Growing Up Russian-American, Combing Through Soviet-Era Film Archives, and Avoiding Communist Kitsch
It’s not exactly news that sports can be a realm where nationalism plays itself out in a more benign fashion than war, but Gabe Polsky’s Red Army examines the last decade of the Cold War through the lens of hockey. Relying heavily on a varied array on archival footage, as well as present-day interviews, he centers on Soviet hockey great Slava Fetisov, who came to prominence in the early 1980s. Despite a few odd stylistic tics, such as printing interview subjects’ names first in Cyrillic and then in English, Polsky, who has gone back and forth between fiction and documentary and direction and production, is more concerned with illuminating the differences between the U.S. and U.S.S.R than with portraying communists as backward. Fetisov learned to play hockey well, but his training came at the cost of a private life. Though he and his Russian peers were finally allowed to play in the NHL, Red Army doesn’t present this as an unmitigated triumph. While acknowledging the human cost of communism, it also depicts their culture shock, being attacked by North American players and the media, and having difficulty adjusting to a more individualistic playing style. Now that American-Russian tensions are flaring up again, this reminder of the last Cold War feels more contemporary—and painful—than it might have five years ago.
StudioDaily: Given that your parents were Russian immigrants, how did you feel about Russia and the U.S.S.R. growing up?
Gabe Polsky: Frankly, I was a little bit embarrassed when I was a kid. I felt resentment, to a degree. I can’t say that our family were included in the community as warmly as they could’ve been. I really wanted to assimilate in American culture. For a kid, it’s important to fit in like everyone else. It’s easier on you, so that’s what it was like. Russian was my first language, but slowly I started to disregard it.
Did you live in a neighborhood with other Russians?
There were very few. Those that were there were friends of my family. It was a small community with very few Russians and big cultural differences. It wasn’t Brighton Beach. We were “the Russians.”
Are you old enough that the country was still communist when you were a kid?
Yes, but just the word and the signs of difference. I know my parents were from there and that they were different from other parents in terms of the food we ate. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know any better.
Were you a hockey fan or player at the time?
I was a pretty serious hockey player. In my age group, I was one of the best in the state. I ended up playing Division 1 college hockey. It was my passion in life. I wanted to take it to the highest level I could. That introduced me to the Soviet hockey system.
How old were you when you discovered it?
When I was 13, I had one of the first coaches from the former Soviet Union who was working in the U.S. It was really quite a coincidence. It opened me up to this new way of looking at the sport, from more of a creative standpoint. The training and mentality opened me up to looking at it as a team and unit, rather than individuals. That was really inspiring. Then, when I was 15, I saw the Soviet Union team play for the first time on a VHS tape that I had. That blew my mind. I realized that everything I’d learned before then was a joke. Their style of play was so creative and revolutionary. I wanted to know more about it. Why the hell aren’t we learning and playing this style of hockey in the U.S,? They don’t teach creativity here. We played such a primitive style here. That inspired me to look much deeper into my own culture and heritage.
Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov; photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Was it hard to gain the trust of your interview subjects?
Russians are very stoic in a way, and very reserved naturally. I grew up with Russian parents, so it helped that I had a Russian background. As soon as we talked, they opened up. It helped that I obviously knew a lot about Russia and Soviet hockey. I was prepared.
Had they been asked about these things before?
Not really. Not to the level I was going for. I think [Slava] Fetisov will tell you that. He told me he’s never opened up like this in his life.
What kind of camera did you use?
I used a Red [Epic].
Did you have any problems finding archival footage?
There was so much of it that sorting through it was my biggest problem. For the Russian footage, I had to go to Russia to find it. The organization there isn't very good, so I had to look through old film cans and try to find things that were unique and people hadn’t seen before. I wanted to find things that gave people a sense of that time period and elicited emotions that helped the story.
Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov’s parents; courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics
Are you happy with the mix of video textures? Obviously, the interviews look quite good, but some of the games, which were shot in the ’80s, now look pretty primitive.
From the feedback I’ve been getting, people like that. It gives it the felling of the era. If you were to try and make it look uniform, it wouldn’t work. It’s appropriate for the era — it looks like it’s from the ’80s. I’m happy with the way things interrelate, and I haven’t gotten any feedback where people say it’s jarring. At first, I was concerned about that.
I thought it was interesting that you avoid simply depicting the story of the Soviet hockey players coming to North America as being liberating for them. They go through a lot of problems. Was their story a lot more complex than you initially envisioned?
Yes, it is. I went in open-minded. I’m a guy who enjoys movies that are complex and open-ended. It was a pleasant surprise that things added more layers. It illustrates the metaphor that people in North America don’t understand the Russian mentality and who these people are on a human level. They just think “Oh, they’re from over there. They’re robots. They’re bad, they’re mean.” This movie allows people to understand their experience and empathize with it. It doesn’t matter if you’re Russian or Mexican. Immigrants go through a lot. We need to relate to it and understand their story.
Left to right: Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov and Vladimir Putin; courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics
As far as you know, what are Fetisov’s current political views?
I don’t know on specific issues, All I know is that he had an opportunity to go back to Russia, the place where he grew up, and help with a very bad situation. It was full of chaos and near collapse. From his mouth, he’s doing the best he can to use sport to unify people and make the country a better place. He’s using it as a force for good. I don’t want to get into that, but I know that he knows Putin and skates with him occasionally. I don’t know what he does with him.
Bare-chested hunting trips?
There are a number of recent documentaries, especially about North Korea, that wallow in communist kitsch. Did you ever feel like that might be a danger for you?
Yeah. First of all, my sensitivity to cliché and kitsch is extremely high. I just don’t want anything like that. I don’t like it. As a director, you make choices on every frame of the film and at the end of the day, your taste is on the screen. I was completely aware of that and didn’t want it. I wanted to avoid expectations. You try to do that with every movie. That’s the goal. Because I have a background where I’ve experienced communism to some degree, I’m not into that stuff as kitsch. I don’t think it’s cool.
I don’t know if you’ve been to the KGB Bar in [New York City's] East Village, but I went to a screening of an Andrezj Wadja film once, and as I was leaving, I heard a Russian filmgoer ranting about it and saying, “No one would ever open a bar called SS or Gestapo.” I think he has a point.
Fetisov said, “How many movies are there where the Russians are the good guys? Almost none.” They’re always the bad guy. Always. Maybe one good one every now and again.
I don’t know how long you were in pre-production, but do you feel like your film has a new relevance that it might not have had a few years ago?
I wanted to make a timeless movie that would connect with people 20 years from now, because it’s a fascinating story with great characters and broad themes. It’ll always be relevant. The fact that the Cold War circuit seems to be going full circle is a coincidence. Sure, if it helps the movie, great — but even if it didn’t happen, the film will be relevant. People don’t understand the Russian people. The people leading Russia now all grew up under the Soviet Union. This is the history and mentality that shaped them. Maybe our leaders should watch the film and learn something. The key to communication is understanding the other side. I know some very high-level people have seen it, including one former president.
I’m not going to say, but I know he appreciated it.
Do you have any new projects that you’re working on?
I’ve written two feature films that I’m very passionate and excited about. I’ve got another documentary. I’m working on some television projects. We’ll see how all this goes and where the opportunities will be. I’ve got things that are getting ready, but with independent filmmaking, you never know which opportunities will be the ones.
Red Army opens Friday, January 23, in New York and Los Angeles.