An Interview with Boris Ivanov
By Jason Margolis
Filmmaker Boris Ivanov risks raising the ire of a major world leader by exploring who and what is On Putin’s Blacklist. Ivanov brings years of filmmaking experience to his first feature documentary as a director. He has directed several short films and recreation segments for broadcast documentaries, and he has worked extensively as an assistant director and a production coordinator. He also produced many of his sister Julia Ivanova’s documentaries, including Love Translated (VIFF 2009) and Sundance Film Festival hit Family Portrait in Black and White (VIFF 2011), both of which focused on the Ukraine. His latest project looks at Russia, and how some of its policies are impacting people around the world.
Jason Margolis: Describe On Putin’s Blacklist.
Boris Ivanov: My tagline is “The personal stories of the New Cold War.” The Cold War between Russia and the rest of the world. There are individuals who somehow inadvertently, sometimes not even on purpose, got caught in the middle of Russia’s ambition to keep the West out of Russia. The most poignant cases are due to the international ban on the adopting of Russian kids. First, it was just about the United States, and then it was a ban on any country that allows same-sex marriage.
Margolis: Who started the New Cold War?
Ivanov: America thinks Putin did it, Putin thinks Americans did it, and on and on. Instead of dealing with the underlying issues and how we can sort them out, they just want to escalate it for their own political gains. When the Soviet Union fell apart abruptly, the Russians had to move on. The West was welcomed for little bit, but the average Russian really did not benefit from this Western influence.
It’s very easy for people in power in Russia to now swing this pendulum against the West by saying, “You know how terrible the ‘90s were. Well, if you don’t want that back, then say no the West, because they only just want to destroy you.” The West is considered decadent. Somehow the LGBT community is part of this decadence. Russia has to fight this decadence and stay strong to its Slavic morality and church and the values from a hundred years ago.
Margolis: Who do you consider to be on the blacklist?
Ivanov: My blacklist has more to do with Western organizations or Western ideals that have been going against what Russia sees as its future. American and foreign adoptive parents are on it. Unfortunately, lots of members of the LGBT community are on the list, and you know what happened recently in Chechnya, where people justify torture and encourage killings of innocent people by their own families, and then deny that they’re doing that. In Russia, of course, there’s many more people that are on Putin’s blacklist, like journalists and opposition members, and some of those opposition members had to leave Russia.
Margolis: On Putin’s Blacklist features interviews with many prominent people, including journalists, former ambassadors, and members of the punk band Pussy Riot. Can you tell us about some of the individuals in your film?
Ivanov: I have very varied voices, from young adoptees to LGBT youth to politicians to NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Ilya Ponomarev is profiled in the film. He is the opposition leader who is no longer welcome back in Russia. It’s interesting because he was involved in trying to protect minorities by voting against the LGBT propaganda law. He was a vocal opponent of the adoption ban. In the end, they kicked him out of Russia, so they don’t have to fight with him anymore.
Masha Gessen is a very important Russian-American journalist. She writes quite a bit in the New York Times and she wrote a book called The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. She got kicked out of Russia because she and her partner adopted a boy from a Russian orphanage and the Russian government put in a law that they can remove children from LGBT families if they were adopted. So she had to move her whole family out of Russia.
Justin was an LGBT activist in Russia as a teenager. He watched his friends being killed and saw a lot of suicides around him, and he just had to leave Russia. He is based in Toronto now, but he’s still fighting for LGBT rights in Russia and he’s a resource for many Russian teens trying to immigrate.
Serg is Vancouver-based. He was adopted from Russia. He came here as a kid and lived with a family and now is in his thirties. He can really speak about being an orphan and what it meant to be able to be adopted into Canada, and what it means to others who cannot be adopted now because of these laws.
Margolis: How did you find all of these people for the film?
Ivanov: People come from all over the place, to be honest. My sister was an adoption coordinator in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, and she facilitated the adoption of Serg and his brother and sister. Justin I met when I was at Hot Docs Film Festival. There was a film made in Russia about him called Children 404, which was about LGBT youth in Russia. Ilya Ponomarev is a Russian politician who is very famous, and there’s not that many people who get expelled from their own country. And then Sarah, the adoptive parent in the United States. She adopted two Russian orphans and she wanted to adopt more, but she was denied because of the adoption ban. I read a news article about her and contacted her.
Margolis: Why do you feel it is important to give a voice to Russian LGBT youth?
Ivanov: Russian LGBT youth are getting kicked out of their own country. They can’t survive or live in their own home, and they require help. Canada is probably the most welcoming country for LGBT youth from Russia. There’s still barriers to immigration because as an LGBT person you cannot apply for asylum when you’re outside of the country. People can only apply for asylum when they land here in Canada, so lots of LGBT youth have to get a student visa first. That costs around $10,000, which they don’t have. The Canadian government did an amazing thing in Chechnya by sort of circumventing that rule and bringing people from Chechnya here to apply for refugee status. Hopefully this is the beginning of them realizing that they need to do something more for Russian LGBT people.
Margolis: What is the Dima Yakovlev Law and how does it affect the adoption of Russian orphans?
Ivanov: The Dima Yakovlev Law of 2012 was a law that was prevented adoption of Russian children to Americans. Since 1992, Americans had been adopting thousands of children a year from Russia. In some years, it was more than 10,000 children. The Dima Yakovlev Law basically put a stop to international adoption from Russia. The reason behind that stop was in retaliation for something that the U.S. Congress passed, which was the Magnitsky Act. It tried to put sanctions on some Russian individuals in power, who were responsible for the death of this lawyer (Sergei) Magnitsky. Russia got really upset with the U.S. Congress trying to meddle in Russian affairs and the way to respond was to ban adoption of Russian kids to America.
Margolis: Why are you interested in the subject of On Putin’s Blacklist?
Ivanov: The reason that I started making the film is because I grew up in Russia until I was 16. I was watching the news and reading all this information online, and I felt like I have something to contribute to illuminate this story for Western audiences from my somewhat Russian perspective and also Western perspective. I was able to kind of break it down for the Western audience to really understand what is happening, and give it a much deeper context than what you would see in just U.S. or Canadian news.
Margolis: What struggles did you have making this film?
Ivanov: I had American citizens who never go to Russia, who were afraid to give me interviews because they thought Putin was going to get them. I had organizations like NGOs doing really good work in Russia – working with kids, working with orphanages – refusing to give me interviews or not wanting to be on camera because they were afraid this press will make their organization vulnerable to being sanctioned or closed. I’m Russian, I grew up in the Soviet Union, so I kind of understand sort of this fear of Big Brother listening and watching, possibly even coming over. But living in North America, it was just very strange to see that people are more fearful than I am. I think that was kind of surprising, because if people are just ruled by fear then nothing good comes out of it.
Things do happen. Recently, one of the politicians who was meeting with Ilya Ponomarev in the Ukraine got shot outside of a hotel. My parents are very afraid. They think I’m going to be killed by a poisoned umbrella like they do in James Bond movies.
Margolis: Outside of people’s fear, did you have any production challenges?
Ivanov: There was the financing challenge that I encountered when my broadcast partner Super Channel disclaimed the project because they ran into financial problems. They disclaimed almost fifty projects, meaning they basically reneged on the contracts already signed to pay for projects. It had a really big effect on the Canadian documentary industry because they had many projects from all of over Canada that were in the middle of production, but then suddenly their budgets were less this amount. I had to do a lot of work myself on a very shoestring budget, and the film is quite big in scope. I’ve travelled all over United States, all over Canada, coast to coast, and in Europe. It’s been a tough road and I’m happy that we got here.
Margolis: What do you hope audiences will get out of watching your film?
Ivanov: It’s going to be interesting to see what the audiences are going to say and what they’re going to think. I hope the audience will become more informed by what they’re seeing. They do get glimpses of this and that on the news, but they don’t really understand the context and they don’t really understand what is really happening and where we are at right now. Hopefully somebody will see a solution or a way out of it. I also hope the audience will see how they can actually still help individuals who are in the middle of this New Cold War. And I hope it gives a voice of these people that the audience would never get to meet or listen to, and maybe you learn something and realize that we’re all the same.
There was a demonstration here in Vancouver, against all the horrible things happening to LGBT people in Russia, and this Russian guy was walking by. He’s like “Why are you guys protesting? There are no gay people in Russia.” He was right there, walking Canadian streets in his flip-flops. Maybe this guy will walk by the festival theatre and see something about Putin and go in the theatre and realize there’s actually gay people in Russia.
On Putin’s Blacklist is screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the SEA TO SKY program stream on Saturday, October 7 and again Tuesday, October 10. Tickets available here.