Director Gabe Polsky takes us on a wild ride through American-Soviet relations vis-à-vis the personal history of Slava Fetisov, longtime captain of the famed Red Army hockey team. The first Soviet citizen to be granted a visa to play in the West, Fetisov—NHL All Star, Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and current member of Russia’s National Assembly—forged a career that spanned the cold war years, perestroika, and modern-day Russia. At the heart of the story is Anatoly Tarasov, the brilliant, innovative coach appointed by Stalin to create a hockey team that could dominate the West. Produced by Werner Herzog, Red Army was a hit at the New York Film Festival, as well as Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, and will be eligible for an Academy Award. Click here to view the trailer. •Availability: In NYC, at the AMC Empire 25, starting November 14. Opens nationwide 1/23/15. •Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.• Please note: The interview with Slava Fetisov follows the interview with Gabe Polsky.
DT: Gabe, how are people responding to the film?
GP: I was really nervous about Russia, because if Russia didn’t like it, it would be a failure. The story is about the Soviet Union, the Russian people, in the past, present, and future. There were five hundred people at the press screening, and they gave a ten-minute standing ovation after the film. People came up to me afterwards, crying, saying, “We’re so appreciative. This is real.” They’re used to things that feel like propaganda. For them, this was an authentic story about a past they knew, but they didn’t know the details, and they’d never seen it put together like that. So for them it was really emotional. It was nostalgic. In a way, they felt patriotic about this obviously great team, but also about the fact that they went through this history together—the highs and the lows. And they also found it humorous.
At Cannes, where people don’t care at all about hockey, don’t know anything about it, everybody loved it because it’s just…a human story. On top of that, it’s a unique moment in time. And it’s about the meaning of sport to people everywhere, to nations around the world, as well as how it’s used, which is fascinating. I was expecting Canadians to love it. I was nervous, because I thought some hockey nuts would say, Why didn’t you show more Canada?—they’re so diehard Canadian hockey—but they loved it. Wayne Gretzky was there with his family, and they absolutely loved it. In Telluride and here in New York, it’s just a story people didn’t know. It’s a complete surprise and an emotional experience for them. But everyone has a different view of it. Americans are surprised: Wow, there’s a face to these people. They’re not just the robots of the Soviet Union. Russians are rough and rude and they’re the bad guys, because we’re so used to that in the media. This film gives a human face to all of this.
DT: It seems to me that the heart of the story is Coach Anatoly Tarasov. Can you speak about what he meant to you?
GP: We need more people like Tarasov, not only coaching kids but in every industry as well: people who approach their profession in a creative way and try to evolve it and encourage creativity and really think about it deeply. We lack that. In North America, in coaching and in other areas, it’s become tunnel vision. People aren’t necessarily qualified to do what they’re doing. They don’t earn it. We need thinkers, because there are a lot of creative people who don’t get to flourish because they don’t have leaders who get that out of them, who allow them to succeed.
DT: You make a very interesting point in your director’s statement: “My intention in making this film is to honor the Soviet struggle and to celebrate the art that emerged from such a charged and unique time in history.” What do you mean by that, especially the part about honoring the Soviet struggle?
GP: In the beginning of my movie, Slava’s kind of a tough guy, and he might look like a bit of an asshole, but when it gets down to it, you realize this country and these people went through a tremendous amount of suffering. We all have, but some countries more than others. You have to respect that, and if you’re going to understand the decision makers of Russia today—who these people are—you have to understand this history and what this country’s been through. Why they’re acting the way they do. Why they behave the way they do. It’s easy to just say, This guy’s this, or that, but you have to have compassion for who these people are. You have to understand them. You can’t say, Oh, the Soviet Union was all terrible, and everything was bad. There were some things that excelled there. They had major achievements, one of them being hockey. We should appreciate and understand that, as well as the failures.
DT: During the Q&A, Slava said, “When you love the game, it doesn’t matter what political system you come from.” But don’t you think that in general, teams reflect the worldview of the country they represent? Certainly you illustrate this in the film.
GP: I think that is often the case. When we watch sports, especially an international competition like the World Cup or the Olympics, everybody’s looking deeply into it. I do, at least. I’m not just saying, Oh, there’s China. I’m thinking, That athlete’s representing that country. How does he act, how does he do things? You see sports reflecting behaviors of that society and ideology. You can read into it. Sport is a lens into that. And that’s why the Soviet Union used it. They used it to influence people. It was another weapon in the cold war. That’s the only reason they developed their sports system: for political reasons.
DT: Stalin might have started the Red Army team to prove the superiority of the Soviet system, but wasn’t that the same sentiment expressed by Coach Brooks at the Lake Placid Olympics when he said after the US win, “This proves our way of life is the proper way to continue on.” Is that so different?
GP: No, it’s not that different. I think it just wasn’t as overt as the Soviets. They’re always clear about their message. The US is so subtle. I read the CIA was funding a lot of things—media, movies, and stuff like that during certain eras. I don’t know the extent of it, but when we need to, we do what we do, too. Anything can be used to influence people. Anything. This building. It’s a reflection of society. If I walk into a building in China, I’m looking, I’m saying, OK, this is how they do it. It’s a reflection of who we are. Anything is. And if it’s going internationally, people say, Those guys are Americans. How do they act? How do they play? And then they either get scared or happy, whatever the emotion is we’re trying to elicit.
DT: After your hockey team hired a coach from the Soviet Union, you tracked down old Soviet hockey footage. You were sixteen at the time. Can you talk about the moment you first watched the Red Army team play? When I imagine it, I see a revelatory moment that influenced everything you did from then on.
GP: It was like a religious experience. I was fascinated but at the same time very frustrated, because I felt, Jesus, why is our hockey so boring and so confining and limiting and simple? What they’re doing is incredible, and I want to play that way. Why don’t we encourage this kind of play? It’s right here, it’s in front of us. If I’d done that in North America when I was playing hockey, they would have said, Get the hell out of here. Go out and fight and hit people and chase after everybody rather than play intelligently. It was like watching a masterpiece, it was like being stuck in a world that’s mundane and all of a sudden you see something incredible.
DT: I feel like you applied their principles to your filmmaking as well.
GP: Yeah. It’s a direct reflection. My approach is trying to be creative and doing something new and interesting and beautiful and powerful. Different. Creating opportunities. Yeah, I apply all these principles to filmmaking. Never do the same. Also in working with other people—these guys [on the Red Army team] were so close, they were tight, they knew each other. It’s about these bonds. When you’re filmmaking, you’re working with so many people. You’ve got to get the best out of everybody. You have to work together. Suppress your ego. You can’t do it alone; you have to somehow find harmony together. Every film is different. It doesn’t always work. I can never achieve these kinds of bonds that I dream of fully, but you try and get somehow closer to it.
DT: I love the way that Slava stood up for himself when the Soviets told him he could play for the NHL but would have to give 90 percent of his salary back to the state. I love the way he stood up for Coach Tarasov and against the brutal methods of Coach Tikhonov. This isn’t really a question—I was just tremendously moved by his inner compass. I don’t know if you want to address that at all.
GP: First of all, he didn’t want to be sold like a slave and take only 10 percent of what he earned. That’s just common sense, unless you’re so desperate that you simply say, Get me the hell out of here.
DT: A number of other Russian players did.
GP: Right, and maybe their feelings were legitimate. But maybe Slava felt, I live fine here, I don’t need to go. And that’s what he always said: I don’t need to go there. I think that’s what gave him strength. It’s good negotiating skills. But he’s very interesting, and I’m really thankful he believed in me and kept letting me interview him, because I know he didn’t want to at a certain point. I don’t know if he really thought I was going to do anything interesting. To him I was like a kid, like, Who is this guy? But he kept going even though he could just as easily have said, I don’t want to do this.
DT: Could you have made the film without him?
GP: I don’t think so. Imagine if he wasn’t in it. Imagine it without him.
DT: It would have been a different film.
GP: I could have made it. Maybe it would have been better, maybe not, but I doubt it. His story is very specific, and it’s a lot different from anyone else’s.
DT: You got some amazing footage. How did you get it?
GP: It was a challenge. I had an archivist in the US and someone in Russia. When I sent the Russians requests, I would get all sorts of crazy responses back, but I wasn’t getting any material. I knew there had to be a lot of stuff there, and finally they said, Fine, then come out here. So I did, and we went to these old archive houses.
DT: Were they nationalized?
GP: Yeah. They did everything manually—writing on library cards. It was old school. I would tell them what I was interested in seeing, and they’d take me to this area full of old film cans and say, OK, we think it’s in here. They’d take down the cans and sit me on a machine, and I would try to see what was there, because they didn’t know exactly.
DT: An old editing table? A Steenbeck?
GP: Exactly. And I would mark what I liked with a piece of tape. There was a lot of material, and I just had to keep looking for stuff I wanted. I got a lot of material in the US as well. This doc is very archive heavy. There’s so much stuff that I love that didn’t get in the film. Tons of stuff, but it’s just the art [of filmmaking]. You’ve got to make decisions and keep going. When I saw some of it, I said, This is just genius. The Reagan thing, and the Herb Brooks, and Carter. You can’t believe it.
DT: Did you structure your film around those moments?
GP: Not really, no. But once I found them, I knew they had to be in there somewhere, in a certain scene where they would fit.
DT: How did you structure the film?
GP: It’s slightly chronological with Slava Fetisov’s career, building around that, weaving in other things, also paralleling Soviet history and Russian history. I didn’t want it to feel like one of these profile pieces. I hate those. I’ve actually done one, and I got nominated for an Emmy for it, but I’m never doing that again. I produced that, but this I wanted to direct. I wanted to do something unique. But even if it is a profile piece, it shouldn’t feel like it.
DT: It doesn’t. That’s why I said you could have made the film without him. It would have been a different film, but the film is definitely—
GP: Slava’s a character. That’s what makes this film unique and kind of funny.
DT: Were there any points of disagreement between the two of you?
GP: When I tried to get him to give me footage. I wanted home videos and pictures. That was hard. And when I tried to get him to Cannes. Maybe he was reluctant because he’s a politician. It’s possible he thought, Maybe I look like an asshole in the film.
DT: He’s a member of Russia’s National Assembly.
GP: But he just said, Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to Cannes. I said, What do you mean? This is a big deal, it’s about you, it’s about Russia. He said, Yeah, I don’t know, but then he called me a couple of days later and said, My wife and daughter want to go to Cannes. But then when he saw how people were reacting, he was totally on board. He was just worried people weren’t going to like it. Then he got confirmation, validation.
DT: Why did you start playing hockey?
GP: My older brother was playing, and I wanted to do whatever he did. I got upset when he made a team and I didn’t. I got ultracompetitive—that happens a lot with brothers. But that’s what started my drive.
INTERVIEW WITH SLAVA FETISOV:
DT: Slava, can you talk about Coach Tarasov and what he meant to you?
SF: I’m very glad that people pay attention to his role in developing the Soviet hockey school. I was lucky to get into the Red Army hockey school. I was ten years old. Tarasov built this system. He was practical and theoretical at the same time. He was a philosopher and an unbelievable speaker. He was the heart and soul of the system he was building based on patriotism, based on supporting each other, friendship, based on immense character. Never give up. Fight through. He was coaching at the same time he was building the program. He started developing hockey after WWII, in ’48. Canada had already been playing sixty years, the Europeans fifty. We needed to catch up with the rest of the world, to build the right program, and he was the right person to be in charge. I talked to him a lot. He studied a lot of different sports. He learned from the Bolshoi ballet how to develop agility and strength in the hockey player when he’s down in his legs for skating. He was so creative. He was so artistic; you can see that with the kids. It’s still a big surprise how the system kicked him out at age 54. He became so popular. Maybe that’s what the Communist system doesn’t allow. If you become so popular, they find a way to kick you out. That’s probably what happened with him. It’s still a big secret why he was left without a job when he was the best coach in the world. He won four straight Olympic games, and they kicked him out.
DT: That was the most heartbreaking scene in the film, when you go back to train with him.
SF: He felt people. He knew what to say to support them. He was an unbelievable psychologist.
DT: How did he adapt to the political atmosphere that he found himself in?
SF: Many people in this situation would be lost, but he found himself. He developed the kids program called Golden Puck. In those years in the Soviet Union there were one million kids playing hockey every winter, and he was head and mentor of the program. He ran a special course for young coaches who wanted to coach the hockey teams. He traveled a lot around the country but never got back in the business.
DT: Can you describe how the Russian Five operated on the ice?
SF: From the beginning, we learned how to pass. From stick to stick—preferably not the other team’s stick. (Laughs) Three players are supposed to be open for each pass. Get open for each other, see where to pass, place the puck. Instantaneous. Give and go. We played lots of different sports during training—soccer, basketball.
DT: All passing sports.
SF: All the passing sports. Give and go. Try to find the seams. Control the puck. If you cannot attack, you have to regroup. You go to the second wave. If you can’t attack in the second wave, you go to the third wave. Sometimes you control the puck two minutes before you go into the position zone. When I played for Detroit, I was joking with Brendan Shanahan before we went on the ice for a big game. I said, “Shanny, if you see me open, shoot the puck.” Because if somebody’s open, you have to pass.
DT: During the Q&A, you said, “When you love the game, it doesn’t matter what political system you come from.” But don’t you think that sports teams always reflect the viewpoint of the country they represent?
SF: You don’t feel the system until you feel uncomfortable. When you’re young, you have a goal: to do good. You have the team, you have the schedule, you have common games, you have to practice four times a day. You can’t think about who’s Minister of Sport or who runs the political office. But when you get older, you start to realize that maybe it’s a big price to pay. In my case, they told me, “Slava, we made a deal for you to play with the NHL. You’re going to bring your salary back to the embassy, and they’ll give you a thousand bucks a month.” You feel like they’re trying to sell you as a slave. It doesn’t feel like you’re big anymore. Then you try to fight for yourself. This is very difficult. Not many people can do this, especially when you’re part of a system and grow up in it. But I always stood up for my rights and for the rights of the Soviet people. And I beat the system.
I saw the film Miracle on Ice, when the kids from the US beat the unbeatable Red machine at the Olympic Games. It was called a miracle. President Carter called the dressing room and spoke to Herb Brooks, the coach of the team, saying, “We’re so proud of you. Beating the Soviets brought so much pride and patriotism in our country.” For you it’s patriotism. For us it’s propaganda. It’s kind of a double standard, I would put it this way. You can’t put aside the fact that somebody used us as a political tool, but when you lace up the skates and go on the ice and see the guys in different uniforms, you don’t think about whether they’re from America or Sweden or Canada. You want to be better than they are, and that’s it.
DT: The Russian Five had such cooperative, communal play…it was all about the team, whereas you got the feeling that when you played with the New Jersey Devils, it was all about the individual and brute strength.
SF: I came from the best team to the worst team in the league. And most importantly, even if you didn’t speak the language, you felt they didn’t like you in the dressing room. They didn’t respect you because you came from somewhere else. You could feel this, and when you tried to bring this style that could bring them success, they opposed it right away. They didn’t want to help, they didn’t want to cooperate, they didn’t want to listen. It was very difficult. It was a tough time for me. I fought against the big Communist system for my rights. I beat the system. I jumped on a plane. I went to probably the most open, democratic country in the world, and I realized they didn’t expect me here. They didn’t like me here. And I had to fight through all this stuff. The Big Apple anti-Soviet media presented me as a Soviet major who came here to make money. They didn’t know my story, what I went through to get here. The kids in the dressing room didn’t like me because I was a Soviet hockey player. At that point, I had two choices: go back or fight through. I chose to fight through. Finally I got respect, a lot of recognition.
DT: You brought the Stanley Cup to Moscow. Why did you do that?
SF: I wanted to share it with my friends, because at that time it was almost impossible to come here. And I wanted to show that I fought against the system, that I learned something and had success in a different world . The reception was unbelievable—the prime minister, president, 80,000 fans. We went to hospitals, to sports schools, to the regular schools. Went to the players’ hometowns. It was a pretty busy three days, and I was happy.
DT: What were the effects of perestroika on the country and on hockey in particular?
SF: Perestroika killed hockey. Perestroika killed lots of stuff, because the system wasn’t ready for big changes. We exchanged patriotism for the American dream. That was the biggest problem, and we’re still paying for it now. That change of philosophy will affect the next couple of generations. In the senate, I’m vice chair of the social committee responsible for sport, youth, and health. I often talk with students, and I say, You know what the American dream is? The American dream is patriotism. Of course we have a different interpretation. We lost two whole generations, who were robbed by blaming everything that went before and not doing anything to be better. It was the same with hockey. In world championships, we haven’t been on the podium for fourteen years. All the best players came to North America, and there was so much corruption in the Russian leagues. We lost the coaching program. When I became the Minister of Sport in 2002, I felt all these problems. I felt what kind of damage was done in the ’90s, not only for the sport programs, not only for hockey, but for the whole country.
DT: It seemed to me that you and Gabe viewed the cold war in very different ways. How do you view the cold war?
SF: Athletes were the only citizens allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union. We weren’t allowed to go during the regular season, but when we went to play in the US or Canada for finals, the hockey team would fly in an empty airplane. We represented our country; we were playing for the national team or the Red Army club. We come here and see a different life—we see all these cars, we see all these hotels, food in the stores, then we get back and see what’s in our country. But again, we grew up after WWII [and lived] mostly in barracks, because the country was destroyed by Nazis.
DT: Twenty million Russians were killed.
SF: Twenty million were killed. We grew up in an atmosphere where we tried to stick together. Get through as a community. Get through as a team. And of course this gets in your mind–it’s OK, if we all work hard, we’ll all achieve the same lifestyle. Nobody even thought of defecting. We had a good opportunity to have a good life because we were world elite athletes, but nobody even thought to defect. We had some propaganda on our side, I know you had brainwashing on the other side, but when I got here, when I started speaking the same language with neighbors, with teammates, with people, you could see lots of similarities wherever you went. We look alike, we think alike, we have so much in common: family, quality of life.
DT: People are people.
SF: People are people. A couple of years later, a couple of my teammates came to me and said, “Slava, we hated you, but now we love you. You’re like a brother to us.” They had been screwed up in a certain way of brainwashing against the Soviets. We’re all the same.
DT: You’re currently a member of Russia’s Federal Assembly. To what extent did your experience in the US shape your political activity today?
SF: I have lots of friends here. Senators, congressmen. We talk about how I can build bridges, make life different. That’s why I stick in politics. It takes more out of me than it can give to me, but I think people should do something to make a better world. My daughter is an American citizen. She was born in New York, she studied here. I’m one of the twelve goodwill ambassadors in UNESCO. When I travel here, and in Canada and Europe, I use sport as an example, pointing out that national hockey league teams are now international, with kids from different parts of the world, different nationalities, sometimes different skin color, fighting on the same team for the ultimate goal of becoming champions. After the game they all go to the bar and have some beer and talk about life. That’s my duty right now. I try to promote a different Russia, because I know the young generation wants to be part of the whole world. I was Minister of Sport for seven years, and built lots of programs that are working right now to support veterans’ kids. We built four thousand new sports facilities for the kids, we brought the Olympic Games to Russia, we raised the budget for the kids’ programs twenty times. For the Russian Federation, sport is now seen as a social phenomenon. We use it not only to develop champions; it’s also an alternative for street challenges like drugs and alcohol. Sport is the only chance to get kids from the internet back to reality. And sport teaches the qualities to be successful. I was proud to be in politics and build this program. And I see the result: I see new sports facilities, I see new champions, I see the sport becoming a national pride again.
DT: Were you surprised at how the film was received in Russia?
SF: Russians always get kind of emotional about this kind of stuff. For them, Tikhonov is a legend, but the facts were out already. There was a best-selling book, and a few documentaries about my life. These facts were there, and when I talked to the youngsters, I saw that they received this film well. The older generation got memories of the glory days, and they were pretty happy. But all these conflicts are not going to discard what we’ve done for the country for so long. We’re still one of the popular outlets in Russia—not only Russia but the former Soviet Union. Anywhere I go, people remember this. They come, they shake my hand, say, “Slava, thank you. We were rooting for you. We support you.” It’s nice.
DT: Now that Russia is no longer part of the USSR, how has the people’s mentality changed?
SF: We need something, because the last twenty years have seen so many upsets. We tried to change history, we tried to change education, we lost sport pride, which I saw when I became minister. When I came, it was in ruins. In 2002 there was no money, no respect, no system, nothing. I built the system for seven years, and it’s working right now. We won the Olympic games in the winter. We lost our pride, we don’t know who we are, who the heroes of the country are. Channel 1, our biggest channel, invested in a fiction movie called Fetisov, which will be released in December. The kids need to be proud of something. Films like that promoting heroes who played hard for our country are probably what the young generation needs right now.
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