Pavel Lungin: «Faith is an inalienable part of human life»
Vladimir Legoyda
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Hello, friends, this is our Parsuna show, and tonight we are joined by film director Pavel Lungin. Mr Lungin, thank you very much for coming.

Thank you for having me.

Mr Lungin, it's our tradition on this programme for our guests to introduce themselves. What is the most important thing that you would tell our audience about yourself here and now?

I would say that I'm a free person.

A free person?

I've always searched for this freedom, be it freedom of improvisation or any other kind of freedom. I can't say I've been successful all the times, but at the very least, I've always practiced what I've studied for or have been destined for. I had a degree in mathematical linguistics before turning to script writing which led me to obtain a degree in that, too. Then I became a director, and so on and so forth.

I've always moved from one thing to another, and I am a free person all in all. As all such people, I'm always dissatisfied with myself. I'm always in search of self.

Thank you. Our programme is divided into 5 sections, namely, faith, hope, tolerance, forgiveness, and love. This evokes the ending in the prayers of the Optina Monastery monks. You will remember, I think, how it goes: Lord, teach me to pray, have faith, hope, be tolerant, forgive and love. Part of our programme may also be devoted to our guest's question to the host. If you have such a question, we can take a break from our general discussion, and you are welcome to ask it. So shall we begin?

Let's go, I'm ready.



'Faith'. You've said you are a free person. What do you think brings faith and freedom together ?

From the day I was born, I've not been affiliated with any creed. I was raised by a family of avowed atheists, and I think that faith can’t be foisted on anyone.

Even as a young man, I was filled with an energetic desire to live, travel and try things. I came to feel the presence of God late in my life. I was 45 or 50 when I felt a sort of a sounding trumpet, a call that I couldn't but answer.

My faith to this day is in my heart. I've not been churched, even though I did try to attend services. However, I'm averse to any systemic action. I think that when you are faced with infinity, the constraints you place on yourself should be within you. Generally speaking, with me it's 'the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me'. It's very curious to witness this moral law wake up within you.

Mr Lungin, why do you think we need faith?

You know, I believe it is to each his or her own. For some, it's like handrail. For some it's a support and a guarantee against their falling. Some use faith as a filler when they have no creative work in life.

Humans, after all, are creative by nature. Those who have no talent or the right upbringing to seek creative vocations may find fulfilment in faith.

It is obvious that anyone has their own use for faith. It's a little bit like that Indian parable of the blind who were touching an elephant to figure out what it was.

An elephant.

Right. Anyone has their own use for faith, but I've seen very few people who believe in nothing. Even among ardent atheists… In fact, atheists are often a little too ardent, they smolder and fume. I have a hunch that they believe in atheism, too. Humans may just be creatures naturally inclined to believe in something.

Faith, as such, is an inalienable part of human life.

Mr Lungin, do you agree that faith is often compared with morality? In many interviews, you've spoken about telling good from evil in Christianity, but also about morality as a concept. I believe that religion provides the strongest foundation for morality. Of course, it would be naive to say that atheists have no understanding of morality. But their morality is conventional:' I can't kill, because I may be killed first. Let's just agree that killing is bad'. 

Only certain religions provide the unconditional basis for morality. Do you agree?

I guess so. I can't say I've given this much thought, but of course faith gives you an understanding of good and evil and of the lines you shouldn't cross.

Our tragedy is that those who achieve a lot tend to trespass these laws. They may then come back to our side of the line only to violate the same laws again. There's a certain symbolism in that. After human history began with Adam grabbing the apple from the tree and being banished from paradise. 

Before he did, it was all dull and boring. I am trying to say is that there are certain lines that are specifically given to us to be crossed, so that we find ourselves faced with new lines at a higher level. It's complicated, I think.

I've seen few people who wanted to be bad and worship evil, so to say. I repeat, when faith and devout piety are combined, it's incredible. 

It's sainthood, I think.

Nearly sainthood, yes. 

I don't think, however, that the church is a system for a person of faith. To a Christian, the church is an opportunity of engagement with Christ. The church Christ spoke about in the Gospel. But let me ask you this: in 2006, when asked repeatedly about this in connection with the release of your film The Island, you said that God exists and a time is coming for everyone to feel the importance of this. 

Twelve years on, have you perception of our time changed? Is this feeling changing quickly or not? 

I've wondered whether our fellow Russians perceive The Island the same way now as they did in 2006. Sometimes, I don't think so.


The Island is to a large degree a film about shame and repentance. There are times when people are overwhelmed by a sense of having wasted their lives and sinned too much, and society is in need of a film like this. The reactions to the film went beyond my expectations. Today I believe the feeling of shame is commonplace, routines, nearly completely gone. 

So, today the reaction would be different. I hope I'm wrong, but sometimes I get a nagging feeling of doubt that perhaps the film was released at the right moment to hit a nerve.

Let's hope it did hit a nerve, but also that you are mistaken. Besides...

I'm curious to know what you think.

I don't think the reaction to it would be less now that then. But what I want to know even more is about the 20-year-olds or, maybe, 18-year-olds. What would they think?


My first- or second-year students that I take every year are that age. I would be very interested in their reactions, because I can see change year after year. The change I witness as a teacher is more of a positive nature. So that's why I would want to see how they would react to the film, especially given that repentance, which you are talking about, is not entirely understandable and familiar to them yet.

I guess not. But I feel that they now want to be better and more straightforward. The shamelessnes of Facebook or of this digital age evokes straightforwardness. On the one hand, there is no shame in writing whatever you want, or confessing whatever you want to confess… 

People now boast about what they used to be ashamed of.

… There's no shame in verbally attacking another person. Facebook, or the internet in general, have toned down shame, while restoring the sincerity and straightforwardness that often seem a little bit primal.

We'll see.

We're watching.

Yes, let's hope for the better, even more so that 'Hope' is our next topic.



Let us now talk briefly about art. In my favourite book Don Quixote, there is a scene: When asked what he was painting, Orbaneja, a painter from Ubeda,would say: 'Whatever it may turn out.' He once painted a cock, which was done so badly that he had to write 'This is a cock' under it.' I believe that Cervantes thought this the ultimate form of mediocrity and lack of art.

Still, we're living at an age of performances and installations. You know this brilliant joke about the difference between  performance and an installation?  If you shit at someone's door, buzz and run away, it's an installation. If you buzz, and start shitting when they open up, it's a performance. So I want to ask you: are out times hopeless or I'm exaggerating? Although when I think about the latest music video by Kirkorov and Baskov, Ibiza, and especially about the number of views it scored, I don't think I am. 

So is there any hope for us today?

I haven't seen the video. Maybe I was lucky not to.

Lucky, I think.

Maybe. Surprisingly, and it's a continuation of the same theme from our last topic, I believe in humanity. Everything seems to be telling me that I shouldn't. Still, I have some trust in humanity and the human being by default. I will never lose hope. Performances should be taken as fun. Some destruction is happening, there is no doubt about that, but humanity isn't leaving anything behind. They used to think that cinematography would kill the theatre. 

— True.

Then, they thought - no, the internet will quash everything. It turns out that theatre, television, cinema and the internet all thrive. Humanity isn't leaving anything out, such as beautiful imagery — look, every exhibition at the Pushkin Museum [of fine arts] draws crowds. Museums are crowded. You can't paint now like Rafael.

And needn't, I think.

…or like Shishkin. Destruction keeps shifting all the time. It seems to me, however, that the contemporary artist works on himself, that he or she is his or her canvas that is to be painted or torn to pieces. Maybe they believe it to be an expression of sincerity. We're living at an interesting juncture with a new society, new world culture shaping up. We're inside a mutation of sorts, an embryo of what's coming, and it is as yet obscure what it's going to look like when it hatches. 

Mr Lungin, you've made a fair point in an interview that different styles, movements and forms of art reflected their time. At one point, they spoke the language of architecture, then that of Guttenberg. And I agree with you that now our time is all about sports.


Is there any hope in that?

No hope at all.

No hope at all.

No. Even though all outstanding athletes I've met, which were few, unfortunately, were exceptionally smart people. 

No doubt.

Often these are people who don’t belong to culture. Sports came to us from Greece, where sport, culture, rhetoric, and poetics were tied up together. In today's lifestyle, all connections have been severed. Back in the USSR, we used to laugh at American specialists, even big names with a PhD and prizes won who showed ignorance in numerous areas unlike traditional Russian intelligentsia who boasted broad knowledge. Likewise, sport has detached itself from culture, and stands alone with an admix of chemical achievements.

At the genuine Olympics, runners would be compelled to follow their course with a poem and a recital. I'm serious. They would be asked to paint. It's like building another group of muscles. But I'm used to society being represented by great minds, not great bodies. So I believe that this focus on the primacy of the body is temporary. 

Again, I can't help agreeing with you that great athletes are well-balanced and intelligent personalities.

I've interviewed Fyodor Yemelyanenko and many others for this show, I can't argue with you. 

They may just be smart, but stay outside of culture. Smart, because you have to be smart to win.

It's a priority, right.

To tell you the truth, I was amazed to discover listening to a lecture about the brain that most of our cerebral cortex is filled with neurons responsible for movement. Half of our brain is about the perfection and precision of movement. So I'm not sure where it leaves us. 

I'm not an expert on this.

We're not. 

Let's better talk about films.


Films by Vaida and Zanussi once gave rise to the term 'Cinema of moral anxiety'. You'll remember, it's the 70s. Your film The Island led Lev Karakhan to talk about the 'cinema of spiritual discontent'. Do you think that today's film scene, mainly cinema d'auteur, is about spiritual anxiety?

I think Tarkovsky found a powerful expression for this spiritual anxiety. 

Unlike Waida's, it's not moral anxiety, is it? 

No, Tarkovsky had what was called spiritual anxiety. Of modern filmmakers, I think Zvyagintsev is an example of this kind of filmmaking. His films have this vibrant, painful note of spiritual anxiety leaving you unable to relax, feel complacent or laugh, but demands an internal mental effort. 

— I may be talking as an amateur, but this new turn in American filmmaking, Three Billboards… 

Look alike.

Is it spiritual, moral anxiety, too?

I think so. This film, however, is more humane.

So the moral issue is greater than the spiritual?




Tolerance is our next topic. Tolerance is much talked about in the media and in society. Many artists are political and think that a true talent must be in opposition. Others think that they should rather lend their support to the government for doing right. I wonder if I'm right but my impression has been that you're a detached observer. You're not interested in committing yourself to a cause or getting a propaganda job. You look on at what happens and then say what you must as an artist. Is it true?

I can't say I don't care, but...

I'm not saying you don't either. It just seems to me you're not up for a fight or something, that's all. 

I don't know. The story of the 20th century have taught me to trust in evolution and personal self-development. But I also can't shirk the feeling of disgust that I still have from my dissident days at seeing artists fall in the government's embrace and start asking for something in return. I'm saying I want to be free, and that means the freedom of judgement, thought, and  expression to me. This is what I believe to be the most important thing. I'm not a member of any political party. 

Of any leaning.

But it is incredibly fascinating to watch and try to figure out what's going on. My first films, such as Taxi Blues, Luna Park, The Wedding all chronicled the events and can serve as the bones of a dinosaur or something to help piece together the 90s. Then change stopped in the mid-2000s and people got down to soul searching. That's when I shot The Island, Tsar and The Conductor, which also explored this.

The Conductor, yes. 

Now time is coming for another movement when life is going to be changing.

Let's take a step back and talk about the past a little. I can't help asking you the question that I've been asking my guests over and over. It appears that the problem I posit there can't be solved. I'm talking about historical truth being in conflict with artistic truth. In an interview you've said that 'if a person has a conscience it will set the limit on how much he or she will manipulate other people, their audiences or characters. I believe that if your story has real meaning or pain or feeling in it, you should tell it'. I can't argue with that. Still, do you have a personal criterion on how much liberty you can allow yourself when it comes to real history? Let me explain why I think the problem can’t be resolved.

Are you talking about Tsar?

No, I'm making a general point. Look, there's this film Going Vertical [about the Soviet basketball team's historic 1972 Olympic win over the US]. I think it's a good movie that was also acclaimed. But  then again some people got offended. Wives of the basketball players, for instance, spoke against the script when they were given it to read. So I think there is no happy recipe for making a film that will upset nobody. 

You will recall war movies that had WWII veterans up in arms saying that nothing like that happened on the frontline. As an artist, where would draw a line? Also, this has to do with the time of events portrayed, I think. If you make a movie about the Great Patriotic War of 1812, there will be no one to point fingers at you. So how much time has passed matters.

How much time has passed matters, yes. You're right, people do get angry about films. I got people frustrated with Tsar that was about Ivan the Terrible, because they thought the Tsar was something of a priest and combined worldly and godly power. I think that if you make a film, it is bound to offend someone. That film, Going Vertical, is a very good work, I think.

I was a little frustrated, though, that the Russian history's most important moment is a one-time basketball win against the Americans. Maybe I'm old, but I prefer a wholly kind of winning that is achieved by scholars, historians, and Nobel laureates. So I would go looking for rather different accomplishments in our today's world. But it seems that public opinion is at variance with me on that score, so it leaves me an admiring spectator.

You see, buying a ticket is the same as democratic voting. Everyone votes with their money when they buy a ticket, and there's nothing that can negate that voting. When it comes to the players, maybe it didn't happen exactly that way. But drama has its own laws, and that's what I've been teaching people about.

I have a course on the Higher Director Courses. I began teaching there at the dawn of my directorial career … 

It's your first course, I think...

No, I've been doing this for two years already.

Two years. 

So I keep telling them to draw inspiration from within. I give them assignments that seem a little bit like our conversation. I tell them to describe shame, for instance, that is to write a small scene about shame. Funny enough, by the way, that you began this talk with shame and we're now talking about offense. Anyway, I think that Christian mentality is very strong in me. So I tell them to draw from within themselves. But when they write based on their experience, it's insipid and mediocre. Because you've got to be creative. If you start with this emotion, you've got to think of something to add to it and to build on it. So there's no point in being offended that some basketball players come out as good, some as bad, others envious or not really envious, and so on. 

As for historical limitations, I think it's shameful to lie. It would be shameful for me to make a movie about Ivan the Terrible that would portray him as a model of Orthodoxy, and one of the kindest men alive forced to negotiate his way out of conspiracies that the Boyars keep plotting against him. History after all isn't just our past, it should also be a lesson learnt. 

Mr Lungin, since we're discussing Tolerance, let me ask you about your communication with younger people. In class, for instance. I don't know who young they are...

They aren't. Our courses offer a second graduate degree. 


We have guys aged 45, former lawyers, notaries. We've had a tax officer, a grown up woman… So… 

You have got really interesting people to work with.

You see, it means people have that dissatisfaction inside. It means our society is very much alive still. 

What is the most difficult thing to put up with?

Lack of interest. 

You mean, they enroll and … 

It's for money. So some people come, and some just go. Our present class is very good, they are energetic people. The previous class was full of doubt. They would tell me they had no inspiration to write or film. I couldn't get it. But they were also interesting people. I think it was because of shame. In a sense, any learning is a form of psychoanalysis where you have to bare yourself and show your teacher and all those present your vulnerabilities, errors or maybe lack of talent. 

That's tough.

Tough it is, but if they want it, I'll find strength to answer their call. 

God bless.