In ‘Natasha,’ David Bezmozgis Captures Russian Jews Caught Between Two Worlds
Writer-director David Bezmozgis is cautiously optimistic about the fate of his flick, “Natasha,” adapted from the title story in his critically acclaimed collection (“Natasha and other stories,” 2004) and marking his second outing as a filmmaker.
“Natasha” is the first film to explore the little known Russian-born Jewish subculture in Toronto that was spawned from the late 70s to the early 90s when immigrants fleeing anti-Semitism and other miseries poured into Canada (also Israel and US).
Bezmozgis, 43, was one of them. The Latvian native, who arrived in Toronto with his family when he was six-years-old, sets his coming-of-age tale in the early 90s, though he’s reluctant to call “Natasha” autobiographical. “It’s semi-semi-semi-semi autobiographical,” he said. “Look, it’s fiction.”
The multi-award-winning and internationally translated author was included in the “New Yorker’s” 2010 “20 Under 40” issue, celebrating writers under the age of 40 and the following year his first novel, “The Free World” was published earning a place on the “New York Times”’ Notable Book list. “The Betrayers,” his second novel (2014), was a lead fiction title for Harper Collins in Canada and Little Brown in the US.
The oddly disturbing, at moments comic, and deceptively simple film recounts the adventures of 16-year-old slacker, philosophy spewing, part time drug dealer Mark Berman (Alex Ozerov), who has been conscripted by his mother to occupy Natasha (Sasha K. Gordon), the troubled 14-year-old daughter of a gold-digging woman (Aya Tatyana Stolnits) who is about to marry Mark’s luckless uncle. Mother and daughter, whose relationship is awash in conflict, have just arrived from Russia.
While initially put off by the chore Mark is slowly drawn to this sullen girl who matter-of-factly recounts her life of squalor and prostitution in Russia. She is at once sly and straight forward, seductive and child-like. Mark has never met anyone like her and within short order the two teens are sexually (and secretly) involved. Mark has grown attached to her, though he does not recognize his feelings as such, nor does he grasp the responsibilities that come with love. The film also subtly hints at Mark’s ambivalent experiences as a young émigré who has feet in both the old and new worlds.
“I wanted to tell the story of three generations of a still cohesive Russian-Jewish family that’s beginning to change from the point of view of a teenager who’s taking it all in,” said Bezmozgis whose first indie flick, “Victoria Day,” was nominated for “The Genie,” (Canada’s Oscars) for “Best Adapted Screenplay.” “I also wanted to keep the film as faithful to the original as possible.”
Still, he wondered if his story was credible in 2017. The most notable update is the appearance of technology in the film.
Bezmozgis’ major challenges were practical. Generating financial interest for a North-American based film that’s largely spoken in Russian and devoid of bankable stars is no easy feat (and indeed it took a number of years for Bezmozgis to get it off the ground from completing the script in 2011 to shooting it in 2014 to launching it on the film festival circuit in 2015 to its current commercial release in the States).
Equally challenging was casting quality actors who look the parts and, most central, are native Russian speakers. “A far worse challenge is when you have non native-speaking actors attempting to speak Russian,” he said. “It’s grating. Actually, it was challenging for me to speak Russian to those actors who spoke little or no English. There were quite a few including Pavel Tsitrinel who played the grandfather and sadly died last year. This was his first professional film in North America.”
Bezmozgis lucked out with his whole cast and especially his two leads, both of whom are terrific and native Russian speakers to boot. In fact Ozerov, who is best known for his recurring role in the TV program, “The Americans,” briefly lived in the Toronto community depicted in the film. However, neither actor is Jewish, not that they or Bezmozgis think it’s in any way a roadblock to grasping the sensibility of that particular universe which is deeply committed to Israel and (within parameters) ethnically/culturally self-defined. Still, there’s little religious observance, Yiddish is virtually non-existent, and whatever insularity might have at existed at one point is vanishing. Being Russian is arguably more defining than being a Jew. Ozerov, 25, who arrived in Toronto from Tula, Russia when he was 13 knew who the Russian kids were in class because they spoke English with heavy accents. “They were also the toughest, most aggressive kids, the thugs,” he recalled. “I don’t know who was Jewish and who wasn’t. I suspect it was a mix. And I don’t think Mark is at all conscious of himself as a Jew, though he may be more torn than I was between the old and new worlds. I wanted to be American as soon as possible and have nothing to do with my Russian background. Still, I think it’s interesting that when Mark’s parents speak to him in Russian he responds in English.
“I very much relate to Mark, certainly in my younger self when I was a little aloof, a listener by nature, and comfortable in my solitude,” he continued. “I got into acting because I was shy. When I saw the self-confident kids in Disney and Family Channel films I took an acting class because I wanted to be like them. I don’t think I would have become an actor in Russia. It wouldn’t have occurred to me.”
Ozerov has known his share of Marks and Natashas whose gutter life is an eye-opener to Mark. “That’s why Natasha fascinates him,” Ozerov said. “His family is the hard-working play by the rules Russian culture. Natasha’s family is darker by nature and does things its own way first in Russia and then when they come here. They’re part of an immigrant culture that’s hungry, desperate and takes the side road in order to do it faster.”
Similarly, the Odessa born Gordon, 26, is very much in tune with Natasha. Gordon was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church but she can’t help feeling a profound connection to the Jewish universe that was at one time Odessa and by extension the world that shaped Natasha.
“The city still feels Jewish in some ways, the intellectualism and the resilience,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I had some Jewish lineage. I always saw myself as tumbleweed.”
Making her film debut in the title role, Gordon identifies with Natasha in other ways as well. She understands the need to grow up quickly and hit the ground running in a universe where there are few opportunities and when they surface you don’t let them slide away. As an immigrant (who’s been here ten years) she knows what it’s like to forge a path for herself in a new country.
The daughter of a single mom (like Natasha) Gordon was already working as a translator in the Ukraine when she was 16 years old and had her sights set on relocating to America as a place (literal and metaphorical) of opportunity for an aspiring actress. “In the Ukraine if you say you want to be an actress they laugh in your face,” she said. “It’s very hard to get any acting work especially for women outside the casting couch.”
Natasha’s hatred towards her mother was the big acting challenge. “I have a wonderful relationship with my mother and that kind of bitterness and frustration was hard for me to relate to,” she said. “At our first rehearsal Aya Tatyana Stolnits who plays my mom, said ‘don’t hate me, don’t hate me, I’m good.’”
Tackling a character who has worked as a hooker was also outside her experience yet she knew girls like Natasha and was not unsympathetic. Thanks to economic depression and family alcoholism these girls grow up neglected and do whatever they have to do to survive.
“For Natasha prostitution is an escape on the one hand and a necessity on the other,” Gordon said. “She’s also looking for love and a connection. She’s seductive but certainly not in any stereotypical way. No heels, no makeup.”
Gordon has little doubt that her vocal cadences, gestures, and gait on screen were defined by playing a Russian and that those physical characteristics become all the more pronounced in speaking her native tongue. Compared to Americans, Russians are more concise in their responses, stoic in their style, and heavy in their body language she says adding that acting in Russian still feels very authentic. (Ozerov agreed though for him remembering lines in Russian has become more difficult. “They don’t stick as easily as the English,” he said.)
Asked to speculate on Natasha’s future Gordon was thoughtful. “I think Natasha will end up in a good place. She won’t be scrambling. She’s smart. Perhaps she’ll be running her own company. But there’ll always be something in her that’s not fulfilled. Maybe she’ll get in touch with that, maybe not. Either way, she’ll be just fine.”
Ozerov is not quite sure what will happen to Mark, though his summer with Natasha was a significant turning point in his life and perhaps he’ll have grown because of it.
“Mark has learned the price of passivity,” Ozerov said. “He believed everything would always remain the same. And when Mark finally fights for something it’s too late. He didn’t realize what he was losing. I hope audiences have empathy for him because we’ve all been in a place where we stayed silent too long and in a blink of an eye everything changes and it’s gone. It’s regret that eats us alive.”
Not one to anticipate the viewers’ take away from any film Bezmozgis summed up his hopes: “I want the audiences to have had a satisfying experience, be gripped emotionally and not lied to,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to feel cheated.”
Not nearly as modest an ambition as one might think.