Courtesy of Vadim Perelman
Vadim Perelman is an unusual person and director. First, he is a citizen of the world. Born in Ukraine, «registered» and living in Canada, the United States, and Europe, and shooting movies in Hollywood and Russia. Secondly, few of his colleagues can boast of such an amazing film debut.
His film House of Sand and Fog (2003) got 3 Oscar nominations and 1 for the Golden Globe, as well as the high praise of Steven Spielberg himself, who helped this movie succeed. Perelman knows how to very subtly convey the shades of emotions, every movement of the soul, forcing the audience to empathize with his characters.
This mastership was brilliantly manifested in the Persian Lessons film (2020), which was created by a multinational team: Germans, French, Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, and Argentines…
Here, as in the first movie, the topic of the search for a «common language» by people belonging to different ethno-cultural worlds is explored. By the irony of history, the multilingual Persian Lessons was nominated for an Oscar but was ultimately disqualified due to its multinational cast and crew.
Vadim Perelman spoke about the language of emotions and mysticism in his life in a frank interview with the Huxleў almanac.
Vadim Perelman: Hello, Zhanna! By the way, that’s my mother’s name.
Zhanna Kryuchkova: I was named after my grandmother. By the way, she starred in Romm’s Admiral Ushakov. In a crowd scene, playing the role of the court lady.
V.P.: My grandmother starred in the same film as an iron-clad (laughs).
Z.K.: Wow! That’s an interesting coincidence.
I watched Persian Lessons in Spain. In my opinion, this is a masterpiece. I’ll start our interview with a kind of an insider tip game. Il onai au (editor’s note: «I love you»). How often have you heard this phrase lately?
Vadim Perelman: I hear this phrase quite often. Even yesterday. By the way, what do I answer?
Il bar onai au (editor’s note: «I love you too»).
Vadim Perelman: Great! (Laughs). It will be very pleasant for a writer if he reads about it somewhere, because he always wanted the language to be alive.
Persian Lessons exhibition at the Berlinale. Gala Special. 10-minute standing ovation. You are at the hall. You’ve been waiting for this. What emotions did you have at this moment?
Vadim Perelman: This is always unexpected. When I make a film, I never know 100% if a really good movie comes out of this process and whether the crowd is going to welcome it. I rather feel and hope, but I cannot know for sure until I see how the public reacts to it. Studios, producers, moms, wives, friends, and colleagues – everything doesn’t cut it. This happens with all my films.
When you go to a premiere, you prepare yourself for everything. You make yourself harder on purpose so as not to be vulnerable. You say to yourself: «Even if they don’t like everything, well, whatever! I did it the way I wanted and I like it!» You are on the stretch for the whole show, and when there is a storm of applause at the end, you exhale: «Well, good».
An interesting thing happened in Berlin. The cinema there is a huge two-tiered palace, and the audience is cinema devotees and actors. Everyone knows that I am sitting at the auditorium and that their favorite actor Lars Eidinger, the main character of the movie, is also here.
The thought crossed my mind that this affects the perception of the film. This is not Cannes, where they can boo if they don’t like the film. Therefore, I did not particularly believe in the minute of Berlin’s applause. I was skeptical and wary.
And two days later there was a show in Potsdam, at a small cinema with something like three hundred seats. The premiere of those that are not attended in suits. An ordinary public, including different people – from students to Russian emigrants.
Moreover, it was Monday and it was raining, it was cold and disgusting outside. But the standing ovation lasted about 15 minutes, although no one was filming it. The audience applauded not for me — for the screen. For them, I was not present at the hall.
In a way, this exhibition has become even more important to me.
Can we say that Persian Lessons is a story about earthlings, people not limited by territory, religion, or language?
Vadim Perelman: This is a truly universal story. It’s not about Jews, Persians, Germans, or anyone else. As in House of Sand and Fog, the characters could have been of any nationality, not necessarily Iranian. They could have been Russian or Chinese emigrants, but this would not have changed the situation.
Persian Lessons is not a specific film about the Holocaust — it is a specific film about human survival. A movie about the power of the soul, will, and mind.
Every director looks for himself in his works. Gilles is a Jew who pretends to be a Persian in order to survive at the concentration camp. It was me, when I came to Canada, not knowing English, and over the first years in emigration I was forced to pretend and constantly felt like a fake.
Do you agree that there is no single protagonist in the film, but there is a student-teacher relationship?
Vadim Perelman: I do. And it attracts me. In House of Sand and Fog it was a similar way. By the way, this is a good question. I hadn’t thought about it before, but, apparently, I unintentionally choose stories like this, and it’s working fine for me.
I know that the film was already nominated for an Oscar and was soon withdrawn from the race.
Vadim Perelman: We were nominated for an Oscar as the Best International Feature Film, and then disqualified with the wording: «Not in the language of the country». Persian Lessons was filmed in Belarus, in Bobruisk and on the site of the Belarusfilm studio.
There is a certain irony in the fact that the film about the language ran into a language obstacle…
Vadim Perelman: But the main reason is that there were not enough Belarusians in key positions. According to the rules of the American Motion Picture Academy, at least a writer, director, composer, or one of the main actors must be Belarusians.
Our international group turned out to be a stranger both here and there. But that doesn’t mean anything to me. When I saw the audience at the premiere in Berlin — not the ovation, but the faces of people — it was a completely different feeling.
House of Sand and Fog was very well received, but there people were leaving the cinema hall as if they were going out of the Mausoleum, being knocked down and emotionally killed. And here they felt the positive energy, because there is a positive ending, as far as it can be called like this. Fifty thousand Jews died, but the protagonist survived to erect a monument to these people.
Don’t you think that the Made-in stamp is archaic, especially in the creative fields?
Vadim Perelman: Yes, I do. The realities of the business are that 90% of the films are co-produced by different countries. Always at the Oscars there was the wording «a film in a foreign language», and if we were judged by the language, then our language is not English indeed.
If we had known in advance that the rules would be so strict, we would have tried to represent Germany — we had Germans in our movie. But there are no guarantees here either: a country can submit only one film, so maybe they would have had a better one. Moreover, we are not familiar with their nomination policy.
Persian Lessons – fiction or reality?
Vadim Perelman: The film says «Inspired by real events». As a basis, our screenwriter Tsofin took Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s story Persian for a Kapo with a similar plot. I think such a story could well have taken place. But there is no documentary evidence. In general, there are a million real stories of survival. For example, the artist and writer of Jewish origin Bruno Schulz from Drohobych managed to evade death during the occupation because he painted frescoes in the house of the SS man Felix Landau.
How did your love with the script appear?
Vadim Perelman: That was a pure coincidence. I was called to the shooting of the Yolki-5 film in Moscow. By the way, I am ashamed of it. But I really wanted to come to get my girlfriend, who is my wife now, back. After filming, I became friends with a talented producer Timur Bekmambetov. He showed me the script of Persian Lessons — and I fell in love with it immediately. This is how I paid with «Yolki-5» for winning my beloved and getting a wonderful script.
In general, a good script is hard to find. And this is exactly what gathers great people around it. I am constantly seeking out materials and books. There are already a couple of thousand paper books and tens of thousands of electronic ones in my library.
Many films fail due to a lackluster ending. But this one draws you to tears and sends goose-bumps down your spine…
Vadim Perelman: I will reveal one secret. To make the final scene so emotional, I controlled the editing of each frame — that is, 1/24 of a second. I tried to show how the characters react to the words of the protagonist.
Their looks are what matters. It is in them that the audience see themselves. And when you see yourself, you cry. Even when we watch horror movies, we imagine ourselves in this situation. «Ah… uh…» — and something jumps out, but it doesn’t scare you, but the character on the screen.
Can you burst into tears while watching a movie or reading a book?
Vadim Perelman: When I first read the House of Sand and Fog book, I cried at the end. I can burst into tears both on the shooting stage and during the editing of my films. The last time this happened was when the final scene of Persian Lessons was edited.
I read that your favorite movie is still Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio de Sica, made in 1948. What is it about it that grabbed you so much?
Vadim Perelman: The honesty of this movie. The theme of fathers and sons is close to me, and I plan to address it in my future movies. I lost my father when I was 9 years old. I disagree with the wording that this is a film about a little man in a ruthless world. For me, this is a movie about a great man.
And this film is my favorite one because it is very simple: archetypal, universal, and emotional. The ending is just brilliant — it is second to none in the cinema. I cannot recall this scene without tears. Everyone shouts: «Thief! You dirty thief!» — and kick the father.
And the boy looks at this with his eyes wide open, because his father, his God, his idol is called a thief and is pushed out with disgust. Like, you’re not even worth arresting. The father walks and cries, because he is an honest, genuine person, and not a thief at all.
And the boy walks aloof and looks at him. This look — is he just a person, not a thief, or maybe he really is a thief? Then the boy approaches his father and takes his hand. What could be better than this moment?
Here is a quote from one work: «You know, I think that only if one feels immensely important can one feel truly light». Do you share this opinion?
Vadim Perelman: I do not know any creative, truly gifted people who are fully aware of their importance. If they do, then they are worthless. This is just a fake, a bogus. A creative person constantly suffers, doubts, and that is why he succeeds in what he does. This has nothing to do with ease. No, I don’t. And whose quote was that?
This is from Ayn Rand’s book. I just know that you refused to make a film based on the book Atlas Shrugged, having lost the opportunity to earn a couple of millions.
Vadim Perelman: I refused to make a film based on Ayn Rand’s book when I came to the seminar of the Randists. They spoke like «ecology, clean air, charity — this is for suckers». As leaders in their respective industries, they proudly called themselves «prime movers». If I had a small carrier company, I would call it Prime Movers (laughs).
Ayn Rand’s books carry a radical ideology. She promotes rational and ethical selfishness while rejecting altruism. This attitude is not a twin of mine. The author steamrolls this philosophy in her texts. Of course, as a director, I could disguise it, but it would still be visible.
Even Wikipedia has written about your selectivity as a director. Is this your DNA?
Vadim Perelman: I have never had any regrets about the projects I refused. If they had been good, I would have agreed. I try not to get into shit because the smell will stay on my shoes and will be with me everywhere.
And even with such selectivity, there were projects I am sorry for. I refused to shoot The Master and Margarita because it is not a movie, but a book. There are books that are not films, and that is why no one could really make them adequately. Thank God I felt it.
Or, for example, Battleship Potemkin — a proposal from Sony Pictures. You don’t need to make it at all. This is a piece of propaganda, a well done communist propaganda. It’s not just a baby buggy that falls down the stairs. There is a huge political message in this. Why would you shoot this in 2012? And secondly, the cinema classics are not worth messing with: I wouldn’t be able to do a better job anyway.
What is success for you?
Vadim Perelman: I am often asked why I shoot so few films. You got the offers, you were very popular in Hollywood and could get a leg in movies with fees of two or three million. Why don’t you live like Michael Bay? Why don’t you drive a Ferrari? What was the Box Office that your movie made? Thank God these questions don’t bother me much. And this is the way it is easier for me to live. Or rather, more difficult. And the main measure of success for me is the faces of the audience at the premiere of my films. Their emotions.
Many philosophers say that now humanity needs highest values more than ever. And their oblivion will be the biggest disaster. Do you think people of art are responsible for what they broadcast to the world?
Vadim Perelman: First of all, the values are different for everyone. Even the 10 biblical commandments do not unite people. I believe that a person has a certain morality from the birth, and the environment and society impose a different one on him. Many people distort values according to their own understanding, creating new interpretations. This creates a feeling of radical rightness.
There were also values in Hitler’s Germany. Leni Riefenstahl, in her films Triumph of the Will and Olympia, showed the Third Reich and the perfection of the Aryan race in the best possible way. From a professional point of view, her movies are aesthetic and talented, but this is the propaganda filth.
There are also positive examples. One of the best feminist films Sweetie by Australian director Jane Campion has been created in a very delicate way — like a seduction. You are not being dipped in a puddle in an attempt to turn you into a feminist.
But at the end of the movie, I raise my hands. I give up. I am a feminist. And this is true art for me. And a subtle broadcast of progressive values. By the way, it is a mistake to think that documentaries are neutral. They are not. They also always carry the position of the creator, because the creator sees everything through his or her own prism.
In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Joshua asks Pilate a question: «Dot you think that you have hung my life up?» How much can a person control his or her own life?
Vadim Perelman: I believe in fate. We can only control our karma through the totality of our own actions. And this echoes with Christianity: «Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you». I am sure that if you do this, then everything will work out just fine in your life.
Does the universal law of cause and effect still work?
Vadim Perelman: Yes. Always. And miracles do happen. My mom thinks I’m incredibly lucky. I was born under a lucky star. I constantly have some kind of coincidence, and when I need it, I will get my chance.
Even if we take the book House of Sand and Fog, based on which I later directed a film in Hollywood. I accidentally bought at the airport. And not just at some airport, but in Rome, the first city where I came to after emigrating from Ukraine. But then I was a homeless teenager, and here I flew via Rome in transit to shoot a large advertising project.
I love Rome very much. It’s a landmark city for me. Maybe that’s why I like Bicycle Thieves — because poor characters traipse about Rome in the way I once did.
Was there any mystical episode on the set of Persian Lessons?
Vadim Perelman: We found in the archives an original photograph of the Germans at a picnic, where one of them was holding an accordion, and we decided to reproduce this scene in the movie. So that was the day of filming. I didn’t know how I was going to shoot the accordion scene. I think: «Now the actor will imitate the performance, and then we will edit it». And suddenly the actor Jonas Nay, who was playing a Nazi, says: «But I can sing and play the accordion». And he did everything perfectly. So everything in the film is truly original.
What is your directing style on the shooting stage?
Vadim Perelman: The styles are different. I am very demanding. I have no patience with human stupidity. Especially stupidity to the second power — when the same mistakes are repeated. I can swear and yell. Why?
Imagine that you are an artist. You take the paper, lock the door, pour yourself some vodka, and draw. You just start drawing.
But the film cannot be done that way. Because you have a thick 10 meter long pencil that is impossible to lift by yourself. So you have 30 people to whom you say: «Pick up this pencil and draw on a huge poster!». And try to explain to everyone: a little to the left, a little stronger.
Some of them cannot bear the weight; others cannot draw, although they try. At the same time, they are all good people and want to do everything well. But not everyone succeeds. And you should add a time limit to that. You only have a certain number of hours for the work. If they went wrong — everything goes to the waste-paper basket.
And you, as a director, as a creator, really, really want to express what is conceived, because this project is your life! Without some pressure, it may happen that nothing will work out. At least that’s the case for me.
One of the possible risks in making a good movie is having a large number of strong stakeholders in one project. How do you see the ideal funding structure for your films?
Vadim Perelman: It is important that there are few partners. It’s good when there are impersonal foundations that support the film, but do not interfere with the process. The fewer the chefs, the better the food. After the scriptwriter writes the script, he reverently gives it, like a child, to the director, to another parent. And the latter should raise this child with respect. The only correct decision is to get off the director’s, the only creator’s, back.
Albert Einstein called himself a citizen of the world and supported this idea throughout his life, stating that «Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind». Do you agree with this statement?
Vadim Perelman: I absolutely agree. Especially because he was a Jew and I am Jewish too (laughs).
Wikipedia says that Vadim Perelman is a Ukrainian-Canadian-American film director, while our neighbors include you in the lists of outstanding Russian directors who have received recognition in Hollywood. How can I put your name in the publication?
Vadim Perelman: No need for nationalities and ties. I am a man of the world.
Everywhere I am I feel differently and alike at the same time. I was born and raised in Ukraine; then there was Italy, and I now have a Canadian passport. I have a US residence permit, and if I had a Russian passport, it would be easier with a visa. I also have an apartment in Prague, and I live there too.
Please write: a director. And that’s all.
In our almanac there is a section called Music of Thought, where we ask famous people to share one of their favorite poems. What’s yours?
Vadim Perelman: «An Interrupted Flight» by Vladimir Vysotsky.
Thanks for Persian Lessons and the interview. I wish il onay au to become a global meme – a modern Esperanto of free people.
Vadim Perelman: Oh, that would be great!
Read more about Persian Lessons and reflections on the important things through the prism of the film in the material