Dutch filmmaker Jessica Gorter talks about her new film exploring the complex legacy of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, 20-year-old film student Jessica Gorter travelled to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), at the invitation of a young Russian man she had met in a bar in Amsterdam.
She recounts he would come to the city and collect the junk he found on the streets, load it into his car and drive back home to sell it. “His name was Alexis. We got chatting in a bar and he invited me to visit. I said, ‘Be careful, I might take you up on the offer’.”
Unbeknownst to Alexis, who is now a long-time friend, Gorter had been fascinated by Russia since she was a teenager. “My father had lived in Moscow in the 1960s and it made a huge impression on him as a teenager. I read all the literature on his bookshelves, from Dostoyevsky to Solzhenitsyn. My fascination for the country grew from there,” she explains.
The filmmaker recalls how her father came to Utrecht Central Station to see her off. “He gave me a compass and said, ‘If it goes bad just walk south and I’ll pick you up at the border’… When I got off the train at the other end, I stepped into Perestroika… or what I call this silent revolution.” She arrived as the new era of Perestroika, implemented by Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, was gaining pace.
The trip would cement Gorter’s fascination for Russia, which she has since translated into a series of shorts and features about the country as it undergoes what she calls “a silent revolution.” In The Red Soul, Gorter explores Russians’ complicated relationship with Joseph Stalin, taking the spectator on a journey across Russia from pro-Stalin commemoration ceremonies in Moscow to forgotten mass graves in the north.
Millions of Russians perished in gulags and mass executions under his repressive rule, but the nation is deeply divided about his legacy: where some see a mass murderer, others see a World War II hero and great leader. “In order to understand anything that is going on in Russia today, it's very important to understand how the Russians look at their own history,” she explains.
Gorter introduces a range of characters on either side of the divide: from two sisters whose mother was interned in a labour camp for most their childhood for selling a piece of cloth to buy food; to a pro-Stalin photographer, who lays roses on the late leader’s grave; to civil-rights activists who comb mass grave sites for evidence of the killings that took place. She notes that the mixed feelings can run in parallel though the same individual. “There are plenty of characters in the film where the family suffered under Stalin, but they still admire and respect him as a figure,” she notes.