Russian Snark: Sets Sail

Russian Snark: sets sail 

Screen Hub
Friday 17 June, 2011

An art film about art films, or at least an art film filmmaker, went on release yesterday with the filmmaker and lead actors fronting for a Q&A in Auckland.  

Writer Stephen Sinclair (Ladies Night, LOTR 2) adds a feature directing credit withRussian Snark, a story inspired by the real event of a Vladivostok couple turning up in NZ in 1999, having made the journey from Russia in a lifeboat.

Sinclair started on the script in 2007, and shot the film mostly in two blocks the following year during May and September, which a lot of the exterior shooting covered off in the first block. “It wasn`t fair to expect people to crawl around on a beach naked, covered in mud on a winter`s day.”

He`d always seen it as an independent piece, deciding going in not to apply for funding. At a Script To Screen Writers Room early in 2009, he spoke about the decision and the importance of retaining some control over the material as it didn`t easily tick boxes for NZFC support. The story centres on two Russian characters who speak their native language a good amount of the time.

Sinclair also wanted to treat making the film “like writing a novel”, and to have the freedom to go back and revise as it developed – an approach he now describes as a little naïve. There was some luck in that people remained available when it came time to do pickups and add in new scenes, but making the film in that way was always the plan.

The development of the film after a rough cut, with the addition of new scenes, makes it a more coherent piece than it apparently was early on.

The film is not easy, although it`s peppered with humour, not only in some of the referential scenes but also, occasionally, unintentionally. One scene where a character attempts suicide was greeted with laughter at festival screenings last year. It wasn`t what Sinclair expected, but he`s relaxed about it, happy to let audiences take the film as they find it.

Sinclair wrote the piece for the two main actors, Kiwi Stephen Papps and Russian native Elena Stejko. Papps does a great job with both the Russian language and Russian-accented English. The two actors had worked with Sinclair previously, on a short film. Their work on that was the driver for Sinclair to write a feature for them.

Sinclair described NZ`s acting fraternity as having “depth, but not great breadth”, which he felt was another good reason to write for specific actors rather than hoping that someone out there will fit the characters created.

He said, “With this film I’ve sought to create an eccentric comedy drama, which is artistically engaging and accessible; thought-provoking and entertaining.”

It`s a crafted statement, befitting of a writer, but nonetheless an accurate description of what he`s achieved. The film isn`t entirely straightforward. Certainly Misha (Papps) is not the most loveable protagonist you`ll find on screen, but between Sinclair`s writing and direction and Papps` performance, Misha is impossible to hate which – given the story`s denouement – is an important if difficult line to tread.

A year on from its premiere at last year`s NZFF, the film is still screening on the festival circuit internationally, where it`s picked up many competition nominations and won Best International Film at the Garden State Film Festival.

Here at home it won Stephanie Tauevihi the Best Supporting Actress at last year`s Qantas Film & TV Awards, and was nominated in five other categories.

There`s plenty of art for the arthouse crowd, and film students can sit up late discussing the symbolic and metaphorical importance of the imagery, the lifeboat in which the couple arrive, the chickens with which Misha bonds, as well as reflecting uncomfortably on the alienation of artists from society.

For the less self-obsessed, it`s a very entertaining story with entertaining characters and deserves a wider audience than it might find.

For himself, Sinclair is busy with other work as well as bobbing around the country for the next few weeks to attend screenings. He has a play opening at Devonport`s Victoria in August and is working on other film scripts. He`s recently completed a draft of an adaptation of his children`s story Bartholomew’s Birthdayfor Peter Jackson, and is currently developing “a hallucinatory thriller” Distant Fires with Snark producer Liz DiFiore.

A list of Russina Snark screenings and Q&A sessions in various centres is here. More information about the film can be found here.

“Humour, whimsy and visual beauty turn Stephen Sinclair’s Russian Snark…into something near-poetic”

Humour, whimsy and visual beauty turn Stephen Sinclair’s Russian Snark from a typical migrant tale into something near-poetic. As Russian artists Misha and Nadia struggle to find their feet in Auckland, Sinclair gently takes shots at artistic pretentiousness (Misha’s making a black-and-white film of naked bodies in the landscape), exposes the painful choices migrants have to make and draws fine, natural performances from Stephen Papps and Elena Stejko as the couple, and especially Stephanie Tauevihi as their wise and compassionate neighbour.


Helene Wong, NZ Listener, 25/6/11


Published June 17th, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Kiwi Fm – Radio Wammo – Review

Check out this review – after Bridesmaids!

Published June 17th, 2011 at 8:04 am

Peter Calder Review Russian Snark in The NZ Herald – 3.5 Stars!

Movie Review: Russian Snark

By Peter Calder

7:00 AM Thursday Jun 16, 2011 

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Stephen Papps impresses in his role as a Russian film-maker. Photo / Supplied 


Stephen Papps impresses in his role as a Russian film-maker. Photo / Supplied

“Art,” intones Misha, one of this movie’s two main characters, “is way of seeing; it is both gift and curse.”

He should know. Misha (Papps) is a Russian film-maker in self-imposed exile from the Motherland and his determination to pursue his art form leads to very little pleasure and quite a lot of pain.

Looking for an artistically sophisticated country where a narrative-averse experimental film-maker might be appreciated, he rather unwisely lands in New Zealand, where his obsession and self-obsession drive him slightly crazy and his wife Nadia (Stejko, excellent) to distraction.

The film is inspired by the story of Boris Bainov and Renata Pavlenko who arrived at Huia in November 1999 after crossing the Manukau Bar – not to mention the Pacific, from Vladivostok via Vanuatu – in an 8m enclosed aluminium lifeboat.

But it doesn’t tell their story. After a faintly Herzogian opening in which Misha howls at the mist while swinging from his makeshift mast, the movie traces the struggle of Nadia (like Pavlenko, a dancer) and Misha as they work out how they might pay the rent and resolve the conflict between being an artist and a human. In his self-funded feature debut, Sinclair, who co-wrote Ladies Night and the second Rings movie, turns this flimsiest of pretexts into an unusual love story which is far more engaging than it promises to be.

In large part that’s down to the irrepressibly eccentric performance by Papps. He convincingly chews some pretty complicated dialogue in Russian and the intonation of his Russian-English accent is just right, but he also nails the essence of the doggedly unworldly and quixotic Misha. When he quotes Nietzsche’s idea that if you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you, he makes it sound like it’s rapture, not despair he’s feeling.

Stars: 3.5/5
Cast: Stephen Papps, Elena Stejko, Stephanie Tauevihi
Director: Stephen Sinclair
Running time: 78 mins
Rating: M (violence, offensive language, nudity) In English and Russian with English subtitles
Verdict: Unexpectedly engaging

- TimeOut

By Peter CalderEmail Peter


Published June 16th, 2011 at 7:05 am

RUSSIAN SNARK – ★★★★ Review in Sunday Star Times


It may be a witty play on the title of the one-take cinematic masterpiece shot in the Hermitage, but Russian Snark is otherwise different in every way. The feature film debut from writer/director Stephen Sinclair is a touching, beautifully drawn Kiwi film about Russian immigrants in Auckland.

Misha (Stephen Papps) is a failing film-maker who shuns narrative in favour of enigmatic, monochromatic philosophising. It’s actually rather good – but it won’t make him a living. Wife and muse Nadia puts up with his career crisis until the burden of being sole breadwinner for their disintegrating partnership becomes too much.

A brave and utterly convincing performance from relative novice Elena Stejko is matched beautifully to the eccentric Misha. Despite the film’s gentle touch and relatively superficial treatment of potentially big issues, Papps’ portrayal induces our sympathy, rather than mockery, and Stephanie Tauevihi offers great support as Roseanna. The Kiwi characters are typically laid-back and subtly played against the Russians’ fire, and the resulting ensemble is pitch-perfect.

Russian Snark is a strange but delightful beast, well worth hunting out.


- Sunday Star Times – June 12th, Auckland, New Zealand