Grueling Saga of Making, Marketing ‘Lost in Siberia’ : Film: After starring in a Soviet production about battered human spirits in U.S.S.R. labor camps, actor Anthony Andrews is on a quest to see it gain U.S. distribution.
The movie is called “Lost in Siberia,” possibly the first feature film to fly free and intact from the Soviet Union to the West following the revolution of 1991.
It could very well have been titled “Lost Hope Found in Siberia . . . and All Over.”
But then it takes a special talent to write a movie title.
More importantly, it takes a special talent to make a movie against awesome odds, a movie about the brutal loss of freedom and the stubborn constancy of the human spirit, and to do it without losing hope and faith. That special talent fortunately belonged to the Soviet director, writers, crew and actors who shot “Lost in Siberia” last year and to the English actor, Anthony Andrews, who is its star.
Andrews, perhaps best known for his role in “Brideshead Revisited,” is making studio rounds in Los Angeles. It’s part of his compulsion, his duty, his personal responsibility, he says, to get this film into theaters.
That could be a hard sell. Few Soviet films have found audiences here despite optimistic talk of co-productions. Most are regarded as specialty art films or narrow-interest stories. Soviet themes and uneven production values haven’t captured large Western audiences.
“Lost in Siberia” may not fit the standard commercial acceptability model for some American film distributors. What it has going for it, besides a strong story with a convincing Western lead, is its own bravery, timeliness and truth--a story about the loss of freedom and the despairing emptiness of life without freedom.
Since he signed on last year to make “Lost in Siberia” against his agent’s advice, Andrews has acted as the film’s personal ambassador and courier to the West. His agent argued against working for a new company formed to finance the film, but when Andrews read the script he decided he would meet the filmmakers and go forward with the project.
The film is fictional, but all of its details are based upon the prison experiences of one of its writers and several members of the film’s creative staff. It is about an English archeologist, played by Andrews, kidnaped from his field work in a mid-'50s Shah-dominated Iran by Soviet agents who mistakenly believed he was a spy. He was forced to confess and was sent to a Siberian labor camp where as “Cowboy” (his boots were Western, his language English) he was brutalized by officers and inmates. Even when officials realized they had the wrong man, nothing was done. There are occasional moments of hope: a woman doctor in the camp with her personal mission to work with prisoners; a village girl who befriends the Englishman; a fellow prisoner.
“There are reminders in the movie about what it would be like to lose freedom again in the Soviet Union,” Andrews says. “The recent political events there showed the people that there are those who might take their freedoms again. The will of the people at the barricades showed that they were determined it would not happen again. The movie is a reminder of how it was in the time of Stalin and the dominance of the KGB. It shows what could happen again.”
During occasional breaks while making the movie in what he calls a “frozen wasteland,” he would fly back to London not just for relative warmth but to persuade executives of Spectator Entertainment International to provide the filmmaking and editing equipment necessary for the look the veteran director Alexandre Mitta was attempting to get. “The Russian filmmakers have the know-how, but they need the equipment,” Andrews says. “Because we were able to get some of the tools and to supply editing help, what we have here is a Russian-made film with Western visual standards.”
The idea of the film belongs to Mitta and to co-writer Valerie Fried who was imprisoned in a camp for 10 years. Several of Mitta’s family also had been placed in camps for their “intellectual activities.” What Mitta and Fried hoped one day to show--and perestroika gave them that opportunity--was what it meant to lose personal freedoms. They made the main character an Englishman in an attempt to show the camps through Western eyes.
Mitta earlier had attempted unsuccessfully to get Soviet financing for the film and then went to Hollywood for backing. There was interest, but only if the film could be made in English with American actors in starring roles.
Then he met Ben Brahms, managing director of the Spec Group, an English company. Brahms had built an international company specializing in office equipment and automation and was looking to expand into new fields. Filmmaking in the Soviet Union was particularly attractive, perhaps a way to exchange rubles the company had earned in the Soviet Union for hard currency. Brahms formed Spectator Entertainment for the sole purpose of financing Soviet films. “Lost in Siberia” is Brahms’ first film as executive producer. The second, “Assassin of the Tsar,” was recently completed.
What Andrews sees facing him in finding exhibitors for “Lost in Siberia” are challenges within challenges: A longish film. A different language. English subtitles. A new company making its first movie. An unfamiliar, offbeat story. One recognizable starring name.
It all sounds like what Kevin Costner and Tig Productions faced when he tried to make “Dances With Wolves.”
“Thank God for Kevin Costner,” Andrews says. The Western movie had just come out in England and was doing strong box-office business. “It was a success just when we were arguing that we could make a convincing movie with subtitles for a Western audience,” Andrews says.
“I was making a movie for CBS and we rushed to complete it so that I could go to Russia. There one moment I was in idyllic England and in a few hours there I was 50 miles west of Yaroslavl, 12 degrees below zero. It was dusk, nearly dark, and we could see the railroad station where the prisoners would be transported. There was a ghostly light coming from the camp’s watchtower. It was extremely ominous. I had been primed by Mitta and others of how challenging life was out there. Now I could see it.”
“I realized that my life would not be complete if I could not work directly in this place with these people and get this film seen. Clearly there had been many people lost in Siberia. Many Westerners. Many Americans. Valerie Fried recalls hearing of American prisoners while he was in a camp. The Swedish envoy Raoul Wallenberg was but one of many foreigners who just disappeared in Soviet prisons. Maybe now we will be able to find out what happened to these people.”
Andrews lost 20 pounds experiencing the hard labor and frozen living conditions of the camps.
“It was the toughest role of my career, physically and emotionally,” he says from the comfort of his temporary Los Angeles home. “I think I would like now to do ‘Private Lives.’ ”
Instead there are two films of his own he wants to make and a play he hopes to do.
And a Russian movie he plans to show.