It was her first feature-length documentary, made in a country which language she didn’t speak. Despite that, Putin’s Kiss was picked up by festivals around the world and even won the award for best cinematography at the Sundance. You can call it luck, but perhaps filmmaker Lise Birk Pedersen really just has a nose for good stories.
Four years ago the Danish-born Pedersen went on a month-long trip through Russia after having made two previous shorts about the country. During her travels, she encountered lots of young people who were strongly pro-Putin. And it was her own inability to understand where this loyalty came from that inspired her to grab her camera and find out more.
“I couldn’t really get how they could really love Putin. If you come from Western Europe it’s not an easy thing to understand. Remember, this all took place around the last parliamentary election, four years ago, so a lot of the people I ended up talking to where young politicians,” she says. But then she met Masha.
Meeting Masha – the perfect Russian
Masha, the 19-year old main character in Putin’s Kiss, is a leading member of the Russian pro-government youth movement ‘Nashi’. Her burning ambition to get ahead in life has already resulted in having her own apartment flat, her own car and even her own television programme which she herself hosts. But during the making of Pedersen’s movie, Masha starts hanging out with the ‘wrong’ crowd; the anti-Putin camp.
“The opposition is the side of the story that is generally really accessible to us, so I thought it would be much more intriguing this time to get a glimpse of that other world that is difficult for me to understand. No matter what would have happened, it would have been interesting to follow her,” says Pedersen. “Even if she would have just stayed with the organisation and stayed within the system.”
“I was already filming Masha when I discovered that she was meeting with some of the anti-Putin people, befriending them, and she had a lot of difficulties telling me about it. I think that was because she knew that is was a kind of no-go to talk to these people. If she would expose this to me, it would be even more real and other people would find out.”
One of the opposition members Masha befriended was Oleg, a left-wing journalist who is highly critical of the government. Someone whose opinions go right against what Masha, and the Nashi youth stand for. Opinions that can get you into trouble in modern dayRussia- as Oleg found out first hand when he ended up in hospital after being beaten up.
The attack changed things for both subject and filmmaker. Not long after the attack on Oleg, Masha decides to leave Nashi. And instead of portraying a story about Putin’s youth supporters, Pedersen’s documentary became the coming-of-age story of Masha.
Choosing her subjects
“When you see a really good documentary, where things fall into place, you could say ‘oh that was lucky’, and in a way that is true, but, I don’t think it could be called ‘lucky’ that Oleg was attacked.
“On top of that, making a documentary is also about being able to pick the right people. Some people just have a bigger conflict potential than others. We could go to a bar now and you’ll be able to point out a person that you think is likely to get into a fight and another one which you’d think wouldn’t. In a way, that’s what I am doing, that’s what I do when I ‘cast’ my subjects. Of course, I picked someone that I believedcould also generate a kind of drama.”