Russian director Ivan Bolotnikov after several prizewinning documentaries made his feature debut in 2016 with “Kharms,” a biopic of renowned Russian absurdist author Daniil Kharms that travelled on the international festival circuit. His sophomore outing is ambitious upcoming drama “Palmyra” based on the true story of a former Russian military, a widower, who learns that his only daughter Maryam has been recruited by terrorists and run off to Syria.
The film, which is now completed, is produced by Proline Film Studios chief Andrey Sigle, who interestingly also composed the “Palmyra” score. It’s being presented to prospective buyers at both the Roskino Key Buyers Event: Digital Edition market and the upcoming Cannes virtual Marché du Film.
Bolotnikov and Sigle both took questions from Variety about the film.
Ivan, what drew you to the project?
Ivan Bolotnikov: The whole history of the human race is a history of wars. Today, it seems to us Europeans that disagreements should not be resolved by murder. While there is an illusion of well-being and harmony, the world today is being swept up into fanatical movements affecting civilized people. We are talking about a force that can destroy understanding between people, even those most cherished and loving.
Tell me the basics of the story
The plot of the film is simple, even antiquated. A father rushes to save his daughter Maryam. Intentionally or not (at beginning of the movie it is not clear), she’s found herself in the hand of pure evil of ISIS (a terrorist organization forbidden in the civilized world).
In the high mountain village of Dagestan the villagers attend morning prayers in the mosque. This village has a council of village elders, with children always playing on a nearby hill. The mountains are eternity there, making it look like nothing can destroy their way of life. But beyond this world there is a conflicting modernism barging into the village in the form of an anti-terrorist group looking for Maryam.
What determined your casting choices?
For the main role of Arthur I cast Geza Morcsanyi who is a translator of Russian literature from Hungary (and also a playwright and publisher who debuted as an actor in Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi’s “On Body and Soul” which won the Berlin Golden Bear). For the role of Maryam, Ekaterina Kramarenko an actress from St. Petersburg who is Russian-Greek. The role of the doctor Khalid is played by Lithuanian actor Daryus Gumauskas. I’m using this technique as a director because it’s important for me to show that the story is not just local, but widespread. Also, many of the actors are non professionals and the villagers of Kahabroso played themselves.
Andrey, I believe “Palmyra” had a long gestation. Can you tell me how the production was mounted and who financed it?
Andrey Sigle: Bearing in mind the wide geography of the film (Syria, Turkey, Dagestan, Russia) and, accordingly, the difficulties in organizing the shoot, two years of production is not so long. We had extensive negotiations with the Syrian company Shaghaf but unfortunately, they did not end up with anything because the difficult military situation in Syria did not give us a chance to do everything that we dreamed of. We planned to shoot approximately a half of the film there. However, after we had some discussions with our military in Syria and the Mukhabarat-local security service, they both convinced us that our international film crew, foreign actors, should not be put at risk. It reminded me of our work with Alexander Sokurov on the film “Alexandra” in the hectic time in the Chechen Republic. I had enough extreme situations. We filmed only several episodes in Syria. The main shooting took place in a mountain village in Dagestan.
What about the financing?
The bulk of our projects are supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, we are very grateful to them for this support. And this time, most of the production budget of ‘Palmyra’ was covered by a subsidy from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. As for private funds, we had only internal funds from the Proline Film studio.
What do you think the international appeal is for this film, especially in a post-pandemic world?
This film is not about the war. It is about the human destinies that the war breaks – a war with an animal face, with an animal grin of hatred, ignorance, religious fanaticism. We talk about the values of human life in the film. The main character of the film is a common doctor, an ordinary person, a father who goes to Syria to save his daughter. This is by no means a military operation – just the fate of the family in these terrible circumstances.
What is the international distribution strategy?
We are negotiating with European and Asian sales agents; we also believe that the film is competitive in the American market. It is no secret that the (coronavirus) circumstances has slowed down the process. But we continue with the film marketing and, in particular, we are convinced that the participation in the KBE and the Cannes Marche du film will activate international film promotion.