Elena Tikhonova studied at Moscow Film Institute VGIIK and has written and directed award-winning short films and documentaries.
Within the framework of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s iniative “Europe! Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to Elena Tikhonova about women in film and her debut feature, “Caviar,” a colorful comic caper about a Russian oligarch’s shady real estate scheme in Austria.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Elena Tikhonova: The art of cinematography already played a big role in my childhood and continued throughout my whole life. Both my parents were scientists who worked hard. I spent most of my free time at the cinema or in front of a TV. Pretty early on, I began thinking about the people behind the creation of these stories. At the age of thirteen, I already knew I wanted to pursue filmmaking. In 2008, I graduated from the Moscow Film Institute VGIIK as a director of photography. Since then, I have been working as a director, an editor, a cinematographer and VJane.
How did Caviar come about?
E.T.: After completing the documentary Elektro Moskva, I collaborated with Witcraft Szenario to develop my first feature film, Caviar. The idea of Caviar is not as far-fetched as it may seem. As fate would have it, I have been living in Vienna for nineteen years now. The first time I came there was also my first trip to a “Western” country. Knowing one word in German, I had no language skills and I tried to cope with my new environment on the basis of trial and error. When you live in a foreign country, you automatically get in contact with fellow countrymen you might have never met at home and you seem to be drifting towards them, pulled by some sort of magnetic force.
Caviar tackles immigration and the loneliness it brings with it. You mentioned that when one lives in a foreign country, not only does he/she inevitably befriend compatriots they would have never met at home but they also develop an affinity for their own culture that they would never have thought possible – all of this leading to friendships that overcome many divisions. Can you elaborate on that?
E.T.: Life is made up of impressions. Making films allows us to arrange them. Caviar is the result of years of observations, based on situations in my own life and those of my friends. Thanks to the fact that we live outside our familiar cultural environment, we constantly find ourselves in strange situations, often bordering utter absurdity caused by the differences in expectations and ideals prevalent in our different cultures. We have found our homes in a foreign country and are foreigners at home. I am convinced that the life of emigrants, which often seems so enigmatic to outsiders, is a great cinematic subject.
In that sense, how has your own immigration experience influenced and inspired Caviar?
E.T.: The setting of Caviar is based on reality – there is a growing community of Russian immigrants in Austria. Usually, these are not people who were forced out for political reasons of economic hardship, but because they wanted move to a Western wealthy country. They rather see themselves as well-educated cosmopolitans who are often being sneered at because of their “Eastern mentality” and whose habits and demeanor give way to embarrassing moments and misunderstandings in their everyday life and business. Caviar plays on the comical element of these encounters between different cultures using the stylistic device of the burlesque. On the one hand, we have the nouveau riche Russian way of handling money and on the other, the typical Austrian “players” in politics and business who make their money through corruption and intrigue on the back of rich “partners”. This co-existence and opposition seem to be the perfect ingredients for an action-packed story with elements of a caper movie. A second element of conflict which feeds the comedy element of Caviar is the aspect of Eastern girls versus Western boys. Everyday misunderstandings between the sexes are exacerbated here by the differing cultural concepts of life plans, and concepts of happiness, a simple and unlikely idea.
Can you talk about the title?
E.T.: Caviar has always been associated with Russians. And for Russians, caviar is associated with wealth and money. The plot of Caviar revolves around the Russian oligarch Igor, who wants to built a house on top of a bridge, in the center of Vienna. Corrupt politicians smell their own welfare in Igor’s big money. But then, three women decide to sabotage their plans.
Speaking about women, your main characters are all migrant women. How do you see them? Would you say they are stereotypical migrant women?
E.T.: I tried to create very different female characters. Nadja, the main character, is a single parent with two children. She doubles as translator and gofer for a Russian Oligarch called Igor. She is torn between her work and her children, which is why Nadja lacks time for her personal life. The image of Nadja is not only typical for émigrés, but also for all European single mothers. Her friend, Vera – also Russian –, seems to be one step ahead: she successfully married the love of her life via a dating website. The third character, Teresa, is a native Austrian. Teresa is the babysitter of Nadja’s children and she dabbles in art and activism while earning a fairly low income. She’s convinced that Igor’s house on top of the bridge is definitely not going to happen. She and her future friends want to steal money from corrupt politicians who in turn want to steal the money from the oligarch. In my comedy, I work with clichés. In reality, clichés do not emerge randomly, which is why they create great potential for comic situations. It is common knowledge that comedies usually deal with very sad issues and Caviar is about loneliness. Nadja and Teresa, for example, are fundamentally lonely people. After they have gone through a series of adventures, the three women become best friends. This friendship is contrasted by the businessmen who, at the end of the story, are left on their own.
The situation of women in film is quite tragic in Austria…In order for this situation to change, a certain shift is needed.
How would you characterize your filmmaking style?
E.T.: Caviar is an energetic action comedy with strong characters who dream of a world full of glitter and glamour and are basically prepared to endure all kinds of humiliation in order to make those dreams come true. The discrepancy between wish and reality is also expressed in contrasting visuals. The combination of stylistic elements – a slightly overdone color scheme and dynamic camerawork – produce together an aesthetic style that can probably best be described as “glam-punk”.
What was the best advice you were given?
E.T.: There were a couple tips from friends. First, the most helpful was to rehearse with the actors before filming. That’s important because you can already solve many problems that may arise on set during shooting. Second, if you’re filming, you should always create storyboards beforehand. Another advice from a close friend of mine was: “No matter how difficult the situation is, always remain calm. Always remember your main message and what your film is about.”
How do you think the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Women in Film” will impact your career, your visibility and the promotion of European female film talent in Australia?
E.T.: I hope it has an impact – I have huge plans for my next films!
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in Film for the past year and a half. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Austria?
E.T.: The situation of women in film is quite tragic in Austria. Overall, 48% of the women who finish the Film School end up as directors, screenwriters, producers or cutters. But according to the statistics in Austria, a minority of 22% of women receive support with these professions. In fact, the vast majority of films are made by men in Austria. Also, most of the scripts depict males as main characters. In order for this situation to change, a certain shift is needed.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
E.T.: Yes, I am a die-hard feminist! And it most certainly affects my work. I shot a film where my main characters are women. It was a well-considered decision…
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
E.T.: Maya Deren – her short films; Esfir Shub and Der Fall der Dynastie Romanow; Larissa Schepitko and Wings; Jane Campion and The Piano; Kira Muratowa and The Tuner; Ruth Beckermann and American Passages; Barbara Albert and Nordrand and Bady Minck and her short films.
What are your next projects?
E.T.: At the moment, I am working on several projects in very different genres. But the next one will once again be a comedy.
This interview was conducted in partnership with:
Photo credit: © Carolina Frank