Preview: Director Robin Hessman Explores Last Soviet Generation in ‘My Perestroika’

This week on the NewsHour, a conversation with filmmaker Robin Hessman, director of the documentary “My Perestroika,” will air as part of our partnership with The Economist Film Project.

[Click to see a slideshow of images of Hessman’s subjects as children and as adults today]

The documentary follows five ordinary Russians who lived through extraordinary times. Borya, Olga, Andrei, Ruslan, and Lyuba reflect on their Soviet childhoods and navigate today’s ever-changing post-Soviet Russia. “My Perestroika” is scheduled to air on “POV”: on June 28 on most PBS stations.

The documentary “My Perestroika” will be nationally broadcast in the original Russian (with English subtitles) in the U.S. by independent film series POV on June 28th on most PBS stations (check local listings for air times).

Hessman was fascinated by the Soviet Union as a child. She graduated from Brown University with a dual degree in Russian and Film and went on to receive a graduate degree in film directing from the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow. During her eight years living in Russia in the 1990’s, Robin worked for the Children’s Television Workshop as the producer of “Ulitsa Sezam,” the original Russian-language Sesame Street.
Jeffrey Brown’s interview with Hessman will air on the PBS NewsHour on Wednesday. For now, here’s an extended clip from that conversation:

[After the jump, read the transcript of the extended interview]

JEFFREY BROWN: How hard is it to make a film like this?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Well, it’s extraordinarily difficult. I started— I began thinking of this film in ’99. I started developing it in 2003, and started working it full time in 2004. So from 2004 to 2010, I was just making the film. And a lot of that—

JEFFREY BROWN: And did making the film include the getting the money for that?

ROBIN HESSMAN: Yes, yes, yes. The first two years were a lot of fundraising, and constantly throughout the rest of the process, was also fund raising, writing grants. And also, as a nonprofit, getting donations, tax deductible donations, that helped make the film. So you have to be a fundraiser, and PR agent, as well as a filmmaker and a researcher. I spent months in the archives outside of Moscow looking for the Soviet-era footage. And what was also important to me was the 8mm home movies, which are a completely other view of life behind the iron curtain, this kind of intimate, everyday life. And I, of course, was incredibly lucky that I wound up getting home movies of the actual people in the film, which is something I had never expected. I thought I would have home movies of people who more or less their age group, but I was very lucky that Borya Meyerson’s father was a very dedicated home movie make and followed his son around, and went into the classrooms, so we have all the people in the film as children.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how hard was it to convince them to open up? I mean, you said you met the couple first, and then to their friends. What was the key to getting them to tell you their life story, and especially some that, you know, haven’t had things work out the way they wanted to?

ROBIN HESSMAN: You know, it really wasn’t difficult at all, and I think partly because I lived in Russia from ’91 to ’99. I speak fluent Russian. I wasn’t an outsider coming with a camera crew and a translator and sticking a microphone in their face, asking to tell me about their very strange, unusual experiences. I think, all of them in their own way connected with me, and I understood a lot of their life. I had been a student, I had went to film school in Moscow, so I had certainly shared the student experiences of living there. And with each of them, they were all very open. And I don’t know that any of them were desperate to tell their story. There are films that are out there where the subjects of the film are very— they need the filmmaker to help them spread their word or tell their story.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was you going to them to say, please tell me your story.

ROBIN HESSMAN: Exactly. But wonderfully, they all agreed. And they liked the idea of the film. And I think one thing that worked to the advantage, was that 20 years have passed. This year is the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in the very busy pace of ordinary life of daily life, there isn’t that much time to sit back and reflect on the past 20 years of your life as it is. And I think that one thing is that they each found kind of a welcome opportunity to sit and reflect.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I know you are spending your time now, as this is released around the country and the world, still working on this film, but do you have plans for something else, an idea for a next one?

ROBIN HESSMAN: I do, but it’s still early on. I’ll be working on “My Perestroika” and distribution for quite awhile, and we have our PBS broadcast coming up as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright. Robin Hessman, thanks again.