Girl on film

Actress Justine Waddell is helping put Russian cinema on the map. She explains her latest push with Kino Klassika

Justine Waddell is a recognisable face to many. Having previously starred in acclaimed period dramas including Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Great Expectations, Justine has in more recent times become a champion of Russian cinema, and is the founder and a trustee of Kino Klassika – the foundation that aims to put the spotlight on Russian-language filmmaking.

It was while working with Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes that Justine first became interested in Russian culture. “I kind of have a long and unexpected connection with Russia,” she says, settling into a seat at Little House’s packed bar. “I had done a Chekhov play called Ivanov at the Almeida with Ralph, who was a massive star – The English Patient had just come out. We then toured that play to Moscow, which was a really special experience. It was wonderful to be doing Chekhov there.”

Some years after, Justine was approached about starring in a Russian sci-fi film called Target. “The script read like a great big flamboyant novel. It’s also loosely based on Anna Karenina, which is my favourite novel. Anna is an iconic woman in literature. How could I turn it down?”

Not even the fact that she couldn’t speak Russian put Justine off the project. “I said, ‘I’d love to do it, but I don’t speak Russian…’ And they went, in that typically Russian way: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll teach you.’ I was very English about it and said, ‘Oh, alright, very nice!’”

She says that while learning another language was difficult – particularly one as complex as Russian – it helped her develop an affinity for the country. “It was hard, but it was invigorating. I genuinely fell down the rabbit hole.”

With Kino Klassika, Justine aims to showcase Russian cinema – often state-sponsored – as art. “We try to create a space where people can experience films not as entertainment, not as propaganda, but simply as pieces as art.” She says that the work of Russia’s greatest filmmakers is worthy of being appreciated in such a way. “What’s really interesting is that the Hollywood studio system became about entertainment – and early post-Revolution Russian filmmaking was very much about innovation, experiment and what the medium could do and how it could educate. I think that’s what marked Russian filmmaking from the beginning, and really makes it worthwhile to try and share.”

The latest season, which centred on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, has just wrapped up – culminating with a screening of one of the most ambitious films in Russia’s history, October, the masterpiece by Sergei Eisenstein – accompanied by a live orchestral score courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. “It’s the film that got Eisenstein into trouble. It’s a deeply experimental film – very satirical and biting. It’s very caustic. October is a sophisticated film and it’s really pushing what film and editing can do; but that moment of experimenting disappeared with that film,” says Justine, noting that October was the first film accused of formalism by Stalin. “I think that’s what we were marking when we screened it at the Barbican with the LSO.”

Justine tells me there are two reasons why Russian cinema hasn’t become as prominent as filmmaking from other regions. “Firstly, there’s the difficulty of language – Russian is a different alphabet, it’s not a Romantic language. Also, there’s the legacy of the Cold War. We forget that 30 years ago, the world was split into two quite distinct regions of the world. That definitely impacted on the way that cinema was allowed and constructed to travel,” she says, noting that films by some of Russia’s greatest still found their way across the globe. “What’s interesting about cinema is that you can never put it in a box. Especially now. That’s what’s so exciting about new technology and all of the things we’re going to be able to do with new technology to get at content that was impossible to reach before.”

Kino Klassika aims to continue to bring Russian-language cinema to the rest of the world with a diverse programme of screenings, exhibitions and publications. “Kino Klassika is beginning to travel,” says Justine. “We have a Dziga Vertov programme at the Centre Pompidou in December with Antonio Somaini, who is a great European film and cultural historian – we’re really excited about collaborating on that; Thames & Hudson have also published a remarkable book by Naum Kleiman, the world’s leading Eisenstein scholar, which is a book of the director’s drawings. We connected the publisher with the author to make that book happen, which took three or four years. Martin Scorsese has written the forward to that, so that will be a big deal.

“Next summer, we have a collaboration with the Russian film journal, Séance; Lenfilm (the famous Russian film production company); and Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian at Oxford University, called Nevaland – a pun on the River Neva – which is about the history of St Petersburg on film. It will be the first time that we’re working in Russia.”

Ultimately, the goal is to keep the standard of programming high to continue to attract those otherwise unfamiliar with Russian film. “What’s important for us is to continue the level of curatorial excellence that has been achieved so far. It’s very exciting.”