To get a sense of the frantic energy driving Russia’s booming film and TV industry these days, one need look no further than powerhouse producing duo Valeriy Fedorovich and Evgeniy Nikishov, who this week will take time off from shooting Netflix’s first original Russian drama series in Moscow to bow their latest feature film on the Lido.
It’s a reversal of fortune that the veteran producers couldn’t have scripted themselves even a decade ago. “For many years, Russia’s film industry existed in isolation from the global market – what chance did North American viewers, for example, have of screening a Russian TV show or film a few years ago?” says Nikishov. “The situation is radically different now. With the development of global platforms, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to become fully-fledged participants in the global film industry.”
That opportunity has been a long time coming for Russian filmmakers, as well as for Fedorovich and Nikishov, whose partnership was born more than a decade ago out of a sense of common purpose. As editors-in-chief at rival studios in the 2000s, both recognized the need for new screenwriters to inject fresh blood into the Russian industry. Together they launched a scriptwriting lab, Against the Current, that Fedorovich says “made it clear for both us that we perceive drama in the same way and want to make TV shows that are both auteur and audience-focused.”
It was just one of many things the two had in common. “Right from the beginning it was clear that we’re both control freaks,” says Nikishov. “If we’re making something it means we are involved in every aspect – every shot change, edit and choice of music. Especially if our names appear in the film or TV show’s credits as producers.”
Fedorovich attributes their success to a unique marriage of sensibilities that belies their personal differences. “We’re very different people, but we have one important rule: if one of us doesn’t like something there is no need to justify it, we just throw that component out and move on,” he says. “But if we both like something, then this idea or text is definitely worth our attention, and that applies to all stages of the process including script, casting, music and editing – everything. I think that’s what makes our partnership so successful.”
A decade on, it would be hard to argue with the formula that has made the duo among the most sought-after producers in Russia. As the co-heads of 1-2-3 Production, the Moscow-based production company which they launched in 2018, they were the producers behind the plague thriller “To the Lake,” a series that made top 10 lists across the globe after it premiered on Netflix. They’re currently in production on the streamer’s first original Russian drama series, “Anna K.,” a contemporary retelling of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel “Anna Karenina.”
Such a high-profile commission means that the bar for their work has also been raised. “We understand that now we have the huge responsibility of not disappointing these expectations – especially since it’s not just a TV show we’re making, but an adaptation of the world’s most famous Russian novel and one of the most important works of global literature,” says Nikishov.
“Captain Volkonogov Escaped,” which premieres in competition at the Venice Film Festival, is the first feature under their new production shingle, Place of Power, a label they launched to focus on arthouse films and TV series with international appeal. Directed by Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov (“The Man Who Surprised Everyone”), the film is a dark fable about a law enforcement agent who suddenly has a crisis of conscience and tries to redeem his soul before it’s too late. Memento International is handling world sales.
“‘Captain Volkonogov Escaped’ is a phantasmagoria where circumstances thicken and thicken, getting so dark that the main characters have no choice but to reveal their true colors,” says Fedorovich. “Suddenly, through this darkness we begin to see a light, and we discover that spiritual values like forgiveness and love for thy neighbor hold fast within a person, even when it seems like they’ve been burned away by a cruel and harsh world. “
Merkulova and Chupov, who worked with Fedorovich and Nikishov on the drama series “Call Center” and are co-directing “Anna K.,” credit shared artistic sensibilities for allowing their creative collaborations to flourish.
“I would call the relationship we have with Valeriy and Evgeniy a partnership. That’s when partners believe in your text and give you full creative freedom,” says Merkulova. “Before we started working on ‘Captain Volkonogov Escaped,’ we’d been working with Valeriy and Evgeniy for a long time, and we could understand each other without words. The guys gave us a creative carte blanche. All of us have wanted to make this project for a long time, and I’m happy that the producers supported our experimental directorial vision.”
While “Captain Volkonogov Escaped” centers on the efforts of one man to right the wrongs of his past, Nikishov sees the film as a parable of a society trying to reckon with its collective trauma. “It is the story of redemption – redemption not just of Captain Volkonogov’s particular character, but of society in general,” he says. “We are deeply convinced that unless we come to terms with the past, it is impossible to move forward.”
For a Russian film industry no longer boxed in by Cold War stereotypes or hemmed in by the Balkanized forces of pre-streaming distribution, forward progress is a welcome thing: Never before in the country’s storied cinematic history have Russian filmmakers had such a golden opportunity to reach global audiences. For Fedorovich and Nikishov, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.
“One of our main goals is to tell the world about modern Russian in all its multiplicity, not through the distorted prism of news and political agendas, but through stories of people,” says Nikishov. “We want to share stories about how we love, what makes us laugh and cry, and the fact that stories like those touch the hearts of people from different parts of the world confirms the undeniable truth that we have so much more in common than we have setting us apart, and that love is much stronger than hate.”
“Our country is huge, with many talented people living and working in it, and it’s very nice to think that now it’s not only Russia we’ll be working for,” adds Fedorovich. “For all of us, it’s the chance to tell stories about ourselves and our country, and the more personal the story you tell, the higher the likelihood that it will reach a wide audience.”