Director Egor Anashkin spoke to TV Drama about the magic that occurred behind the scenes making Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes.
Anashkin, whose credits include The Blood Widow, Moscow Greyhound and Vozhd raznokozhikh, undertook the challenge of making the best-selling novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes come to life on the small screen. His creative vision was a key part of the alchemy that led to the success of the series this spring, with Zuleikha quickly becoming the prime-time champion in Russia. The story is based on the book by Guzel Yakhina, inspired by her grandmother’s dramatic life. “This film conveys a powerful humanistic message about a woman’s role in the modern world, about her dignity and her struggle for happiness,” says Anton Zlatopolsky, Russia TV Channel CEO and producer of the film. Russia Television and Radio and Sovtelexport are taking the project worldwide.
TV DRAMA: As a successful director working in the TV and movie business for 17 years, you have directed 17 projects, most of which are drama series. What is it that appeals to you about this genre?
ANASHKIN: Perhaps fate is to blame. I get scripts and choose from them. Drama is appealing to me because of the people, the characters and their relationships.
TV DRAMA: How did the series adaptation of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes come about?
ANASHKIN: It’s a long story. Firstly, Guzel Yakhina wrote a book, which became a bestseller. Then Russia Channel decided to do its film adaptation, and I was invited and agreed to direct it. I think that both the book and the series spark such interest because the problems described in the story and its theme are universal for any culture. Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes is about a mother’s love and forgiveness.
The main character is a quiet woman, Zuleikha, who lives in a remote Tatar village and doesn’t have her own opinion. She gives birth to daughters all the time, but every time they die. When she finally gives birth to her son, she swears that she won’t let him die; she will save his life at all costs even at the cost of her own life and happiness. It all happens during dekulakization and collectivization in the U.S.S.R. Peasants were deprived of all possessions and property and sent into exile to Siberia. The government didn’t even need a charge or a trial to declare a person a kulak and deprive them of everything. It was the period of [Joseph] Stalin’s repressions. Many nations suffered from them, including the Tatars. About 4 million people were dekulakized; 2.5 million of them were sent into exile.
TV DRAMA: The premiere scored high ratings but also provoked controversy among viewers and critics. You and lead actress Chulpan Khamatova were both scandalized—communists even called the series “anti-Soviet libel.” What do you think about the backlash ignited by the series?
ANASHKIN: One the one hand, I’m glad that our film has provoked such an intense reaction. It means that emotionally it hit many. On the other hand, unfortunately, people don’t know the history of their country very well. When we were holding auditions for the main character’s son, Yuzuf, we realized that kids today have no idea who [Vladimir] Lenin is and what dekulakization means. We need to preserve the memories of those tragic events to not let them happen ever again. Regarding the accusations, I think communists are trying to take fragments out of context and interpret them as they want. If their reproaches were objective, I would listen to them.
TV DRAMA: Zuleikha was brilliantly portrayed by Chulpan Khamatova. How was she chosen for the role?
ANASHKIN: Chulpan is a great Tatar and Russian actress. And we are very lucky to have her in the film. She has so much love in herself, and people feel it.
TV DRAMA: What is the core message of this film?
ANASHKIN: Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes is a film about great motherly love and forgiveness.
TV DRAMA: How did you prepare for the filming?
ANASHKIN: We had a really long preproduction period. We did not shoot any scenes in the pavilion, everything was shot on location, so we had to build all decorations from scratch. When it’s cold in winter, and the actors’ breaths are misting—they work at a temperature of -27 to -30 degrees centigrade, drowning in the snow—they don’t have to play. To make it look real, Chulpan Khamatova had to dive into the 1.5-km-deep river. We shot with a real, albeit trained, wolf instead of using computer graphics. Actors just existed in the situation people had lived in back then.
TV DRAMA: What challenges did you face while filming?
ANASHKIN: A traditional Tatar village was hard to find. We wanted it to look as authentic as possible. It was difficult to dive into the nuances of the Tatar culture since it is full of traditions and rules: the objects have to be placed a certain way. The gate, for example, has to bear solar signs; the wicket door has to be on the gate’s right.
TV DRAMA: How did the crew work together to create such a great final product?
ANASHKIN: The crew worked in unison, although the conditions were very difficult. For this reason, for example, a part of the crew that went on an expedition to Perm for the first time simply ran away. This way, gradually, a crew that was able to work properly for long hours was formed. Those remaining were creative as well and could help with everything.
I wanted the whole thing to look as close to the reality as possible. You can say, it was our stylistics. Plus, we did not want it to be a common story about dekulakization, because it has the parable of the Semrug in it. It goes like this: the birds were arguing and went searching for a magical bird, Semrug, who would patch up the quarrel. Going through hard challenges and ordeals, many birds died and only 30 remained alive. When, finally, they climbed up the mountain where Semrug lived, they found out that there was no magic. Each and every one of them was this magical bird. The legend inside of the story applies to the protagonists as well. When they were sent into exile, there were a lot of them, hundreds and hundreds. Some of them died when the barge sank on its way to the place of exile. The ones who survived ended up in an uninhabited taiga. They survived the winter by helping and supporting each other just like those 30 birds. So, to some extent, it is not an example of common realism but a parable.