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Radka Franczak: Painting the Past in a New Russia

November 22, 2013

Ela Bittencourt talks to the director of Losing Sonia, a profile of an Orthodox nun and icon painter who reflects the changes in modern Russia.

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Still from Losing Sonia.

In her documentary, Losing Sonia, Polish filmmaker Radka Franczak visits the Russian town of Ivanovo, located some 250 kilometers from Moscow and known as “a city of women.” Since the 17th century, Ivanovo has been a seat of the textile business, an industry that predominantly employs females. Yet Franczak’s subject, Sonia, isn’t a textile worker but an Orthodox nun and a gifted painter and restorer of religious icons, including those that survived the communist period, during which churches and religious artifacts were being destroyed en masse.

The young Sonia lives in a belfry in a room adjacent to her studio, granted to her by the monastery’s head “Batyushka,” or monk. Franczak shows Sonia’s daily activities, from basic chores to painterly duties, but the thread that runs through this quiet film is of one person’s desire for the sublime, be it through religion, art, or both. Franczak, who originally wanted to tell the stories of ordinary Russians through women’s dreams, instead centers on one woman’s resolve to create. What emerges is a tale of human fallibility, of one woman’s struggle against inner doubts both artistic and personal. Franczak also uses Sonia’s biography and her desire for creativity as a metaphor for democratic Russia: from its religious and artistic renewal to the troubling legacy of communism.

I spoke with Franczak during her recent visit to New York.

Ela Bittencourt for Guernica

Guernica: In what circumstances did you first find yourself in Russia?

Radka Franczak: When I was twelve, I had a hump on my back. My parents met a Siberian doctor who ran a clinic for children with spine problems and who proposed to cure me. I was sent to the Soviet Union in 1989, still during the Cold War, when no one knew how things would turn out politically. I was alone, spoke no Russian, but felt well cared for and always wanted to come back. I felt that, through my contact with ordinary Russians, I was seeing a different country than you’d see on television. When I finally did [make Losing Sonia], I spent five years filming. I wanted to show the passing of time, and the changes taking place in Sonia.

Guernica: What made you choose Sonia in particular?

Radka Franczak: The first time I met her, she was sitting before a large icon, holding two cats in her lap and painting furiously. The way the light fell on her, she looked like an icon. [Later] I learned that, after a period of religious euphoria, she had suffered from depression and nearly died. Finally the monastery’s leader gave her her own room and allowed her to paint. Now Sonia’s rhythm is completely different from a typical nun’s day, which starts at 4am with an hour of prayer, first meal at 11am, and sleep around midnight. Sonia’s life is more artistic, but in many ways, she’s saintly, an iconoclast.

Sonia’s constantly besieged by feelings that she can’t fulfill the monastery’s expectations, or doesn’t have enough contact with people. She’s very human in this way. I think this makes her story quite universal.

Guernica: There’s a scene when she and the head monk are inside the church, standing very high up on the scaffolding.

Radka Franczak: I really wanted to show how impressive the restoration of the church has been, and seeing them so high up on the scaffold also makes a powerful impression. It’s one of the few scenes that I staged but I wanted to have a conversation between a pupil and an icon scholar, a master painter who’s been painting for fifteen years, and for it to take place in the actual church setting where some of the painting work is done.

Guernica: That conversation, about striving for perfection, is on the surface about religion, but ultimately it’s about art.

Radka Franczak: They’re speaking about real moments when you are stuck in your art, the terrifying instances when your own complexes get the best of you. Painting icons is quite hard, because you must make an identical copy. You can’t add anything subjective, except the expression of the eyes, which is incredibly hard. Sonia’s constantly besieged by feelings that she can’t fulfill the monastery’s expectations, or doesn’t have enough contact with people. She’s very human in this way. I think this makes her story quite universal. The master painter, on the other hand, is an ideal, what Sonia would like to be. He has an incredible studio, and employs many workers. He’s built his workshop over time, of course, but there’s also his status as a male figure. Although customs are changing and Sonia tells me that there is actually a woman in the Russian religious hierarchy who is quite famous for painting icons.

When I saw the way he was working, his missionary fervor, it really struck me that it was similar to what had happened during communism: a work of dedicated madmen.

Guernica: You show an archival clip in which the church is being rebuilt.

Radka Franczak:Most Orthodox churches in the Soviet Union were destroyed starting in the 1920s, but this particular one, the altar was desecrated, and then the church was transformed into the Communist Party Archives: it was filled with bookshelves on which there were held individual files containing biographies of every single citizen in the town! And the head monk is famous not only as a painter, but because he organized one of the rare underground churches in the Soviet Union. As far as the reconstruction clips, what’s incredible is firstly that the work was mostly done by women, since women predominate in the town, and secondly that they had such primitive tools, much work was done by hand. The support used by the workers today is also very primitive, and one worker died falling from the scaffolding. When I saw the way he was working, his missionary fervor, it really struck me that it was similar to what had happened during communism: a work of dedicated madmen.

Guernica: You say “madmen” because of their extreme dedication to the cause?

Radka Franczak: Exactly. And Russia right now is going through a religious boom. But I didn’t want to show the country as “pathological.” I wanted to find something in its energy that rejuvenates. Otherwise it would have been too easy.

Communism purposefully undermined the value of an individual life, whereas Sonia is striking because she reaffirms her individuality.

Guernica: The Orthodox Church seems to have gotten a lot closer to power.

Radka Franczak: I’m not a specialist on this topic, but there’s a sense that some of the Church’s purity has been lost when it got more closely engaged in politics.

Guernica: When did you decide to film Sonia’s parents?

Radka Franczak: I needed to film them to understand her. They come from Izhevsk, a city close to the Ural Mountains, where Kalashnikov rifles are produced. It’s basically a Kalashnikov town. Sonia’s parents both work in a factory producing arms. Not only are there arms, but chemical, biological, and atomic weapons are produced in the region. I was told not to leave the house after dusk because, since Perestroika, the police have basically become bandits. I couldn’t show my camera in the street. Later I learned that, from among Sonia’s friends in school, only about four people have survived. Others are in prison, or have been murdered.

Guernica: Did Sonia ever talk about these startling statistics?

Radka Franczak: She treated them as basic reality. It was Sonia’s mother who made me realize that our past really persists. The town is so haunted: at night there are no lights, poverty and aggression are widespread. Communism purposefully undermined the value of an individual life, whereas Sonia is striking because she reaffirms her individuality. She does carry the legacy: she’s never spoken to anyone about her maternal grandfather’s alcoholism, her mother’s stay in an orphanage, or the story of how some of her mother’s family had been exiled and others murdered. Sonia has locked this story inside her, whereas her mother clearly wants to speak out. I’ve appreciated this opportunity to show how we are deeply affected by the past.

Losing Sonia will be presented on Saturday, Nov 23rd, 9:30pm at Tribeca Film Center, as part of Different Ages, Different Voices: Polish Women in Film series, co-curated by film critic Michal Oleszczyk and programmer of Polish Filmmakers NYC Agata Drogowska.

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