Is There Life on Mars? An Interview with Elena Demidova on Men’s Choice


In January, Novaya gazeta held their annual online documentary film festival. Each film was available for online viewing for 24 hours. A Facebook friend posted a link to Elena Demidova’s Men’s Choice (Muzhskoi vybor). He had written the English subtitles for it. It looked interesting so I checked it out.

What I saw was something outsiders rarely hear about Russia—the lives of the thousands of people, mostly men, who travel extraordinary distances to Russia’s far north to work in the natural gas fields. These men work on rotations—a month of constant work on, and a month back home. This labor forces them to be separated from their families for long periods of time. Why do they do it? For money, quite simply. Working at Russia’s vast gas fields is far more lucrative than the work available in the small towns and villages many of these men hail from.

I found Men’s Choice fascinating for its human touch against the backdrop of hard labor and a harsh environment. So I reached out to the film’s director, Elena Demidova, for an interview. I originally wanted this to be a podcast, but technical issues and scheduling made it impractical. Luckily, Demidova was kind enough to answer my questions in written form. The interview is below.

Elena Demidova is currently raising funds for her next film, The Last Man. You can donate here.

Watch the trailer for Men’s Choice (English Subtitles)

Tell a bit about yourself and your filmmaking. What are some of the issues that interest you?

I didn’t come to the film industry right away. My first education is in engineering, and then I got a degree in History and worked as a journalist. Then almost by accident I started to study in the Internews film school in Moscow (under Marina Razbezhkina) [Internews Moscow was closed down after a raid by the Russian Interior Ministry in 2007. You can read about the incident here and here as well as the appeal to Vladimir Putin signed by over 1100 Russian journalists and filmmakers.—Sean]. It completely changed my life. I didn’t just get anew profession, I also discovered а new world and new possibilities. I’ve been working as film director since. I’ve made about 10 films. This work is interesting and important for me. Men’s Choice is my second feature-length documentary.

What inspired you to make Men’s Choice?

The Russian North and the Arctic aren’t just words to me.  I went to the North when I was a student. We skied at Northern Urals and Kola Peninsula. In addition to this, I shot one of my previous films in the train travelling from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. I got the idea for [Men’s Choice] there. When I got on to the train at one of the northern stations, I noticed that only men were travelling in it. So I became acquainted with shift workers, who went home and went back to work a month later. And I realized that I’m really interested in how they live and work in the North and what is going on with them.

Beside this, I wanted to make this film because I lived in a Russian village for quite a long time. I know very well how men and women live there. I feel really bad for the women who must play the man’s role in family because their husbands are unemployed and drink. And I feel sorry for those men who are losing the man in themselves. And I understood that if a man must leave for a long time to support his family, he will not just earn money but he will also have problems. And so it was interesting for me to investigate this situation and these men. I generally believe that a film is always more interesting when it explores something.

And I felt so close to them because I understand their problems. I also used to live in a small town and used to have a husband who earned little money. Granted, we didn’t move to the North, but to Moscow. But it was a lot like moving to the north—there are more opportunities, but you also have to work more as well. My husband gave up; he couldn’t cope with these challenges. My characters can, however. I am interested in how these men manage it.

Your film takes place on the Yamal Peninsula 500 kilometers from the Arctic Circle on the Bovanenkovo gas field. What were you trying to capture by filming the lives of workers in such a remote place?

I wanted to understand how they live, how they work, and the environment around them. It like being on Mars. And in fact, these people go to Mars for their families, that is, out of love for them. But sometimes they lose the family as a result. Other times, they sometimes find a new family. They choose this way of life and they pay for it.

Men’s Choice focuses on three very different men: Andrei, a young man recently married; Alexei, a middle aged man in his second marriage. He met his wife at Bovanenkovo. And Dmitry, who has a wife and a young son. Why these men?

It took a long time find these characters. It was a big problem. I wanted to go to the gas field where the men I met on the train a few years before were traveling. But I could only get therewith Gazprom’s permission. Gazprom didn’t allow us to go there and they permitted us to only film at Bovanenkovo.

There were 3000 men when I got to but I didn’t find the film’s characters. Since the subject of the documentary, as I understood it, is someone who is currently making a choice, who changes, and loves and suffers in front of our eyes. And most of workers had been working in this field for a long time and all the critical moments in their lives had already past.

I met Dmitry first. I don’t like him but he gave us permission to film his wife in their hometown, and when I first saw her, I realized that there is the love and an invisible bond between her and Dmitry. That there is pain.

Dmitry led me to Alexei. I immediately liked Alexei. He’s an unusual man. All the men pump gas, but he pumps shit. All of them are pragmatic but he’s a romantic. All of them just want to make money, but he writes songs. But I had only one problem with him. His life didn’t change the whole time I was filming him and this later presented problems while editing.

And from the beginning I wanted to find a guy who was in the North for the first time and to see how it transforms him. But it turned out that such people rarely get to this gas field. Usually, they’ve previously worked in other gas fields in the North. I only met Andrei when I was on the second filming expedition. His coworkers were surprised that I wanted to film him. They thought that he wasn’t interesting. But I knew that I would film him for more than a year, that I would see the changes in his life and that he would end up in a different and interesting situation. And I was right.

Moreover I think these three stories are interlinked through parallel editing. They support, explain, and move each other forward.

How did these three men react to being filmed? They are not very talkative in the film.

They don’t come off very talkative because these people are generally not talkative. It’s because of their work and incessant tiredness. Besides, it is very hard to talk a lot in this climate.

I also think that words aren’t very important in documentary films. The camera tells a story through images–facial expressions, poses, lights, color—and we understand everything about these people without many words.

Why do they do this type of work where they work a month at a time without time off and in some cases 2000-3000 kilometers from their families?

They have chosen this type of work because there is no regularly paid word in those places where they live. In some small towns in European Russia up to 70% of inhabitants work in this way. They either go to the North or to Moscow.

The alternative to this is to either become a bureaucrat, but not everybody can get such a job, or to earn very little money and live in poverty. But this situation is also very bad for the families. So the choice before a person is actually to separate from their family but earn good money or to live together in poverty.

The film briefly shows women working at Bovanenkovo and Alexei’s wife worked there are well. What do the women do and what are the relations between them and the men?

Alexei’s wife is the woman in film shown in the trailer with Alexei at Bovanenkovo. He talks about how he came there to earn money for his first family, but met her, left his family and now they travel [to Bovanenkovo] together. She’s a cook. I think it’s not that he met her but more like she met him. I think she had come to the North looking for a man. And she found him. This is one of dangers of rotation work.

Many of the shots in the film show the daily life of these workers—As Alexei says in their habitat. Why did you focus on this?

I focused on this because we will never see this anywhere else. The majority of the audience had never been to such a place and they never will. Many people believe that this is easy money, but in fact this money is earned by the very hard work and it was important for me to show it. It was also important to show that the living conditions there are almost like living on Mars.

Also there are many shots just showing the environment—the cold, the darkness, the tundra. Why did you show so much of the landscape?

I don’t think that I show too much of landscape. I actually think the opposite that I don’t show this enough. Showing the people was more important for me so I show landscape mostly through them. I only have four frames that show nature without humans. I think this impression is because nature is perceived as brighter and stronger when you show it through a person. We cannot just see images of nature; we can actually feel how a person feels it. Whether he is cold or warm, whether the wind blows in his face or snow flies. Film for me first and foremost about people.

Given that oil and gas are Russia’s lifeblood, in what ways do the lives of these men, their work, and their families symbolize Russia as a whole?

I wouldn’t make such a generalization.  In fact, life in Russia is much more diverse. The lives of the government and the oligarchs depend on oil and gas pipelines.  But ordinary people earn their living in different ways. In the southern part of European Russia, where black soil is rich, a lot of people work in agriculture. The main source of life in the taiga is the forest. People’s lives in cities are very similar to people’s lives life in cities around the world. In the poor areas (outside the Black Earth zone) to the north of Moscow, (But not in the Arctic, where, yes, oil and gas are the main sources for life), people are very poor, agriculture is destroyed, everyone survives however they can. But even here people aren’t dependent on oil and gas. It’s just poverty. But of course, gas and oil indirectly affects the lives of many, many people working in rotation, and they are a considerable portion of the population.

What is your next project?

I’m currently working on several projects. The first is a co-production with France. It’s called Paris 1986. It’s a story about a mother and her adult son. Pavel is forty years old and Anna Grigoryevna is seventy. Paul isn’t married, has no children, and no steady job. He and his mother are very different, live different lives, have different dreams, and different daily routines. They hurt each other, argue and make up, but they have to live together in the same apartment. This is their only home.

Ever since Pavel found strange old photos in a closet, he’s been constantly occupied with digitizing them on his computer. These are the photos his mother took during a trip to Paris in 1986: three frames in one, poorly focused, with strange angles… At the time, he and his father decided that the photos weren’t any good and didn’t want print them. But now Pavel believes that they’re very interesting and wants to arrange an exhibition for his mother. What if he succeeds?

His mother dreamt about that trip to Paris for thirty years. The trip was almost unreal for a Soviet woman, but this dream came true, and not the dream for grandchildren or a successful life for her son. The son feels guilty and hopes to apologize by getting her back to Paris, at least with the help of a photo exhibition.

I film both of them together and individually to try to find the answers to the eternal questions: How do you learn to understand and accept a loved one? Why does the mother need to feel happy, and how could her son not to feel guilty in front of her? Moreover, I’m very interested if the exhibition will take place.

The film is currently in postproduction.

The other film was shot practically without any money. Just with help of volunteers. The main protagonist—Lesha—is the last man in his village. The other men have died or left. The village was burned down during the terrible fires of 2010. But Lesha doesn’t want to leave. He’s looking for a wife but instead a female director periodically comes to him. He’s looking for love but I’m trying to make a film.

Watch Lesha (English Subtitles)

This is a very personal projector me. I met Lesha in the summer 2010 when the entire European part of Russia was on fire. The village where Lesha lived burned down. I came there with volunteers. We brought humanitarian aid. We went with him on the only village street where his house was and where his cat and dog lived. He had to feed them. We walked and talked. About the fire, but not only. At the time, I thought I would shoot episode of film about the volunteers. But when I looked at the material, I realized that this hour walk was a film in and of itself. This movie was released in 2011, it was simply called Lesha. But during the hour we spent together in that burnt village, something happened that caused me to come to him again and again, first with volunteers and then by myself and to shoot new big film. I came into his life, and he became a part of mine. Once the movie is over it is also be important how.

And I have other plans and dreams. I really hope they will all come true—just like my dream has come true to make a film about male rotation workers in the North.