Helle Faber – Russia’s Nashi like Hitler Youth, says producer of Putin’s Kiss

'Putin’s Kiss', photo: Made in Copenhagen

Helle Faber’s production company Made in Copenhagen has been behind a string of documentary films that have made an impact far beyond the borders of her native Denmark. The producer has just been in Prague for the One World festival of human rights documentaries, giving workshops for local filmmakers at the East Doc Forum sidebar and introducing her company’s Putin’s Kiss, an excellent documentary that maps the fate of a leading member of Russia’s pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi.

'Putin’s Kiss',  photo: Made in Copenhagen
Given that 11 of the films at this year’s One World are Danish-produced, the first thing I asked Helle Faber was: How come Denmark is bringing out so many quality documentaries?

“It’s a difficult question to answer, but I think that one of the reasons is that we have built up a tradition and an approach to documentary which is in a way like the approach that you would have to fiction.

“This means that we work very closely with the narrative, with our characters, and we use all the tools from telling fictional stories in documentaries. I think that’s an important part of it.

You’re here at the East Doc Platform, which supports the production of documentary films in Central and Eastern Europe. What’s been your impression of the forum?

“It’s been very exciting to be here. I’ve been tutoring all together maybe 10 or 11 projects at very different stages. I think you have a variety of very exciting stories to tell. And it’s all a matter of you getting out there on the market and showing what you have to tell the world.

“I think that’s where you could improve – to be more present in different markets and show what you have to offer, because there are so many stories here. Very many stories.”

Have you perceived a difference in approach between filmmakers from this part of the world and in Denmark, or in the West in general?

Helle Faber,  photo: Made in Copenhagen
“Something that struck me is that people here are very much focused on cinema release. Of course we’re also focused on cinema release, but there are so many other windows.

“I don’t think that there will be great audiences in the cinemas for documentaries, unless it’s a very spectacular case and you have a lot of money in the bag for promotion, which is rarely the case.

“So I think that might be one of the more visible differences – many producers in my part of the world are more focused on television slots.”

Also I noticed that among the Danish films that are showing here at One World, all of them, I think, are made outside Denmark. Is getting outside your country and travelling also a key to success?

“Of course for international purposes it is. But we also do films about Danish topics. I have a film coming out in Denmark very soon.

“But sometimes Danish topics are not that interesting for the rest of the world. So I think that reason that you see films here that are made outside Denmark is that it has a more international focus.”

You’ve also been presenting your film Putin’s Kiss, which mainly concerns the story of a young woman called Masha Drokova, who at the start of the film is a senior member of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin group in Russia. What was the attraction of that subject?

“It was shocking for us to realise that this organisation was actually established in Russia, and also that it had the ability to engage young people like Masha.

Masha Drokova in 'Putin’s Kiss',  photo: Made in Copenhagen
“And of course we were shocked about the undemocratic methods they used and we were shocked that this was actually going in on 2008, 2009, when we started doing the film.

“I think that we really have to be aware of organisations like that, because in my opinion it’s just like the Hitlerjugend in the ‘30s. I thought that the world had become wiser, but we obviously haven’t. So I think it’s very important to put the focus on an issue like this.”

In the film, we see Masha gradually move away from Nashi. We also meet this blogger and campaigning journalist called Oleg Kashin, and learn about what happened to him. How important is it for the filmmaker to find and follow such a dramatic story, instead of simply reporting on this dodgy group in Russia?

“A film is able to do so much more. Because you have the time and the layers in the film you actually have the time to engage your audience on an emotional level, which news pieces don’t.

“Because you have the ability to work with emotions, it will be much stronger for you audience. You can actually feel in your stomach what Masha is going through, you can actually feel the fear of Nashi, because you see and experience in your own way how they’re taking over the streets.”

The film was made over a four-year period. In that time, did you have any sense that Nashi, or even the Russian authorities, were concerned about it?

“Not really, because we were sort of working under the radar. We didn’t actually apply for press accreditation or a press visa. But of course when we entered the Nashi summer camp we needed press accreditation for that, which we got.

Masha Drokova with her sister,  photo: Made in Copenhagen
“I think they’re so proud of what they’re doing and they wanted to show the rest of the world what’s going on. So it wasn’t really a problem.”

I’ve been told that towards the end of the filmmaking process you made a big change in the structure.

“Yes, we did. The film started out as Masha’s story. We wanted to follow her to the top of Nashi and in that sense to tell a story about modern politics in Russia and how you actually get to the top under the leadership of Putin.

“But as Masha became more and more reluctant to participate in this film, and because we started feeling that she had some controversies with her superior [Nashi founder] Vasily Yakemenko, and we couldn’t get the access to her that we wanted in this process, we decided to open up to more characters and actually put the opposition into the film.

“That was a very good decision, because we went from zero, when we always had to rely on Masha, and she always had to open the door to us, if we had some material to shoot.

“Then suddenly we more characters and we had a lot of material to shoot. So it was a very important decision. But of course it changed the structure completely. It went from a coming of age story to a very complex political story.”

There have been a few Western films about today’s Russia, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Why do you think it’s such a fascinating subject for Western filmmakers?

“Because Russia is a country that we have a lot of prejudices about, and it’s also a country that we know very little about. It’s fascinating and scary at the same time.

“When you go there you actually realise that so much is going on. Everything is moving very, very fast. Moscow is a highly modern city. The Russian teenager is a highly modern teenager, but still it’s very difficult for young people to have their own apartment.

“Poverty is just underneath the glittery images of billboards and advertisements, and stuff like that. So there’s so much to be fascinated about in Russia.

Vladimir Putin,  photo: European Commission
“But actually when we started out we didn’t see anything about contemporary Russia on the market, which is why partly we set off with this film. We saw a lot about historic Russia, but nothing about contemporary Russia and nothing that was actually pointing ahead.”

We see Masha kissing Putin in the film and it’s called of course Putin’s Kiss. Does the title also imply that, at the end of the day, everything goes back to Putin in Russia today?

“I think more the title implies that a kiss is something you can have more out of love. But it’s also something you can have in order to sell your soul. We really liked that duality; it might be a kiss from somebody you love, and it might be a kiss from the Devil – that’s up to the viewer to decide [laughs].”