After toiling in the Soviet film industry for years, Yasha Sklansky--a cinematography graduate of the Moscow Film School--emigrated to the United States in 1974, ready to ply his trade in Hollywood.
One problem: His best work sample, a 1971 Soviet film titled "Trial on the Road," had been held up by Goskino (the Soviet state film authority) for 15 years, and no one in the entertainment industry could see evidence of what Sklansky could do behind the camera.
But in October, "Trial on the Road" (on which Sklansky was director of photography) was finally declared "safe for public consumption" by Goskino, and now it is being screened both in the Soviet Union (where unofficial figures show it doing well) and here in the United States. (It is screening today at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at Melnitz Theater, UCLA, as part of the "Salute to the Soviet Republics" series.)
"They felt the notion of having prisoner of war as heroic character very disturbing," said Sklansky, 50, now living in West Los Angeles. "Goskino thought maybe public would not feel too happy about being sympathetic toward a traitor (a Soviet soldier who goes AWOL is the heroic lead in the film). So they shelved the movie for something like 15 years, waiting for audiences to mature, or something. Is still not too clear to me just why."
Sklansky said the mark of true merit among Soviet film makers is to have your film sit on the Goskino "proscribed works" shelf. "This means you have at least attempted some amount of truth in your film," he commented wryly in his thickly accented, very American English. "The bad ones get released right away, of course."
"Trial on the Road," directed by Alexei Gherman, was a big-budget production insofar as Soviet films are reckoned--Sklansky said it cost about 1 million rubles, or about $1.2 million--and involved a considerable amount of cooperation from the government, including the loan of several four-wheel-drive Red Army vehicles and many state militia.
But after the shelving of "Trial on the Road" and his subsequent lack of work--"I think I was thought of (by Goskino authorities) as dangerous; I know I was thought of as a 'refusenik' "--the cameraman found his position in the Soviet film industry stifling, and applied for an exit permit, something not often granted to Jewish Soviet citizens.
"It of course was not easy, leaving everything," he said. "Nothing like that is done easily. But there was no work, and we would not move from Leningrad."
Now working as a studio electrician--"keeping my fingers busy"--Sklansky finds his new working conditions "really much better technically."
"All the equipment and, especially, the film stock, is much better here. It is all so much easier to get good results. In Russia we had to go through so much work to get beauty on films. . . ."
Sklansky says he's ready once again to make films.
"I have given so much up to be here, work here," he muttered. "Now is time."