She had a foul mouth and a bottomless heart Meet Oksana Karas, the director of a new film about the late Elizaveta Glinka, Russia’s humanitarian icon
Oksana Karas’s new film, “Doctor Liza,” is currently in theaters. The picture follows a day in the life of Dr. Elizaveta Glinka, a story whose protagonist manages to comfort, hug, warm, and save hundreds. Chulpan Khamatova stars in the film, which features many other prominent Russian actors, including Evgeny Pisarev, Andrzej Chyra, Konstantin Khabensky, Andrey Burkovskiy, Yulia Aug, Tatyana Dogileva, Timofey Tribuntsev, Alexey Agranovich, Elena Koreneva, and Yana Gladkikh. Karas told Meduza about what effect she hopes to achieve in Russia with a film about charity.
Did you know Elizaveta Glinka?
No, and there are both pluses and minuses to this. When I began working on the film, everyone around me knew Elizaveta Petrovna Glinka and had their own story, friendship, and professional history with her. At some point, I realized that as a director, this circumstance (a lack of familiarity) was a good thing, because it would allow me to maintain an objective position in relation to my character. After all, it was impossible not to fall under Elizaveta Petrovna’s spell. She was a figure of such magnitude, a person of such charisma, that anyone who was in her sphere of influence immediately became a follower and started volunteering at her foundation; it was impossible to escape her orbit.
Does that mean it’s important for directors, like with journalists, for example, not to admire their subjects?
It’s impossible not to admire Dr. Glinka. I believe quite the opposite — that journalists, directors, lawyers, and doctors are very passionate people who depend on the patients, clients, and characters of their professions. I always need to justify and love my protagonists; that’s just how I am. But I know many directors who can study their characters objectively, with mathematical and even biological fixation, treating them like bugs in a jar or organisms under a microscope. That’s not for me, though.
Is Doctor Liza in need of justifying?
Even Gleb Glebovich Glinka [Elizaveta Glinka’s husband], who loved her very much and provided the care and support that enabled her to become who she did, firmly didn’t want us to make a “life of the saint” film. Dr. Glinka was quite controversial in her own right, and he wanted us to make an authentic, objective film. She was cool enough to allow herself to drink, smoke, and curse; she did it with such charm and finesse, yet in the film we had to bleep it out. Moreover, she was adventurous and didn’t always, you know, wear a white coat. At the same time, however, she was a massive presence with a bottomless heart, so not loving her wasn’t possible.
Was it a deliberate move to cast Chulpan Khamatova and Konstantin Khabensky — the two actors in Russia probably most associated with real-world charity work?
We didn’t consider anyone else for the role of Glinka. There was no casting. We waited for Chulpan and waited for her to agree. And it took us a year of rewriting the script in order to get her approval on it. This turned out to be a positive for me because my views dovetailed with Chulpan’s artistic sense and her comments gave me the right to grind the script out to the bitter end. And Khabensky (regarding his motivation) said, “I have a lot of doctor friends who work under hellish conditions, who have to make inhuman decisions on a daily basis. People broken by the choices they’re forced to make. I want to understand how people survive in this system.”
Why do you think such cruelty plagues a system created with the loftiest aspirations? What went wrong here?
That’s a really hard question. The system is created to structure the process and facilitate the achievement of humanistic goals. But instead, the system devours itself and becomes a soulless machine that absolutely devalues the goals it set out to pursue. I don’t know why this happens here, but not in places like Scandinavia.
Abridged translation by Ash Maria