The Student is a disquieting portrait of a teenager whose literal interpretation of the Bible drives him to unholy depravity.
Perhaps no modern phenomenon is more divisive than religious fanaticism. Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov's Cannes 2016 premiere The Student (Uchenik) finds its characters on either side of an ideological crevasse that might as well be the size of his motherland.
At the center of the mayhem is teenage Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov), who rejects his agnostic upbringing in favor of a choke-hold on the Bible. It all begins when he protests the school's swimwear policy, resulting in the principal's decision to ban bikinis in favor of more modest suits. The further Venya descends into the depths of religious extremism, the more he acts out at school, exposing a deep-seated bias towards conservatism in the administration. The principal and teachers uncritically endorse Venya's literal interpretations of the Bible, which he preaches with antisocial, manic fervor. "The Church needs more people like you," a teacher tells him. Eventually, he even manages to convince the school to introduce creationism alongside evolution.
There is only one person who will not get on the bandwagon: Venya's Jewish biology teacher. In the midst of all the fundamentalist gospel, Elena's (Victoria Isakova) protests, fueled by scientific reasoning and open-minded socio-political values, fall upon deaf ears. Even as she tests the limits of Biblical logic in an effort to "understand Venya" by introducing different interpretations, the film's oft-satirical world sees Elena as the irrational zealot.
The Student—a play on words lost in translation, as the Russian word for "student," uchenik, is similar to the word for "martyr," muchenik—pits the modern world against the shadow of its former self. No Film School sat down with Serebrennikov to discuss his fearlessness in the face of political repercussions, the film's scintillating cinematography, and the pain of religion.
No Film School: The story was adapted from a play which you produced, correct?
Kirill Serebrennikov: Yes, originally it was a play by Marius von Mayenburg, which he staged in the Schaubühne Theater in Berlin. I wrote him for permission to adapt it. I [staged] the production in the Gogol Center, a theater which I've run for three years, and it was very successful.
[Mayenburg] didn't come to Russia to the opening because of political issues. He's strictly against the Anti-Gay Law in Russia, so he wanted to support the gay community in Russia and in Germany, who are fighting against this terrible law. He saw the film yesterday for the first time and was very excited.
NFS: How did you transition from the theater to producing the film?
Serebrennikov: We decided shoot [the film], but we had no money from the government, only independent money. I asked the producers if they were scared of political issues and all the religious things, which is not good to talk about in Russia now. They told me, "No, it will be an independent movie." Last August we shot in Kaliningrad, a former German city, which became Russian after the Second World War. There we found the school, the children, the flat, apartment of the main character and so on.
NFS: So you cast most of the actors from the town?
Serebrennikov: Mainly the cast came from the theater production, but I changed the main character because the actor in the theater is older. I had to find a real boy, a young actor. And the other actors are real boys and girls from sports colleges.
"The DPs in Russia are great and a lot of them work perfectly in Hollywood."
The other actors and actresses came from the theater production, so they knew the lines when we started working on the film, but I decided to shoot it through long takes. We had several rehearsals before shooting every day. It was completely different from theater.
NFS: How did you structure the long takes?
Serebrennikov: The longest one was 11 minutes, but I cut in the middle because I wanted to join the best takes; we had two or three we shot with real light. The period of shooting was very short; we had only two or three takes and it was a nightmare because we had 30 non-professionals and three professionals, who all had to act spontaneously.
In Birdman, they did it for many months and prepared very carefully. We had no such opportunities because of money, so we did it very fast. The whole shoot was a month.
"We created [this] film without any fear."
NFS: Tell me a bit about collaborating with your DP, Vladislav Opelyants. The cinematography is striking, almost operatic.
Serebrennikov: He is master, a very famous DP in Russia. He worked a lot with Nikita Mikhalkov, one of the main Russian directors from Soviet period. I told him, "Look we [don't have] a lot of money, we have almost no lights, but here is the story and I want to take it with long takes." For him it was crazy, but he told me, "Okay let's try." I told him, "I'm not afraid of anything, so let's do something crazy."
He has an open heart and he is a very good guy for collaboration. I think the DPs in Russia are great and a lot of them work perfectly in Hollywood, in the European movies and Russian movies. The level of their work is incredible.
NFS: Throughout the film, Venya demonstrates that he is troubled. He's struggling with something very painful that he can't identify. Do you think people turn to religion because they are in pain?
Serebrennikov: Religion always comes with pain and trauma. Originally, religion was love, but it doesn't work in our life, in our world. Now, religion is a point of aggressive misunderstanding of different nations and countries. It's a point of terrorism, of separation. It's terrible.
"This new generation of Russian producers are very smart, well-educated, and don't feel fear."
NFS: In the context of Russia versus America, what does free speech mean to you?
Serebrennikov: Freedom. Let's say freedom. To be honest with everyone is of the highest importance. It's a value to die for, or to live for. I think the characters are fighting for their vision of life; it's a fight of different consciousnesses.
For this teenage boy, it's, of course, a testosterone explosion, and the girls don't pay attention to him and he has a crisis in his family, no father, mother is stupid. Nobody understands him and he has to do something with his ego, to show himself to the world, "Here I am." It's a problem and it [evolves into] violence, into catastrophe.
NFS: In the political landscape of Russia, do you feel like you have the ability to make a film about anything without consequences?
Serebrennikov: We created [this] film without any fear. It's probably because this new generation of Russian producers are very smart, well-educated, and don't feel fear. It's amazing.
It gives me hope that, for instance, I [staged] a theater production based on Heiner Müller's texts and the set is 20 completely naked people on stage acting for two hours. Male and female. When some people in Russia [saw] it, they said they would kill [me], they would ban the performance, and I asked them immediately: "What for? Is this anti-what? Anti-power? Anti-Putin?"
NFS: And there were no consequences for that production?
Serebrennikov: No, it's on. I'll keep making work like that. It's awesome.