From the film director (interview)

The transcript of the interview with K. Shakhnazarov, during where we discussed the film “Courier” 1986.

– Hello, Karen Georgievich.

– Hello!

– We are doing a web site about your film “Courier” where we will post this interview as well as analysis of your movie in the historical context of the Peresroika.

So, what was the main idea of ​​”Courier”? Was your goal to reflect on the most acute problems of perestroika, or just to describe a life of a typical Soviet guy?

– I think that, my main objective was describtion of the life of Ivan, this young man who is trying to find himself. A little bit rebellious, a little bit conformist. Through his life, I wanted to provide a panorama of the Soviet life at that time, the mid-1980s. No matter want, when you describe a destiny of man, through him you talk about the fate of the whole country. Initially, the first thing I wanted to tell viewers was this story. I think the most important thing – is to tell stories. Maybe, if it works out well, the viewer then sees in them and something more than just the story one person.

– Can we call Ivan a representative of the typical Soviet youth, or he was too much of a rebel to call him typical?

– I think that to some degree, yes, it can be called a typical Soviet young man. In fact, rebellion is embeded in the nature of young people. It is their natural state. When a young person begins to enter the adult world, it is clear that he wants to find his place, he will fight for it. In thiat sense, the film remains relevant no matter where it takes place: the Soviet Union, the United States, England … Young people are biologically arranged in a way that they are in some kind of conflict with the society in which they have to take their place. Then become conformists like us.

– Yes, this is the phrase from the movie: “We’ll have our fling and become just like you.”

– We all pass through this.

– The problem of “fathers and sons” is relevant at all times.

– Yes, it is always relevant, and always there is a conflict. Sometimes it is very serious, especially if there is some tension in the society, then it takes a very sharp form.

– Yes, also the historical context of Perestroika had it’s effect and possibly had made made the conflict even more cruel? What do you think?

– Of course, this picture was shot in the beginning of perestroika, when the problem was already present, but it hdn’t yet errupted. There is a sense of the conflict between the protagonist and the outside world. If you remember, there was a very good american movie with a young Dustin Hoffman – “The Graduate.” I would recommend it.

– Sure. But when did you start filming “Courier”? You said on the threshold perestroika, right?

– Yes, the story I had written even earlier, in 1982. It was published in a very popular Soviet magazine the “Youth”. I must say, it was a pretty big hit. It was a very big magazine, more than three million copies. Almost half of the Soviet Union read it. However the film was shot in 1985-86. It was actually relesed because Gorbachev had come with his first speech the April. Everybody sensed the coming changes, the censorship became less rigid. Before that, I was not allowed to shoot the film, because the character was not typical of the Soviet cinema. And even then, in 1985, I was still called by  the Party Committee several times to report about the film.

– Were you trying to shoot the film before the beginning of perestroika?

– Well, what is perestrika? This is when Mikhail Gorbachev said in April his speech, where he emphasized the nessesity of democratization of the Soviet society. These changes had been introduced very carefully, but they were expected, and instantly there was a break in society. It has changed, started moving, even though the perestroika hadn’t actually started yet. Because of that canges in Sviet society, in the picture there were no censorship cuts.

– In the archival documents about the “Courier” We saw a record of payment,  there was a special committee, which determined the categories of payment for the film. The film was paid by the state, not by the income from rental?

– Everything was state that time in the USSR.

– Another question, if your story was written in 1982, how could get into the historical context of perestroika so well? How did you know in 1982 what will be important later in 4-5 years?

– The thing is that the mood of youth had evolved earlier than the actual perestroika began. Already since the late 1970s – early 1980s. To a large extent perestroika was prepared by the generation that wanted changes. The second point is that I somewhat modernized the film while sooting. Had to focus, for example, on how the young dressed.

-How much your film was censored? You said “was filmed without censorship cuts”?

– No, no censorship. In this scence the movie was good. Some people did not like it, some thought it was anti-Soviet, but nothing was censored any ways. All thanks to the fact that perestroika has begun. They still could cut it, but at that time had already become scared to do it.

– We’ve read the different options for the script, and in one of them, dated by the year 1984, there was an episode in the vegetable store, remember? There’s researcher who argues with the brigadier about the purpouse of moving the bags of raw cabbage to the other wall. When the foreman explaines that the wall is dump, the researcher is wondering why couldn’t they put the cabbage by the dry wall in the first place. This episode seemed unbelievably comical to us and we would like to ask why it wasn’t included in the film?

– I can’t remember everything, in fact there were a few more very funny episodes, by the way. For example the one where Ivan’s mother, as she kept thinking that Ivan was heywire, invited a psychic to direct him on the right path. It was a terribly funny scene… But then when you add up all the story, it is very difficult to include some scenes. It happens sometimes that the episode is very good, but it stands out from the plotline, stretches the story. I suppose, that was the reason there too.

– We would like to ask about the public reaction on your film. We’ve read that the film had a great success in the Soviet Union, in 1987 it had about 40 million vievers. Did the mood in the society change anyhow after you said out loud all that was in people’s minds?

– Yes, according to my information, there were about 50 million viewers. The film was very popular especially among young people, some of them watched it more than 10 times. Then it became the best film of the year 1987, won the Audience Award. In general, it seems to me, it really struck the viewer, it was shot at the right place at the right time. Apparently this was the moment when the Soviet youth found in this film what it felt and wanted to say. I must say that even today’s youth finds the film appealing, although almost 30 years have already passed. For us, as for authors – this is the best reward.

– It seems to me very impressive and almost unbelieveble that someone would watch the same movie more than ten times and wouldn’t get tired of it. We read the forums that discuss your film and noticed that not only the older generation that has grown up in the USSR, but also the young, appreciate the film a lot. On our site we have, by the way, the comments about the “Courier” from people, who lived in the period of perestroika and was a part of the youth that time. Their reactions on the movie seem very similar to what you were saying earlier. 

– Yes, there also was another moment, which at that time was very attractive to young people. The first Soviet breakdance appeared in the film. We invited our local russian guys to dance and they did their job really well. All over the world, and in the Soviet Union in particular, there was a rising fashion for breakdance. So, this was also one of the reasons why young people loved this film.

– Question about the very first scene of the film, in the Gagarin district court where Ivan’s parents are getting divorced. This scene brings the viewer into the atmosphere of the movie from the very start. We got an impression that the judge’s speech was very long and bureaucratic. Was one of your goals to deliberately show the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union or was the purpouse to introduce the viewer quickly into the human drama of Ivan’s family? 

– The film showed how it actually was. Indeed, they divorced people with such words, I went through the same procedure myself. In this speech there was not made up a single word. In the center of this episode is a human drama, their life was collapsing. All this happens so formally, this is just how it works.

– Our next question is about Africa. In your film you touched upon Africa at least three times: when Ivan’s father left to work in Africa; when Ivan shows Katya leopard’s den, and of the episode, when Ivan throws a spear into the closet door. Yes, Africans are also walkindg on the send dunes in the beginning of the film. At a first glance, it doesn’t appear obvious how  the theme of Africa is relevant to the Soviet Union and the turning point of perestroika. We would like to know why Africa?

– I think in the movie Africa more relates to the main character, Ivan. he is very romantic, and Africa – is something mysterious, romantic too. It is an extraordinary world that seems to us so different from the one we live in, it’s beautiful and full of adventure. Maybe it is not really so, but Ivan is generating these fantasies in his head: the leopard, the African Tribe Maasai, the spear. It’s one of the few things that connects Ivan and his father who went to work in Africa, which at the time was quite common, because the Soviet Union worked with the African countries a lot, building factories, dams … And a lot of our engineers went to work in Africa. Yet, for the protagonist in this case Africa is a world of mysterious romance. It makes a contrast to what he sees in his life. It consists of the judges of the people with whom he worked in the editorial, it is pretty grey.

– Can we say that the theme of Africa, all this wildlife is more suitable to the character of Ivan than the Western values, which surged in the Soviet Union during the periodv of perestroika?

– I believe that if the viewer sees something, the viewer is always right. This perspective seems very interesting to me. However, I was rather planning to show Ivan’s desire to escape from the everyday life. He wants an adventure which is typical for all young people in general. They are bored within the bounds of life where society drives them.

– In the film there is an interesting scene where Ivan is trying to “appease” his mother, by lighting a fire in the room. Very, very unusual scene, what were you trying to say with it? That Ivan was so much rebellious?

– Well, I’ve seen this scene in my life. Such a wild behavior generally characterises the relationship of young people with their parents. But it must be understood, that at that young age, when everything boils, the young adults can commit such totally crazy things.

– Yeah, in this scene Ivan’s mood is changing very quickly. As it was written in the script, he lit the fire, and then, a moment later, “he became disgusted with myself” and quickly put it out. The mood is jumping back and forth. Also there was an interesting scene in the leopard’s den when Ivan brings Katya on a date. I think it was shot in a quarry on the outskirts of Moscow. What exactly did you mean by this episode?

– Ivan always dreams about something, he lives in a fantasy world. At the same time, Katya – is a far more progmatic girl. She is more rational, so to speak, a girl from a good family. For her, it is foreign, that’s why they eventually parted. They are very different indeed.

– In one of the last scenes of the film, when the guys are dancing breakdance sounds a popular in the West composition by Herbie Hancock “Rockit”. Did you deliberately make such a vivid parallel with te West and make the music the final chord of the film?

– Because it it was really popular among Soviet youth, too. Of course, I must say that breakdancing came into an alliance with the Western culture, and western music had influenced the Soviet youth a lot. It was a big part of life of the Soviet youth, this was impossible not to show it in the film.

– In some of the comments to your movie people wrote that they love to listen to this music and breakdance under it. You had a great hit with the music at the end and along the whole film, too.

The very-last scene – when Ivan makes an eye contact with a soldier who came back from Afghanistan. Was it one of the ways to modernize the film? To get to the historical context, since in 1985 the growth of the Soviet military contingent in Afghanistan peaked?

– Well, the war in Afghanistan by then had already been going for quite a long time, since 1979. In general, yes, the topic was very relevant for the young Soviet men who had to go to the army. Some of them would not come back, someone would came back like that tank driver, with burnt face. And when Ivan looks at him, he realizes that this may be his fate.

– After this scene me as a viewer felt some sense of fatalism that Ivan might not return to the war. When we examined the comments and opinions, we found out that a lot of viewers had the same feeling. Perhaps that look of the Afghan soldier was a symbol that Ivan’s destiny quite undetermined, and his service in the army may radically change it?

– That was the right final scene for Ivan’s whole generation. In was standing in front of a much more serious challenge than even Afghanistan. Some people alredy anticipated the collapse of the USSR. The breakdown of the whole life, so to speak. And, again, the fate of this generation was completely undefined. We all felt that there was approaching something that will break our lives, but we did not know how to deal with it and what will happen to us. In this sense, the final conveys a sense of the last years of the Soviet Union.

– So, at that time it must have felt pretty scary?

– Of course, the unknown is always frightening. It happened with the fall of the Union, and, in fact, the consequences of all this have not been resolved yet. What is happening now in Ukraine is the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. For a single human life 25 years is a lot, for histoy this is just one moment.

– This reminds me of your next film after “Courier”, “City Zero” 1988. There’s a scene where the age-old oak breaks, which is a pretty obvious reference to the future fall of the USSR in 1991. You said that you felt that soon everything will collapse and there will be something terrible to come. In the “City Zero” you had already predicted the collapse of the Union 3 years ahead. I was deeply shocked, how did you know that would happen?

– I just had that feeling. To some extent, the artists have more sensitive intuition that allows them to see some things before politicians and scientists can see them. And sometimes people who make films, write books, just intuitively come to some discoveries that others see only later.

– Well, we have the last question for you. How did your opinion on perestrika change in the last 30 years since the creation of the film and until the present day?

– You know, in general, in our country the general attitude to perestroika has dramatically changed. It is now perceived very negatively. I must say that I generally do not agree with this standpoint. Maybe, because I’m a fatalist by nature. I believe that everything happens the way it should happen. Everything has some logic behind it, some things will just make sence later. Of course, a lot of bad things we have experienced over these 25 years, and we are still going through some difficulties, but still, I see some light in perestroika. I remember the feeling that everyone had, by the way, even those who now rebukes perestroika. Still, there was something new and exciting in it. The second point, is that we don’t completely know the results yet. 25 years is still a really short period of time. Maybe those who are now cursing perestroika, after another 20 years will say, “Here! I was a right descision in the long run.” I’m convinced that perestroika should be rather treated as a great historical event, and such events are always ambiguous and controvercial.

– Thank you very much for your time, we are very pleased that we managed to have such an interesting talk with you.

– Thank you.