A filmmaker grows in Russia

A filmmaker grows in Russia

Director Rati Oneli grew up in Russia at a time when Western movies were verboten and his family discouraged any thoughts of becoming an artist. So he became one anyway.

His short film “Theo” is an official selection at the Ace Film Festival in New York. “Theo’s” festival debut will be at 8 p.m.. Sept. 5. WWTW talked with Oneli recently about his film roots … and his future.

WWTW: Tell me a little bit about your background. Was filmmaking always a goal? Any important lessons you learned along the way?

I was born in a small country called Georgia, which was part of the Soviet Union then. My parents were more intellectually than artistically inclined. My mom is a doctor and my dad has a PhD in chemistry so their vision of my future consisted of a clear and defined profession that could lead to a successful career. I had a different inclination – I wanted to write, but I was always discouraged from it. I know they wished me well, but it sort of distorted my understanding of my own inner world. Now I know you can’t teach a left-handed person to write with a right hand, which actually was a policy in the Soviet Union – everyone had to be right handed and everyone had to be the same.

WWTW: Talk about your short film “Theo.” What drove you to this project? Did it evolve during the shoot? What do you hope viewers will walk away with after seeing it.

I think the mood of “Theo” reflects the psychological and emotional state that I was in at the time. I had begun to work on another film prior to “Theo” and it gradually fell apart until I was left alone with my camera and the lead actor. A friend of mine suggested that we do a simple, quick film that could relieve me of the stress of the previous film so that I could return to it afterwards, refreshed. I didn’t think at the time that this would turn into a one-year project, but I’m glad it did because I feel I went through a complete, self-administered film school altogether.

I am very fascinated by the uncertain times that we live in. As a filmmaker, I am not interested in empirical or political analysis of what’s going on in the world, but rather existing human condition. We live in fascinating but also very confusing environment. In earlier times, despite obvious hardships and lack of modern luxuries, it was easier and more straightforward to live one’s life. You were born and for the most part would have a set idea of what your life would be like. Life was more homogeneous in a way. Our age has become infinitely more complex and uncertain.

Personally, , I feel that now, my eyes are covered with a thin, transparent veil that shields a clearer view of the world and our age in particular. It’s very easy to be sucked into mechanical, spiritualless life and never come out of there. Basically, one can get lost without even ever finding or defining yourself. I think this was my principle drive in making “Theo.”

WWTW: What’s next for you? A feature length “Theo?” Other projects?

I have a feature treatment that Tom Hedley helped me to write. It’s very loosely based on the character of “Theo” and it will be a gritty, urban drama with a more conventional narrative. I also have a few other ideas in mind, but I feel I first need to make a feature “Theo” and I can move on after that.

WWTW: How is starting a film career today different than 20 years ago? Does technology make it easier for young filmmakers to get started? How?

The world is a lot more mobile and flexible now. Filmmaking has also become more affordable. I must have watched hundreds of pirated films that were the core and basis of my self-education.

Imagine sneaking into hundreds of movie theaters!? I’d never be able to have access to amazing films that don’t usually play in theatres or are expensive rarities even on DVDs. It’s truly great to live in this technologically advanced age.

I never went to film school and a lot of my research was done online. There are professional film forums where people can get advice from seasoned pros who are ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) members. It’s unrealistic to think that I could do the same thing 20 years ago without any connections within the industry.

I also realize that the film market is over-saturated right now because anyone with a consumer digital video camera can shoot a movie and “pollute” the market but that’s the trade-off and I can’t complain, especially since a lot of really great movies have been shot on video cameras.

(Photo: Thomas Andren stars as the title character in “Theo,” a short film by Rati Oneli.)

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