives.

Robin Hessman: There are certainly things they listened to that aren't in there - partially because I could never had afforded them - like Pink Floyd! And music rights were VERY very hard to clear - since these songs were written all before 1991 and belonged to a government that doesn't exist at the moment.

Comment From Miguel
Are there plans to release a soundtrack?

Robin Hessman: Sigh. Miguel - I wish we could, but it was so hard to get the rights for use in the film. I would have to go back and fine every descendent of all of the composers and lyricists again - and it took over a year to do the first time. I don't think I can afford it. BUT - we do have a list of all the songs on our website - myperestroika.com under "About the Film" and I think you can probably find a lot of them on YouTube or iTunes.

POV: We only have a few more minutes with Robin, so this is your last chance to ask a question or leave a comment!

POV: There's a comment from Mary before get to our next question.

Comment From Mary
Hi Robin, Just wanted to say I really enjoyed the film and am looking forward to watching it again on TV. I am also from the US and lived in Moscow for a couple of years (semester in 94 then 95-98). I live in Boston and it was great to hear all the Russian being spoken in the audience when I saw it in the theater. I have told many friends and family about the film and will continue to do so.

POV: And we have a question from Andy.

Comment From Andy
Were the subtitles different in last night's television broadcast from what they were in the theatres? Maybe it was just the timing?

Robin Hessman: Thanks Mary!

Robin Hessman: Andy, the version of the film shown on POV is about 7 minutes shorter than the version shown in cinemas. The subtitles had to be made a different size as well, for television, as opposed to cinemas. The content of the subtitles were mostly the same - there are a few places I needed to shorten them, or they would have been impossible to read. It breaks my heart each time EVERY detail and nuance isn't there - but I also had to be realistic. The audience is reading so much - and there needs to be time to see the images too. But for the most part - the subtitle content was exactly the same.

POV: This will have to be our last question…

Comment From BHodges
While I loved the film, I am curious what sort of criticism the film has garnered. Any particular repeated points of criticism?

Robin Hessman: Well, it's been interesting to see a few people think the film is very Pro-communist regime, and other think it is very anti-communist. I think people bring a lot of their own experiences and ideas to the film. The fact is, the film does not advocate or push forward any political point of view. The subjects often contradict each other directly. Look at the coup section - where Andrei says no one cared about freedom and Lyuba says that she felt her heart bursting with freedom.

Robin Hessman: My hope was that people would see how complicated this experience was and is for different individuals. And how you can't generalize how Russians are doing - since it is different for everyone. And even within a person there are ambivalences and contradictions. Some people have wanted more of the extreme poverty or extreme wealth that exists in Russia to be portrayed, but that was one thing I set out NOT to do - as there have been many many films that focus on homelessness, or the drug problems, or AIDS, or poverty - or on the billionaires, and the journalists being killed. The voices of the five people in the film are voices that are not often heard outside of Russia. The "ordinary" people who are living their lives, day by day. I understand that sometimes people are frustrated that their own ideas about Russia are not seen to be represented in this film, but it is impossible for one film to encompass every part of the human experience. This film is the story of these 5 people.

Robin Hessman: And I should say, there have been relatively few criticisms on the film. The most I have ever seen have been in the last 24 hours, but of people who want to take a film that touches on lives under Communism as a platform for their feelings about Obama today. That's been a bit disappointing for me. I see the film as an opportunity to shed light on the personal experiences of people coming of age at an important moment in history. I think the film asks the question - what DOES it mean for an individual to be at a key moment in their own lives- which falls on the sweeping waves of historical and political change.

Robin Hessman: After all, politics and history affect us personally in ways we never can predict at the time its happening. If I hadn't been a kid at the end of the Cold War, then my life would have turned out completely differently too.

Robin Hessman: If anyone has questions that weren't answered, I am happy to answer them on our facebook page. Thank you ALL for watching, for your interest. This film has been a long labor of love - almost 7 years so far. It has been so wonderful to get to hear viewers' thoughts and reactions. That has been the best part.

POV: That's a good note to end on. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today, Robin, and for sharing your experience making My Perestroika.

Robin Hessman: Thank you, POV! It is an honor being part of such a tremendous series.

POV: And thanks to everyone for joining in on the live chat! If we didn't get a chance to ask your question or post your comment, Robin is continuing the conversation on the My Perestroika Facebook page at http://facebook.com/myperestroika.

POV: A fun last-minute comment we have to sneak in…

Comment From Jack Mulliken
Robin, I really liked the film. I have been to Russia 7 times and it reminded me of every conversation I've had in a kitchen with my mother-in-law!

POV: You can continue leaving your reactions at POV's site, rewatch the film for a limited time, win PRIZES(!), or find out more at http://www.pbs.org/pov/myperestroika/.

POV: Next week, we'll be joined by the filmmakers of Sweetgrass. You can sign up for a reminder right now: here: http://www.pbs.org/pov/sweetgrass/chat.php

POV: You can replay this chat at any time right here: http://www.pbs.org/pov/myperestroika/chat.php

POV: Thanks again to everyone! Bye!





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My Perestroika gives you a privileged sense of learning the history of a place not from a book but from the people who lived it. Watching it is a little like attending a party in an unfamiliar city and discovering the place's secrets from the guests.”

— Stephen Holden,
The New York Times

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