Your original career choice was to become a mathematician. How did you decide to become a filmmaker?

As American writer O. Henry once said: “It ain’t the roads we take; it’s what’s inside of us that makes us turn out the way we do.” It was not easy to change career directions, especially as I was attending graduate school and my master’s thesis was almost completed. It was then that I met the film directors Aleksei German and Vladimir Vengerov, and the former helped me get a job as a director’s assistant. He was shooting a movie called My Yedem v Ameriku (We Are Going to America). By the time we wrapped the film my decision was made and I was admitted to the St Petersburg Institute of Cinema and Television.

Your filmography lists a good number of documentaries and TV series. What are the differences in working in film and these media?

Making television today in Russia is the most accessible path to professional filmmaking. In television, deadlines are strict, production is always rushed and all you can really do is maintain the storyline. The documentary genre is a favorite of mine as it lets you create an artistic image out of everyday life around you. Making documentaries helps in feature films, too: it teaches you to look at your latest rushes not as something sacred, but as raw material for editing.

Have you been writing fiction for a long time? Do you write only scripts or do you also write strictly literary works?

In the past I wrote a lot ­ mainly short stories and poems. I used to moonlight a bit for newspapers, for instance, even one pretty weird publication about UFOs. I contributed a little fantasy about flying saucers, a kind of stab at science fiction. That got me started writing screenplays. Lately I’ve been concentrating entirely on films.

Who of the older generation of filmmakers has influenced you?

I like the films of Dinara Asanova, Teenagers and Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches. She was honest in her attempt to take her cues from children. I will be always thankful to my mentor, filmmaker Semyon Aranovich (Winner of The Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear for his film The Year Of The Dog). He cultivated something unique in each one of us, and made every effort to help us realize our artistic potential. Naturally, I love Italian Neorealism, for instance films such as The Bicycle Thief, that try to capture an authentic “slice of life, ” which I believe is the most difficult thing to do in film. As much as I respect filmmakers of the past, I do not want to emulate anybody. Copying someone else’s style is the most thankless task I can imagine.

How did you come up with the idea for The Italian?

In 1999, huge numbers of destitute and homeless children invaded the streets of Russia’s big cities as a result of the banking and financial collapse. They washed cars, sold newspapers, pumped gas and did whatever they could to survive. When children are neglected and forgotten, they grow up too fast. When irresponsibility becomes the rule in a society, its whole system of morality changes. While among adults, no matter what the circumstances, certain moral restrictions and conventions still hold, among children there are no such boundaries. Children establish their own laws, their own hierarchy, and their own methods of distributing wealth. On the one hand, these children grow up very fast. On the other hand, they never really mature; they stay in a strange intermediate condition.

Your film shows us an orphanage functioning as a state within a state. The children have created an autonomous administrative system that is far more efficient than the official adult version. Children play by their own rules, and those who violate them are severely punished. The structure is semi- criminal, but very effective. Have you observed this in real life? What is the source of your knowledge of this very specific social milieu?

For a long time I wanted to shoot a film about deeply troubled youth. And I searched and searched for a narrative to embody this idea. I toyed with some vague thoughts along the lines of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Once I started collaborating with Andrei Romanov, it turned out that he had collected a great many real stories about orphanages. He has an incredible knack for getting ordinary people to talk to him; complete strangers open up to him and tell him their whole life stories — sometimes true, sometimes not. He told me a story he had read in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda about a boy from an orphanage. The boy taught himself to read for the sole purpose of finding his mother’s address in her file. He ran away from the orphanage and managed to find his mother. This story immediately provided us with a good main character. We had a tangible image that could solidify some otherwise abstract sociological observations. I understood that the actions of our character had to seem somewhat absurd, because he was driven not by reason, but by his soul, not by any capacity for compromise, but by an extreme need. He does not want, unlike most of us, simply to secure a safe mode of survival. This boy is a real hero, in an existentialist sense, as in the works of Camus and Sartre.

What criteria did you use to select an orphanage?

During my student years I filmed a short about a local Russian orphanage. Emotional images of this rather strange milieu were stuck in my memory. I needed to find the right way to get this story across. We decided to shoot at a real provincial orphanage, which was particularly troubled. It was very important to observe the children, not to force them into our storyline, not to make them conform to our notions, but to take the children themselves, their authentic experiences and attitudes, as our starting point. In Russian orphanages located in big cities, the children look at every adult visitor as a potential adoptive parent. Children immediately throw themselves at them and cling to them. When all of them are shown out, leaving only one child, the rest realize that this particular child has been selected for adoption.. In addition the wards there have been so completely let down by adults all their lives that they no longer look at new adults as potential adoptive parents. Eventually, we selected the Lesogorsky children’s home in the Leningrad district, near Vyborg, not far from the border with Finland. We needed provincial Russia, with all of its modest charm, which will undoubtedly strike some people as shabby. I recall an episode from the life of Marc Chagall when he visited his birthplace, Vitebsk, in Belarus, as a very old man. The locals were eager to show him their new construction projects, but Chagall was obviously bored and became animated only when he came across some badly warped and weather-beaten fences. Chagall said he had never seen anything more beautiful. Ruins and rubble tell the biography and fate of a place.

How did the local authorities treat you? It must have been obvious you weren’t planning to produce a very flattering film?

They treated us very well. Everyone we met was willing to cooperate. For our part, we weren’t there to point fingers or to dwell gratuitously on problem areas. However, after the screening I did detect some tension in relations with the city authorities. They obviously did not like the children’s system of “self-government,” the director of the orphanage being portrayed as a drunkard, or the lady agent brazenly bribing city officials. But even so our relations with the authorities remained constructive.

Can you talk more about the adoption broker, whom everybody calls Madam?

I have met her real-life counterpart, and she gave me a lot of information about all this “go-between” business. This lady was engaged in adopting Russian children into Italian families and began forging signed relinquishments of the biological parents’ parental rights. A scandal broke and she left the agency, nursing a tremendous grudge against it, and then she got even by spilling the whole story to me. We used some of the details I learned from her. The actress who plays her, Maria Kuznetsova, resembles this woman in real life. In general, brokering adoptions is very hard work for just one person to do. An adoption must go through the courts, the paperwork is enormous, there is always a lot of red tape, bureaucratic obstacles, and lots of sessions with the relatives. The relatives are often alcoholics and aggressive, therefore she needs a strong man at her side as a security guard, as we show in our film. Madam is by no means evil, although it may seem that she is; she sincerely believes that she is doing good by the children.

In your film, an Italian couple comes to the orphanage and selects Vanya Solntsev for adoption, but Vanya runs away looking for his real mother, and another boy ends up going to Italy instead. Is this main storyline strictly fictional, or is it based on fact?

Similar incidents have occurred. Under their contracts, adoptive parents pay a lot of money to the Russian brokers, often tens of thousands of dollars. If a child runs away or refuses to go, the brokering agency is financially liable. They must either reimburse the money or find another child who meets the adoptive parents’ approval.

How did you select young actor Kolya Spiridonov to play Vanya Solntsev?

Casting the film took a long time. We advertised on radio and television and my assistants went cruising around schools and orphanages. We auditioned hundreds of kids. Kolya was a standout at a very early stage. Our production designer noticed him in a short film and said to me: “That’s what we need.” The charm of this boy was hard not to notice; yet he was awfully tense, spoke in a low voice, was afraid of taking a step and couldn’t memorize his lines. We went on looking at other candidates, but always returned to Kolya. There were interesting kids, but every time I realized they lacked something that I could see in Kolya. Finally I decided to take a risk and began shooting with him. When I saw the first rushes, I knew I’d made the right choice.

Did amateur actors play all the other children and when you were shooting the orphanage did you need to arrange any changes in the place’s normal routine?

Almost all the characters were played by amateur actors and except for two girls; all of them are from children’s homes. Many are from the Lesogorsky orphanage, where we shot part of the film, while some older kids were taken from Vyborg, and others from different orphanages of St. Petersburg. In regards to disrupting the everyday running of the orphanage, everything there remained intact: discipline, classes, recess, and wake-up time.

There is a strong tradition of films about children in the Soviet cinema. How important to you is this tradition, and do you consider yourself a part of it?

I made a conscious decision not to watch Russian films centering around children again. I wanted to tell a contemporary story in an almost documentary manner.

In the script Vanya ultimately reunites with his mother, but you do not show that in the film. Did you not want a happy ending?

There is a happy ending. When we finished the film, the producers, the screenwriter and I debated the ending for a long time. We concluded that it would be unfair to the main character not to reward him somehow at the end. That’s how we came up with the final exchange of letters between Vanya and the boy who goes to Italy instead of him.

What was the impact of the film on your young actors?

Getting involved with a creative project and people working in the arts has been very important and positive for them. The fact that we treated them with respect made a big impression. Some of these children were so inspired that they decided to turn over a whole new leaf. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a lasting change with just a one-time effort, especially once their personalities have been fully formed.

From time to time we hear scandalous stories of the abuse of Russian children by foreign adoptive parents, especially in the United States. They stir strong emotions in Russia. Some legislators in the Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, are calling for severe restrictions on foreign adoptions. It looks as if your film supports this trend, whether you intended it to or not. Why do you have Vanya Solntsev giving up his chance to eat oranges under the Italian sun and staying in Russia instead, surrounded by warped fences?

These debates have only a tangential relationship to our film. Vanya does not choose between a life in Russia and a life in Italy. He chooses to find his birth mother. THE ITALIAN is the odyssey of a boy, a basic, archetypal myth of return to one’s mother, the return of a prodigal son. In the newspaper article that provided us with the seed of our film, the mother asked her son after he’d finally found her: “What do I need you for, anyway?” And the son replied: “From now on you’ve got a man in your house.” A boy like that is going to have no trouble straightening a fence or two.

— Interview by Oleg Sulkin