Tag Archives: Yellow Black and White

Steppe change

Writing for DQ, Alexandra Modestova, director general of Russian film and television consultancy Expocontent, explains how series such as The Road to Calvary and An Ordinary Woman are leading the rise in female-led dramas in the country.

Alexandra Modestova

The global market has started to open up to Russian drama. As stories have focused on the domestic market for the past 10 years, Russian series were known to offer traditional values – strong, powerful men who rule the world and drive the story, and women filling mostly secondary roles.

But times are changing. Since top Russian producers now focus on the global market and make series intended for worldwide audiences, they have to adapt the way Russian women are seen and presented by local television.

Female-led shows where women drive the story have begun appearing over the past few years, and that’s quite a step forward for the local industry. Among the most recent examples are Mata Hari, Mathilde, Ekaterina (pictured top), Sophia, The Road to Calvary, Better than Us and An Ordinary Woman.

The latter is a compelling example of another major change for Russian female characters: they can now be complex. Produced by Look Film and 1-2-3 Production for TV3, An Ordinary Woman centres on a married woman with two kids and a small flower shop. It turns out she is secretly running a prostitution network to fully cover her family’s needs, which her husband is incapable of doing. That might seem a radical way to help one’s family, but the story carries a great deal of irony and deep thought, depicting a strong woman in a world of weaker men.

An Ordinary Woman follows a mother who secretly runs a prostitution ring

The heroine is a mother of two daughters and a caring wife, yet she can be cynical, cold-headed, even cruel in her secret (but very real) life. She is a complicated, independently minded woman who has flaws and doesn’t fit into that typical kind of ‘perfect’ female characters who are too good to play by their own rules. So the title is significant – any ‘ordinary’ woman watching the series in any part of the world shares her character and complexities, her flaws and private thoughts. It’s no surprise that the series was immediately picked up by an international distributor, Cineflix Rights.

The series may seem to broadcast a new message for the local audience, but in fact women have always been strong in Russia, so it’s not only down to contemporary stories.

Several period dramas from Russia television and radio revolve around female leads based on real women in different times and circumstances. Ekaterina tells the story of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. She arrives in the country as a young girl and becomes the most powerful woman in Europe. Another drama, Sophia, is dedicated to the first influential woman in Russian history, Sophia Palaiologina, grandmother of Ivan the Terrible, who managed to survive in a harsh world filled with conspiracies. She supported the integration of a divided country and helped to push out invaders and build the Kremlin in Moscow.

These memorable heroines make their own way in a male-dominated world. They are smart and decisive enough to hold power and influence during periods when this was extremely unusual for women. These productions provide accurate historical context but with a modern look, so these women are similar at their core to women today: ambitious, intelligent, independent, passionate and imperfect.

The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy

Other compelling examples of shows where women dare live, feel and make mistakes are The Road to Calvary (NTV Broadcasting Company, distributed internationally by Dori Media) and Mathilde (Rock Films). The Road to Calvary is based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy and follows Russian intellectuals through the revolution of 1917 and the Soviet era, telling the story of two sisters. Here an absolute classic is reinvented by and for a younger generation. The young still read classic literature but nowadays they need to look at the story through a different lens.

Mathilde, presented at Mipcom in Cannes last year with support from Made in Russia, tells a classical love story: the last Russian emperor and his affair with an attractive ballerina. Again, it shows a woman full of passion who follows her desires boldly. The whole world is against her but she is able to stand up to it.

It seems that science fiction is also seen as a place for women. Better Than Us, from Yellow Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, centres on an android who seems to have her own thoughts and intentions, and looks at the impact she has on the humans around her. She is perfectly beautiful, yet any evil intentions towards her end badly for any potential offender. The series has just been acquired by Netflix from Start Video, the rights holder, and will become the first Netflix Original from Russia.

Better Than Us will be the first Netflix Original from Russia

The android woman is played by Paulina Andreeva, a rising star of Russian TV and cinema. She also plays the lead female role in Method, a series by Sreda that was among the first Russian projects acquired by Netflix. Andreeva appears as an ambitious young law enforcement graduate who is taken on as a trainee by a famous detective, her idol. But his methods of tracking down dangerous criminals and maniacs aren’t anything like she imagined.

The past few years have seen a range of high-end shows from Russia that are driven by female leads. Although there may not be many of these yet, the Russian TV industry is going international and following global trends. This includes the necessity to let women have a distinct voice and fair representation on the screen. These days fair means complex. Like real women and like the new, younger audience, female characters have to live life on their own terms. The choices they make may be different – they might be married or single, a tender mother or child-free, a successful business woman or a housewife, even a criminal, or a combination of all these.

The main point is it’s their own choice.

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Robot wars

Russian drama Better Than Us explores a near future where humans share their daily lives with robots – and the ethical dilemmas those relationships throw up. Creator Alexander Kessel tells DQ how this world was created and why science-fiction is enjoying a resurgence.

The first murder by a robot sends shockwaves through a near-future Moscow in Russian sci-fi thriller Better Than Us.

The series sees forensic scientist Georgy, who has a robot assistant, caught up in the groundbreaking crime that raises ethical questions to match the high drama that plays out in this stylised story.

The 16-part series is produced by Yellow, Black and White and Sputnik Vostok Production, and distributed by Yellow, Black and White. It is due to air next year on Channel One Russia.

Here, Alexander Kessel, series creator and CEO of Sputnik Vostok, tells DQ how the show was brought to the screen.

Alexander Kessel at this year’s MipDrama Screenings

What’s the story behind Better Than Us?
Our story centres on a family torn apart by some complex events. Georgy Safronov, a former prominent surgeon, our protagonist, tries desperately to win back his family, his job and his happy past but with little success: his ex-wife and two children are going to leave for Australia and reside there. It all takes place in a near future. We recognise our world, but there are also some innovations you and I are yet to see. The only things that are typically sci-fi in the universe of the series are androids. They are mainly helpers, but also sometimes companions and even lovers. But then there is Arisa, an android of an unknown origin with a big secret that forces other secrets to be uncovered too.

What was your inspiration for the series?
Obviously, there is a pile of sci-fi books everybody has read in childhood. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick – names known worldwide. But then there are also big sci-fi writers from my Soviet childhood who are probably only famous in Eastern Europe, who came up with a deeper philosophical and metaphorical sci-fi tradition because they had to create their ideas under state censorship. The Strougatski brothers, Bulgarian Agop Melkonyan and Pole Stanislav Lem are among them.

How did you develop the show for the network?
In 2012 we started developing the story with our team at Sputnik Vostok Production, and then in one year we shared the script of the pilot episode with every potential partner in our market. That is how we teamed up with Yellow, Black and White, who joined the project by funding the production of the pilot at the end of 2013. In 2014 and 2015, we wrote the script, and this is when Channel One confirmed their interest in show by signing an agreement. We started production in 2016 and were still shooting when we took part in this year’s MipDrama Screening in Cannes and in Séries Mania in Paris.

Are there any parallels or reflections of Russian culture or society?
Absolutely. We tried to hide, below the surface, key problems of today’s life in Russia: corruption, social disintegration, extreme radical forces and general dehumanisation due to overall consumerism. But the show has many elements of everyday Russian life, we also made an effort to tell our story in rather universal way so that viewers in other countries would watch something they don’t think of primarily as a Russian story. It could happen in any megapolis on Earth. That is why, by the way, you won’t see recognisable Moscow landmarks in the show.

Android Arisa is played by Paulina Andreeva

What ethical questions do you raise in the series and why did you want to answer these?
The agenda is both local and global. People who watched the pilot episode kept asking me if Arisa was going evolve into a human. But the core question is not sci-fi driven, it is instead about basic ethics: will human characters be able to stay human? There is a saying I like to refer to: ‘To find happiness, love people, not things; use things, not people.’ I think we are all now at a critical point of having confused both. It is a pretty common idea that I totally share – I wish we turned to each other, leaned on each other and valued direct human contact more than our gadgets and social networking, which in reality often lead to separation and loneliness.

How would you describe the writing process?
Enormously challenging! We had to start from the beginning twice, inviting new writers on board for the second attempt.

Who are the lead actors and who do they play?
Casting was done extremely carefully. Kirill Käro plays Georgy, and his wife Alla is portrayed by Olga Lomonosova. Eldar Kalimulin, a gifted young actor, plays their son. Android Arisa, both deus ex machina and femme fatale in one, is brilliantly performed by Paulina Andreeva, whose acting is superhuman.

How did you create the show’s stylised look?
We agreed that we would not use high-end, fantastical products. Every item that reflects the future is either a soon-to-be-realeased product or an existing innovative prototype. There are a dozen or more technologies of this kind in the series: bracelet communicators, foldable screens, transparent gadget bodies, active projections and so on. In addition, our future city environment is a bit more friendly than our streets today. There are no traffic jams, while there is more space. Many surfaces are screens and some images are holographic. Androids – which exist in various forms like, let’s say, smartphones – are the principal feature of this universe: they define the style a lot by their packaging, their clothes, their movement and their voices.

Better Than Us follows the aftermath of the first robot committed by a robot

How did you create the robots in the series?
The director, Andrey Dzhunkovsky, created a combined technique that includes the use of plastic, costumes and CGI.

What are the challenges of writing and producing a sci-fi series?
The major challenge is, of course, to observe the proper balance between rather widely appealing drama and its sci-fi wrapping, and not to get too seduced by the sci-fi world while creating it.

What were the biggest problems you faced, either creatively or in production?
The script took us too long. We had to rewrite it for many reasons – first creative ones then production ones.

Where was the series filmed and how did you use real locations within the show?
All the locations are in Moscow. However, we didn’t want Moscow to be recognised, so we looked for contemporary and stylish city skylines where we could add some CGI elements afterwards.

Why is sci-fi proving to be a big trend in worldwide TV drama?
I think people like to have a chance to watch the future world, to taste it, to check if what they fantasise about themselves coincides with someone’s else vision. It is very entertaining and even soothing to find that the dilemmas people face in fictional worlds are still the same as ours. It is a pure form of escapism. People all over the world need it.

What are you working on next?
We are currently finishing principal shooting of eight-episode musical Up to the Sun, which is set in the late 1970s. We have 24 episodes of melodrama From Hate to Love in production, and 17 episodes of comedy The New Person. But our biggest aspiration today is the launch of English-language coproduction Blue Blood: Eight Days of Summer, an eight-episode historical coming-of-age drama, as well as other English-language developments that we are speaking to partners, broadcasters and coproducers about.

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