Russian Film in the US: Interview with Alexander Zhurbin

Alexander Zhurbin is the director of the New York Festival of Russian Film. Zhurbin is, in fact, a composer living in New York. About three years ago, he started organizing an annual festival of Russian films, initially for the Russian community in and around New York, which later grew in popularity and began to attract broader American audiences as well. The festival presents the best films of the last film season, and all screenings are introduced by directors or actors. The festival was held this year, in spite of the events of September 11. When I met Zhurbin in Moscow at the Filmmakers’ Congress in November, he answered my questions about the role of the festival.

B. B.: What made you decide to organize this festival? When did it take place for the first time? Who do you work with?

A. Z.: In the year 1999 when I started this Festival, it was quite clear that Russian-speaking audience in US has achieved a critical mass—about one million people in the area of greater New York alone. They all are Americans or permanent residents, but still they all speak Russian at home and they all carry a great love for the Motherland and especiallyfor the Russian culture. Even though they are mostly not Russian ethnically—they might be Jewish, Armenian, Ukrainian, or even Uzbeks and Latvian—they have very Russian souls, which were formed by Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky. They all love Russian cinema. They are a great audience. Besides, there is of course a great army of Russian lovers and world cinema connoisseurs. So, first it took place in Manhattan in the Directors’ Guild Cinema on 57th street in December 1999. I work mostly by myself with a very small staff of 92 people; however, during the last weeks before the festival, about 50 people helped me, mostly voluntarily.

B. B.: Is there an audience other than the Russian community for Russian film? And do you think that the festival has increased the popularity of Russian cinema in the US?

A. Z.: American people are coming to the festival; their numbers are increasing slowly. In the first year it was about 20 percent, in the second 30 percent, and in the third year 40 percent. Of course these numbers are very rough. My ideal is 50 percent Russians and 50 percent Americans.

It is very difficult to say what the popularity is of Russian cinema in the US. American people generally are not interested in any foreign cinema, but, I believe I have recruited several thousand people under my banner. It is not too bad.

B. B.: Do you think that there is a market or a demand for Russian cinema in the US? Were any sales negotiated during the festival that you are aware of?

A. Z.: I truly believe that there is a market for Russian cinema in the US. But it takes time and money. If some Russian movie—for example some middlebrow melodrama like Barak—will have huge ad budget, I am positive Americans will enjoy it.

B. B.: How did you manage the festival this year, after the events of September 11?

A. Z.: Well, the events of September 11 had a monstrous impact on me and on my festival—especially when you realize that the office of the Festival is 200 yards from the [World Trade Center], and it is still under construction and closed. We were heroes that we made it despite all these awful circumstances. And we lost a lot of money on all this. But still we are looking forward with some great hope.

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