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The Wizard of Omsk

Omsk, in south-western Siberia, is known throughout Russia for its theatre, but has never developed a film industry. As Valeria Kalashnikova reports, things are changing, thanks mostly to the efforts of a director whose stock in trade is schlock sci-fi beloved of viewers of Japanese cable channels.

While Omsk’s cultural bureaucrats ponder how best to develop a local film industry; whether it should have its own studio; and how the populace of this city famed for its theatrical life can be turned on to the cinema, director Maksim Dyachuk is busy shooting films enjoyed by cable TV audiences in the US, the UK and Japan. But in Russia there is no question of his work appearing on the big screen – it can be viewed only by initiates at private showings.

It is only two years since Maksim Dyachuk shot his first feature film, ‘Spores’, and his second sci-fi feature ‘The Silence of Space’ is at present in post production, being enhanced by digital special effects and a musical score. Meanwhile he’s already working on a new project, ‘The Snow Queen’, a fairytale for adults in the ‘steampunk’ style - a sci-fi sub-genre, often set in a post-apocalyptic future where steam is once more the chief source of power. So the Queen, in gothic guise, and Kay, here a hard-boiled engineer, function in a surreal landscape of hot air balloons, steam engines and other machinery that has little to do with Andersen but is none the worse for that.

Maksim Dyachuk is busy shooting films enjoyed by cable TV audiences in the US, the UK and Japan. But in Russia there is no question of his work appearing on the big screen.

As you will have guessed, his subjects are reminiscent of classic Hollywood B-movies – fantastic tales with no intellectual pretentions (there’s no shortage of other directors if you want art house films). ‘Spores’, for example, is about an invasion of alien monsters that have grown somewhere in space from the eponymous spores. His second film, as you will also have guessed, is about space as well, but it is a more complex work with an intricate plot incorporating a thriller element (though it does have monsters too). And given the technical resources needed to create convincingly scary aliens, it’s fortunate that Dyachuk is a whiz with the CGI. There are also people in the films, of course, but they have an uncanny tendency to mutate into heaven knows what.The young director’s head is full of ideas like this, and many of them could be filmed right here in Omsk, but somehow the city fathers show no sign of wanting to support his work.

Dyachuk doesn’t call himself a director, preferring to use the more inclusive term ‘filmmaker’. In other words, he’s a one-man band – writing the screenplay; directing; designing; doing the CGI – you name it, he does it. He has his own studio, Orbit Films, which relies on commercial shorts, trailers and corporate presentations to bring in the cash that subsidises his creative work. His production team consists of himself, his wife Dina (general assistant and makeup artist) and Igor Faust, a well-known local musician, and his casts are actors moonlighting from local theatre companies.


Filmmaker Maksim Dyachuk operates with a small production team that consists of himself, his wife Dina, and local musician Igor Faust. (c) Orbit Films.

Russian film lovers will have to wait for the pirate DVD

Foreign audiences, it turns out, love this stuff, whereas at home Dyachuks’s attempts to interest people who have any clout in the industry have fallen on deaf ears. With no star names and faces on screen, no one is interested. He has, however, managed to find Canadian distributors who have helped him bring ‘Spores’ to global audiences. The film has been shown at several American festivals, is a great hit on local cable channels, and has even come out on DVD in Japan, with the UK and Germany next on the list. But for wide distribution you need a thriving market and no pirating. Perhaps ‘Spores’ might become available in Russia in a year or two, but only on pirate DVDs. Maksim is amused at the thought: ‘I’d like to see that – a Russian film coming to its own country thanks to pirates, and presented as an American product… still, at least people might finally get to watch it.’

Dyachuk naturally has no financial backing – he pays for everything out of his own pocket and hopes that one day his work will reach its audience. ‘With “Spores” we managed to pay people a small fee, but “The Silence of Space” cost us 200,000 roubles (£4000) to make and we couldn’t even do that. The contracts we give our actors provide for a fee in the future if we can sell the film, but not everybody realises that and many of them refuse to work with us.’

‘I’d like to see that - a Russian film coming to its own country thanks to pirates, and presented as an American product… still, at least people might finally get to watch it.’

There are many potential filmmakers in Omsk, but with no local film studio they have to go elsewhere to develop their craft (and then if they do well nobody remembers where they came from). The nearest studios and other facilities are in Novosibirsk (about 700 km away), and Yekaterinburg (about 1000 km away) also has a strong filmmaking tradition. In Russian terms, that makes us neighbours, but the situation for filmmakers is very different. Omsk has a long and illustrious theatrical history: nine professional theatres – not counting fringe venues – for a city of a million inhabitants isn’t bad, and people are used to visiting them. But it lacks a cinematic tradition.

Some hope for the future?

This summer, however, Omsk hosted the First Dvizheniye National Festival for debut films, headed by the famous actor, director and screenwriter Artyom Mikhalkov. The festival is designed to support young directors who want to make independent, art house films. In an age of frenetic production line cinema this is rather a niche market, but Mikhalkov has hopes for the younger generation (as both makers and audiences) and for getting distributors involved with the festival, judging the work on show and providing start up cash for the best new filmmakers: ‘We are also hoping to develop the festival as a film market, where distributors can meet directors, and this might pave the way for the opening of a film studio here in Omsk, where we can finally grow our own young directors and other specialists.’


Although Omsk lacks the filmmaking tradition of towns like Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, Dyachuk's brand of Russian B-movies has found fans in Japan and America. (c) Orbit Films

For the moment this is still just a pipe dream, since it all depends on a large investment of cash, as well as a change of local and regional development priorities, of which there is no sign yet. Mikhalkov’s grandiose plans may look attractive, but they are unrealistic if they are reliant on government funding.

‘We are all still learning here. We are getting better all the time - developing more sophisticated screenplays and more convincing characters.'

In the meantime, private enterprise is doing its best. About a month ago Maksim Dyachuk opened a film school at his studio. With his head full of ideas, the director is keen to expand production, and for that he needs a larger team. He is offering his students training in a wide range of skills: directing, cinematography, production, CGI, acting, set design and make up. Not to mention lots of work experience, as the studio increases its activity. ‘We are all still learning here’, he explains. ‘We are getting better all the time - developing more sophisticated screenplays and more convincing characters, finding new locations in Siberia to shoot, improving our directing skills, enhancing our special effects and composing more effective music. And we are also learning about international requirements in terms of the documentation a film needs for distribution.'

In general, the film scene in Omsk has recently been displaying a number of signs of life. Several festivals are happening, and a couple of cinemas are prepared to show films by new directors. The work may not be of the best quality, but given the lack of any official support, it’s a start. There is even talk of opening a branch of the filmmakers’ union in the city – the first branch anywhere in Siberia - and if other cities support the idea it might be set up at regional level. We might soon be looking at a new, long awaited dawn in Omsk’s cultural life.The school will award diplomas which will of course lack the cachet of a film degree from a respected university, but will probably give its young graduates moral support and confidence in their own abilities. Also, of all the attempts to create some opportunity for training in filmmaking in Omsk, this is the only one to get off the ground, so even though its main focus is the development of Dyachuk’s own career rather than any broader aim, it just might be successful enough to kick start something bigger.

 

 

 

 


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