In the right light, the stuff of everyday life can be imbued with mystery. In these moments lives are not just commonplace, instead, they feel tied back to older, more grandiose legacies. In Continuity of Parks, Russian Director Zhenia Kazankina imagines the heroes of Greek mythology to be living in Moscow’s 850th Anniversary Park, located on the vast metropolis’ outskirts. Combining a keen sense of observation with carefully choreographed sequences, her oddball sensibility – previously witnessed in deadpan border hotel drama Rio – comes to the forefront, creating a fascinating exploration of what happens when the normal meets the otherworldly. Told almost entirely in the twilight hour, Theseus, Cerberus and Aphrodite carry on in a world that feels both natural and oddly managed, weaving a magical spell that neatly treads the line between fiction and documentary. For today’s Continuity of Parks premiere, we invited Kazankina back to DN to talk to her about the advantages of shooting on film, the difficulties of post-production in Russia and allowing her actors to embody their roles without interference.
I’m fascinated by the way Greek Myth resurfaces in a park in Moscow. What inspired you to re-imagine characters like Hecate, Cerberus and the Minotaur living in present-day Russia?
The idea for this film came to me when I was travelling in Portugal (my last trip before the COVID lockdown in 2020). I was reading The Centaur by John Updike at that time. This is an American novel where the main character’s life during the Great Depression is paralleled with mythology. The action of the novel constantly switches between these two layers of reality, creating a magical and, at the same time, doomed feeling.
I thought a lot about the contextuality of our perception of reality. Having such a colossal experience of consuming information from artworks already created by mankind, how do we look at the modern world? It all came together in my head when I was walking in the park in Sintra, a small town near Lisbon. I saw a worker in a bright orange vest pulling a yellow lawn hose. I immediately realised that he could be Theseus, lost in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and his hose is nothing but the thread of Ariadne, which shows him the way. I photographed him then. From time to time returning to that picture, I began to think about how it would be possible to transfer the heroes of ancient Greek myths to modern reality.
In this film, I really wanted to break this idea of heroism.
How did you think about creating otherwise ordinary situations that could be imbued with magic realism?
In cinema – I thought of this while making this film – we always see heroes. Whether they are superheroes or antiheroes. They can be losers, but from a dramatic and narrative point of view, they are still heroes, even if they’re losers. They are heroes in the sense that we can identify with them, even with their weaknesses. But in this film, I really wanted to break this idea of heroism. Gods and Heroes from ancient Greek mythology are no longer at the centre of the universe – they are deprived of their superpowers, they are only part of a common plan, a body among other bodies. Their ‘heroism’ has disappeared, now they are just passers-by, behind whom we stopped to watch. I was interested in converting a classic narrative, looking at myth not through the eyes of a hero, but from somewhere else, from outside.
There are countless parks in Moscow. What attracted you to Moscow’s 850th Anniversary Park in particular?
I really love the work of the Russian electronic musician Kedr Livanskiy. This is a young girl who lives on the outskirts of Moscow and makes amazing music. I’m subscribed to her Instagram and from time to time she posts photos from her area. I found this park just through her Instagram stories. We went to scout and knew right away that this was the perfect location. First, it’s a big park. It has a lot of wild, natural places. For me, it was important to find a location where the natural would border the industrial. Secondly, it was fundamentally important for us to find a park in which there would be a river (which became the Styx in our film)
What was it like getting permission to shoot there? Has it gotten harder to make films in Russia over the past year?
We shot Continuity of Parks in the summer of 2020. Due to the long post-production and festival circuit, the film is being released online only now. During the lockdown, the parks were closed in Moscow, and during the scouting we made our way through the fences, hiding from the guards. It was very annoying to wait to see if the lockdown would be relaxed and if the park would officially open in the summer, so we could shoot there. In the end, everything worked out.
It was important to find a location where the natural would border the industrial.
In the middle of summer, the park opened and we were able to get permission quite easily. Since then, I have made two more films. One of them has already started its festival run, and the second is just waiting for the premiere. I shot one of these films in the spring of last year, right after the beginning of the war. This is a very short experimental documentary about my friends who had to leave Russia. We shot this film with a tiny crew (me and my DoP) and we shot it indoors, so we didn’t need to get any official permission for that.
I’m also very interested in how much was staged vs. documentary filmmaking. There seem to be moments that are captured off the cuff while there are others that are very much choreographed. I’d love to know the breakdown.
Some of the ancient Greek heroes we chose for the film have fixed attributes or poses (such as Ariadne’s sleeping pose, Theseus’ thread, or Aphrodite’s birth from water). Here my desire was to harmoniously dissolve these well-recognised symbols in modern reality. We needed to choreograph the actions of our characters (or just the poses) so that they fit within the space of the park. We rehearsed it and looked for suitable places for such shots.
Also, our need to reduce the whole atmosphere of the film to something magical and borderline made us look at the location differently. For example, the park itself became a labyrinth in our film. In fact, our job was to find places in the park that would embody this mythological atmosphere. We documented such places and they became “the air” of the film.
Shooting on Kodak film helps to give the movie this otherworldly texture, as well as capture all these lovely colours. What was the advantage of using Kodak and were there any drawbacks/difficulties?
Continuity of Parks is the first film that we shot entirely on 16mm film. Before that, I only shot on super8 and it was more of an experimental experience. In addition to the very nature of the image that the film gives, it is also the tool that completely changes the course of work and the atmosphere on set. Film taught me the sensitivity and trust of chance, as well as the ability to carefully prepare for shooting. You know, on set we always have time for costume, for set design, for actors, but the camera (if it’s digital) is always considered ready.
I don’t like it when I am visible, as a director, through the work of my actors.
We kind of stopped giving it enough attention, taking full control of it. Film changes this attitude radically. When shooting on film, the camera becomes as much a member of the crew as any other. We work with it as equals, trusting it and not having full control over it – and there is a very special beauty in that, in my opinion. Difficulties with working on the film were mainly related to post-production. In Russia, there is no laboratory for film development and scanning (it sounds like a joke, but unfortunately it’s true) so we found the Focus Film lab in Stockholm and decided to take the film there.
I assumed you shot most of it during the twilight time, as evening settles in. What were your setups like in order to capture the light properly during this period?
Yes, it was very important for me to fit all the action of the film in one evening – from twilight to complete darkness. We shot for seven days, shooting literally 40 minutes a day – that’s how long the ‘golden hour’ lasts. We shot either early in the morning at dawn or in the evening at sunset, using a minimum of additional lighting. Since the weather in Moscow is changeable in summer, sometimes we determined that the shooting would take place literally an hour before the appointed time. We nervously looked at the sky, trying to figure out if there would be good lighting at the right time. We had all the mise-en-scène and shooting points prepared in advance so that when we arrived at the set, we immediately started filming.
We shot for seven days, shooting literally 40 minutes a day – that’s how long the ‘golden hour’ lasts.
What I love about this film and also Rio is the way that your actors embody the topic, making it feel at once natural and offbeat. What are your directions to your players? Is it all tightly rehearsed or is there some spontaneity?
I don’t like it when I am visible, as a director, through the work of my actors. I mean, I don’t agree with the fact that actors must necessarily be the mouthpiece of the director and must carry some idea in their image. Therefore, I don’t believe in unambiguous characters and often don’t believe in acting expressiveness. I love long rehearsals with actors; I love improvisations, acting games and techniques. This gives rise to many new details that we save and transfer to set. I don’t like to improvise when shooting, and I like to shoot quickly without having the actors repeat dozens of takes.
The sound design is also excellent, really immersing us in this time and place. Was it all picked up on location or did you do some extra work? What was the mixing process like?
We wanted to record as many sounds in the park as possible and set aside a separate day for this. It’s important for me to fill the film with authentic sound. Often I myself record something on my phone and then insert it into the film and this film is no exception. During mixing, we worked mainly with the already recorded sound, complementing it with accent foley and electronic sound design.
What are you working on next?
Not so long ago I finished another short film, and I hope it will have a worthy premiere at festivals. I’m currently writing the script for my new short film, which should be a proof of concept for my feature film.