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‘What difference does it make how you got the role?’ Russian actresses and directors discuss sexual harassment in the film industry

Meduza
10:56, 18 october 2017

The sexual assault scandal surrounding American film producer Harvey Weinstein has opened the floodgates on discussions about sexual harassment and abuse around the world. To learn more about the issue in Russia, Meduza reached out to several of the country’s most famous actresses, directors, and producers, asking what they think about the revelations in Hollywood and the state of sexual harassment in Russian cinema. Most of the people Meduza contacted about this story refused to comment.

Anna Chipovskaya

TV, film, and theater actress, best known for the 2013 television series “The Thaw”

Alexander Shcherbak / TASS

I haven’t heard anything about this [sexual harassment and assault from producers and directors] from my friends, including some very successful, well-known actresses. And I haven’t encountered it myself. I suspect that this sort of thing happens, but God has spared me. Nobody has ever approached me with such suggestions, or God forbid tried to grab me. I can’t even imagine what this would be like, or how I’d react, but I can guess that it would be absolutely awful and unpleasant. I simply can’t gauge it because I’ve never witnessed it myself. But actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie probably wouldn’t speak up for no reason.

You know, I recently read the statement of one actress (I’ve forgotten her name, unfortunately), who said that she was 20 years old when he [Harvey Weinstein] invited her to meet with him, to review some materials and discuss some production issues, saying he couldn’t sort it out on his own. Well here, of course, you’ve got to use your head, because I doubt that a producer like Harvey Weinstein needed the insights of some 20-year-old actress on production matters. I doubt that you could be in this situation and think “oh he’s calling me because I’m just so smart.” But I’m not saying that women deserve this kind of treatment. Whatever they think of themselves, it doesn’t mean they can be harassed at every corner, if they don’t want that.

Zhora Kryzhovnikov

Filmmaker and producer, best known for the comedies “Gorko!” (Kiss Them All!) and “The Best Day Ever”

Vladimir Gerdo / TASS

I think the fight for women’s rights is a big trend right now, and not just in cinema, which is simply reflecting what’s happening. It’s a good fight, and I wish women luck with it. Everything that happened with Weinstein was another battle for women’s rights, and they’ve won this one.

I think Russia still lacks the film industry that can respond to such things as a whole community. People aren’t united by any feelings of professional community. We could probably have a similar big scandal, maybe, but what’s important [in the U.S.] isn’t what happened, but how people have responded. When a person is expelled from all conceivable film academies and everyone refuses to work with him ever again, his career is on the verge of collapse. I remember when [pop star] Philipp Kirkorov beat up an assistant director in the Kremlin. He beat up a woman. And what happened? He went on TV and gave some apology. Then he left for Israel for some clinic to treat his aggression, and later recorded a video saying how he wasn’t right, but that we’ve got to understand that he can’t tolerate people yelling at him, and he snapped, and sorry, everyone. And that turned out to be enough for Philipp Kirkorov to go on entertaining us. So, it seems to me, we’re not ready to react together on things like this.

If I’m being honest, the reaction I hear more often than anything is “poor guy.” I get the feeling that Russian society sees this as a joke, like some kind of prank or ridiculously inflated misunderstanding.

I’ve heard about such incidents [in Russian cinema], but you’d have to ask the actresses themselves. The stories about Weinstein had no ramifications for 40 years. I think that the actresses’ decision to unite [behind the women who first accused him of sexual assault] is tied to the fact that if something like this happens in your life, you can get over it, and then you basically don’t want to remember it. And later all you need is the right trigger. And that’s what this was. People started to remember. We’re discussing this just in our sphere, when it comes to filming on set, and so on. But other people are also remembering. Women are remembering how a college instructor invited them home to retake a test. They’re starting to remember how someone draped in power and authority persuaded them to do something. I think this happens everywhere — not just in cinema. What matters is our attitude about such things.

Just for the record, I’m not on Harvey’s side. I sense a serious problem with Weinstein. For decades, this man was unable to control himself, acting out some supposedly harmless script in his head. In fact, if he was a little sicker, maybe he would have even killed these women, too. Who knows how close he got.

Agniya Kuznetsova

Theater and film actress, best known for the movies “Cargo 200,” “Everybody Dies But Me,” and “The Dawns Here Are Quiet”

Artem Geodakyan / TASS

Women shouldn’t allow themselves to be touched, and these girls got what they wanted. If you’re presented with conditions where you need to sleep with the director in order to get a role, you either agree or you refuse. I don’t think this is some serial killer who came at Angelina Jolie with a knife and forced her to sleep with him. They [the actresses] have only themselves to blame; they shouldn’t be acting like prostitutes. I feel sorry for this poor man [Harvey Weinstein]. Women were created for schemes like this. Give them the chance, and they’ll weave some plot or turn on you.

I’m sure that the same thing happens in Russia, but not on the same scale. Actresses happily agree to different proposals, and later they expose it as “oh, all these directors are like this!” I won’t name any of the decorated actors who have been accused. You already know their names. And this is everywhere in the theater world. I’ve never found myself in such situations, and I never will, for various reasons. Just look at me. First, I’m not an item that arouses men at first sight. And second, just try to come up to me, let alone offer to rape me. How does that play out for you?

Lyubov Tolkalina

Theater and film actress, best known for the movies “Antikiller” and “Escape,” and the TV series “Time for Two”

Sergey Ivanov / PhotoXPress

They [the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault] haven’t been very ladylike. Because sexual harassment is actually wonderful, honestly. If you have a role, then what difference does it make how you got it? On the contrary, it seems to me that there should be some kind of solidarity. Everyone is fine. He’s fine, they’re fine, and filmgoers, most importantly, are fine. And we got these excellent roles. How can you even accuse a man of sexual harassment? This is the whole reason men even exist in the world. If he has power that he uses this way, that’s fine.

Honestly, I don’t quite believe that a woman… The woman is always to blame for sexual harassment by a man. If you’re a real woman and if this kind of thing happens, then you’ll never tell anyone about it. Because this, it seems to me, discredits both of you in the eyes of the public. And why do this, if we were friends (at least at first). It seems to me that this is some kind of tool for manipulation. There’s something unnatural about it all. There’s probably someone pulling all the strings [against Weinstein]. That’s what often happens in Russia: somebody orchestrates the whole thing. Honestly, I feel very sorry for him. I’d never do this to him. You know that there are far more terrible things in the world that can happen to women.

Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Of course, I believe that every director should work with the women he likes. He can’t work with a woman he doesn’t like — nothing will come of that. He should be coming to the set for someone. That’s why it’s wonderful if the director likes you. And if there’s some fiddling around, then you’ve got to manage to keep silent. You can always be a woman. You can always be above these situations. And most of all, I think, you can always manage these situations best from the inside.

That way, you can keep this act of violence — they’re talking about this like an act of violence — under control for the whole time. Or you can just refuse the role, but I think it would have been a shame for them to refuse these great roles that they got through him [Weinstein]. That’s why this is all dishonest, girls! This isn’t how you do it! It’s wonderful when someone with such enormous power harasses you, isn’t it? It seems to me that the only big mistake these women made was to talk about it. That is sincerely what I think. It goes against a woman's femininity to put a man in an awkward position. It’s like [Russian writer and Soviet dissident] Venedikt Yerofeyev said, remember, in his book, “Moscow-Petushki”: What makes a good gal? It’s the one who shows respect. That’s a quote, not my words.

I think the whole history of great filmmaking, all over the world, is always about romances between directors and actresses, one way or another. Where’s the line between sexual harassment and romance? Explain that one to me. Really, there are so few real men left in the world that hammering him [Weinstein] now with this napalm… It’s a shame. He won’t even want anyone anymore, the poor guy.

After Meduza published Tolkalina’s comments, she stated publicly, “As if I could really think that sexual harassment and violence are wonderful… As if a single person could ever say that.” To avoid confusion, Meduza is publishing the audio recording of her original remarks, where she did say that sexual harassment is “wonderful.”

Roman Volobuev

Director and producer, best known for the movies “Cold Front” and “Blockbuster”

Irina Buzhor / Kommersant

I think this issue isn’t about the fact that somebody grabbed someone’s ass. And it’s not about the fact that there’s this one crazy person with enormous power who was allowed to do whatever he wanted. The issue is, if you look at American cinema (or indeed cinema anywhere) over the past century, you’ll only find three or four famous women directors. In Soviet and Russian cinema, incidentally, the situation is much better. If you go beyond the mainstream films (where it’s also all men directors), and if you start thinking about the contemporary women directors in Russia you know, then you’ll find that two-thirds are women. Because they’re brighter and more talented, and they’re a lot more noticeable in our small field.

I think there are efforts now underway to turn this private scandal [the Weinstein scandal] into an avalanche that changes the whole situation. Because this is a typical story in any film industry, not just in America. Americans started addressing racial problems with Martin Luther King Jr., but the same process with gender equality didn’t begin until a bit later. It’s an enormous, slow process that sometimes becomes a bit idiotic, like when people start to say there should be exact 50/50 distributions of men and women in every profession. But this is normal, because for many years women didn’t get to be directors, cinematographers, or screenwriters. They weren’t taken seriously. Now we’re seeing the reverse wave, and yes sometimes people go overboard, but this is okay.

Now Weinstein finds himself in a completely Shakespearian situation: at the age of 65, he’s discovered that he’s absolutely friendless and not a single person can stand up for him. He’s a thoroughly cocky man, and when people called him about this story, he apparently said, “The story is so good, I want to buy the movie rights!” And the story is indeed cinematic and exciting. And like with any anti-hero, there’s a sadness about Weinstein. Empathy and pity for fallen people is great, but the industry (and by that I mean its men, mostly) shows incredible hypocrisy when everyone says, oh Lord, we didn’t know! We never heard anything about it! I knew. Having been in Los Angeles twice, I heard all these stories.

And I just want to smack the men who say of these women, “What, they just kept silent for 20 years?” It shows a total lack of empathy and their complete failure to put themselves in the place of the victims, if only for a second. To put themselves in the place of someone who was intimidated and scared that there would be consequences, who endured a whole palette of shame, despair, and disgrace. They were terrified of him [Weinstein]. He was 30 years older, and he used fear and intimidation to hold all of Hollywood in his fist. Of course, like something out of Shakespeare, now he’s going to be destroyed by the same people who used to grovel before him and fear him. It’s a tragic picture, yes, but it’s probably quite fair.

You know, I think this situation [where the Russian film industry would start discussing sexual harassment openly] is possible, and someone at some point has probably tried to start the conversation, and there are people who could become the face of a similar story. But for this you need a social consensus that this [sexual harassment] is bad and that it’s wrong. But judging by the reactions of Russian newsmakers that I’ve heard publicly — even on television, on the [liberal] TV station Dozhd — Russian society isn’t ready for such a turn. Everyone feels very bad for Weinstein and nobody understands why these girls are behaving so badly, and hey don’t people understand that movies are made with blood and sweat. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working toward this [the exposure of sexual harassment].

Right now, a story like this is impossible in Russia, because even if a very famous actress came out and acknowledged this about a very famous filmmaker… Well, I don’t think that dozens of people would rise to her support, like in America. I think the reaction would be more like: “Oops. Well, oh well.” Is there anything actresses could say about me? No. I’m trying to find the words here so I don’t end up using the phrase “I think.” I know that there isn’t.

Evgeniya Brik

Television and film actress, best known for “Hipsters” and “The Geographer Drank His Globe Away,” and the TV shows “The Thaw” and “The Optimists”

Irina Buzhor / Kommersant

The most incredible and unexpected thing is that this story has affected me not only personally, but professionally. I took part in a project that was partly produced by Harvey Weinstein, playing a small part on an American TV series. And now it’s unclear if the show will continue filming. I hope it doesn’t shut down.

This is all appalling, of course. As I understand it, this person had enormous power, and he probably suffers from some psychological disorder. But in my view there’s a lot that’s strange here, and I have a lot of questions about this story. Hollywood is a place where rumors can explode in a second, and America generally is a place where a person can be accused of sexual harassment for one wrong opinion. Over there, men are generally scared of saying anything out of line to women, or looking at them wrong somehow. How did these women keep silent and conceal all these terrible acts by this well-known producer for so many years? Why did actresses go to his hotel room, when auditions and meetings are carried out at studios? Were they all really so scared that he would ruin their careers, and that’s why they were ready to tolerate such humiliation? Honestly, I don’t understand it.

Of course, it’s difficult for anyone who wasn’t there to judge, and we can only imagine and learn what we can from the statements we’re hearing now. We can’t even question them [the women who have accused Weinstein]. But it’s good that this has come to the surface, and he’ll be punished for this in America like he would nowhere else. He’s already lost everything and everyone.

I think that any person always has a choice, and no fear can silence someone for so many years and force them to do these things, and then make them act friendly and hang out together, after all these incidents. Sure, it’s a thin line in the world of cinema. This is a raunchy world of creative, complex people. In his book, [Swedish director] Ingmar Bergman, who of course had many wives, wrote that cinema is an erotic, explicit art where romances are all too common. This is a sphere where relationships are structured a little differently, but there are also very basic things to understand, like in any profession. There’s the boss and his subordinates, who are subject to his decisions and are afraid of losing their jobs. Then the boss goes off the rails, and everyone around him only fuels his enthusiasm by staying silent and fearing bad blood with him. I’m sure it’s very hard to talk about this openly, and come clean. But better late than never.

In no way am I trying to judge these women and say that they’re to blame. I’m just thinking aloud and analyzing things, trying to understand how this nightmare could have happened. I have a daughter who’s an aspiring actress, and if she wants to stay in this profession (or any other profession, for that matter), it’s very important for me to give her an accurate, full sense of how, where, and with whom to interact. For women in the world today, it’s very important for them to know this from childhood, so they’re able to protect themselves.

Regarding Russia, I think stories like this might unfortunately exist here, as well. But I don’t know how much everyone would be ready to come clean and go public, if this happened here. Maybe that’s the secret: somebody starts, and then the others find the strength to come out, too. Nothing like this, thank God, has ever happened to me, and I’ve never heard anything from my colleagues. Luckily [for me], everything has been pretty banal and simple: auditions, offers, and then filming.

Russian statements recorded by Ekaterina Silayeva, translation by Kevin Rothrock