David Bezmozgis dives into Russian diaspora

Interview: David Bezmozgis on Natasha

The Toronto-based writer-director grew up in a community of Russian Jews who left the Soviet Union, but decades later he says the “Russian immigrant experience” has become more difficult to define — yet far more interesting to explore through drama

By Katherine Monk

The “immigrant experience” is a phrase that’s been getting a lot of media mileage in the wake of Syria’s collapse and continuing mass displacement due to climate change, but as a phrase, it’s generic.

DAVID BEZMOZGIS (director) on the set of his new feature film NATASHA. Courtesy of Mongrel Media. Photo: Eli Reed

DAVID BEZMOZGIS (director) on the set of his new feature film NATASHA. Courtesy of Mongrel Media. Photo: Eli Reed

It assumes all immigrants share a similar reality: a sense of exile and limited expression until assimilation takes hold. Toronto author and filmmaker David Bezmozgis thinks the North American “immigrant community” deserves better than a broad label between quotation marks, so he wrote a short story called Natasha, originally published in Harper’s before appearing in a bound collection in 2004.

A Lolita-like yarn about a sexy young Russian girl who moves to Canada with her mother, Natasha deals with all sorts of coming-of-age issues, from sexual initiation to family confrontations. But for Bezmozgis, the central obsession was cultural.

“I wanted to make a film that really delved into it and presented an authentic vision of this Russian immigrant community in Canada — which isn’t all that different from the Russian Community in North America — and this story afforded me the opportunity to do it.”

Having moved to Canada with his own family from Soviet Latvia in 1980, Bezmozgis has clear memories of being an outsider, and it’s become a running theme in his lengthening list of fiction titles, including two novels: The Free World and The Betrayers, both of which were nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

“The Russian community is one that is often depicted in some form in popular culture, but usually the actors are never really Russian and the themes are pretty broad, the KGB or the mafia idea. I wanted to show the truth of the community: Show a family, people who really exist, in a compelling way without resorting to tropes. That hasn’t been done. It hasn’t been done in Canada, and hasn’t been done in the States either.”

Bezmozgis says given how big these segments of the general population are becoming, the lack of decent representation needed to be addressed because even from a Russian perspective, there is no generic truth.

“We came over when I was six. I grew up in the same neighborhood you see in the film – which, to this day, remains a Russian-speaking hub,” he says. “But things have changed a lot since then. When I came, the community was almost exclusively made up of Russian Jews. People used to see the community as homogenous, but the subsequent waves of immigration have brought stratification. When we came, the Soviet Union still existed. Now it’s people who lived through the Putin era, witnessed the Soviet form of capitalism….”

Now Bezmozgis wonders about the myriad differences within the Syrian refugee community, and how long it will take Canadians to see the subtleties among individuals instead of painting thousands of new citizens with one brushstroke.

The most important door to open is empathy, he says, which is why he wanted to share the story of a Natasha.

“I’d heard an anecdote,” says Bezmozgis about his inspiration. “The story was told to me by someone who witnessed this experience back in Russia: Child pornography was going on. I was shocked by it, but also wondered what those kids would have been like and how they would have processed what was going on.”

Bezmozgis says he’s fascinated by what people do to survive and how they justify their actions.

“The story is based on what would have happened if a person like Natasha or her mother ended up in my family.”

Sin, betrayal, big drama and sorrow are on tap, but like Bezmozgis’s previous feature, Victoria Day, there’s also a sense of emotional absenteeism – the central character is a tad passive, ensuring all the scenes have rounded edges until the women brandish their emotional switchblades.

“Natasha and her mother are women who had to make tough decisions to survive. They had to compromise to get ahead. But you are never clear about who’s telling the truth. They are an uncomfortable shock to the system, and I was interested to see how that would play out.”

To make the emotional experiment convincing, Bezmozgis knew he had to hire Russian-speaking actors, and he thanks the Russian diaspora of the past two decades for handing him his dream cast.

“It was essential to me that we make it this way: Largely in Russian with a cast of Russian-speaking actors who are professional. And we did it… I think it has something to do with where we are as a country. Maybe ten years ago, I don’t think we could have done it, and found this critical mass of immigrants to populate an entire film with.”

The character of Natasha is played by Sasha K. Gordon, born in Odessa, but now living in the U.S. and studying acting.

“It was beautiful to watch her evolve – as a character,” says Bezmozgis. “The question was how did she become the way she is? How would she look back on her experience. How mature is she? How much power does she wield. How vulnerable is she? She is not a victim and she is not a villain. But she has power, and I was fascinated to see how she would use it.”

Tell Bezmozgis that his leading lady is hardly cuddly, and he disagrees. “I’m not sure she isn’t the most likable character. Given where she comes from and the family life she has had, I don’t know how she could have been different. You see what she wants. She is attracted to Mark but also the family life he has. I think she becomes human – because she is honest. But when she’s pushed, she refers back to her instincts.”

 

Natasha opens in select cities Friday.

 

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, May 5, 2016

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