WONDERFUL film “SAPPHO” shot in Crimea in 2008

WONDERFUL film “SAPPHO” shot in Crimea in 2008
Church advertising
Love on the Isle of Lesbos

By Tom Birchenough

Finding a way into the post-Soviet film industry is rarely an easy task for a foreign director. But British director Robert Crombie met with one unusual challenge — facing down vociferous criticism from a Protestant pastor in Kiev, Ukraine.

The encounter was brought about by his new film, "Sappho," which opens in Russia on May 8 after a successful box office run in Ukraine last month. At a press conference in the Ukrainian capital just before the release of the film, Crombie had to respond to accusations by the leader of the influential local Embassy of God church, Nigerian-born Sunday Adelaja, that his film was immoral. The pastor admitted that he hadn’t seen it. But when Crombie stood up to try and explain himself and the intentions of his film, his attempt at dialogue didn’t work. Crombie was ejected from the premises.

"I was astonished at the level of the hatred in that room," Crombie said later. Adelaja’s criticism centered on the film’s elements of homosexuality — Sappho was an ancient Greek poet who wrote on passion for both sexes, and Lesbos, the island where she was born, is the origin of the word "lesbian." Crombie felt his work had been misunderstood: "It was like the sky had fallen in. I didn’t feel I had made a gay film, but rather a film about love."

"All in all, the film is not really about lesbian or straight love — but about love as a destructive force," Crombie said in an e-mail interview this week. Its closing credits pay tribute to the works of American writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s the latter whose influence comes across stronger, given the tempestuous nature of his marriage with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, and its development, which ended with her in an asylum.

Crombie, who was born outside London in 1964, has a longer past involvement with the region, including a stint as a contributor for this newspaper in the mid-1990s.

Having got involved in the advertising business in Moscow in the mid-1990s, Crombie then went to work in the United States. He returned to Eastern Europe to pursue various feature film projects. An early advertising job included an advertisement for a Russian beer brand which won international awards.

SapphoRobert Crombie filmed scenes for "Sappho" against the dramatic backdrop of the Crimean coast."And then found I had a chance to make two features — "Sappho", and "The Good Soldier Schweik" [an animated version of Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek’s novel, currently being made in Kiev and set for release in October]."

"Sappho" came about as a result of Crombie’s partnership with Ukrainian brothers Andrei and Artur Novikov, who co-produced the film. Together they set up a production company, Yalta Film, which invested in technical equipment and has provided production services for a considerable part of the Russian film industry. Crimea is a favorite location for film production, given its exotic landscapes and generous weather conditions.

The film is a period drama set in 1926 on the Greek island of Lesbos. The young, relatively unknown U.S. actors Avalon Barrie and Todd Soley play a newly married American couple, Phil and Sappho, who arrive on the island on honeymoon. There they encounter Helene (Lyudmila Shiryaeva), the daughter of a Russian archaeologist (Ukrainian veteran Bogdan Stupka, who shows as always his remarkable screen presence), who left Russia after the revolution, and is excavating on the island.

A strange love triangle develops, and it ends fatally. Its emotional nuances are subtle, and the level of eroticism is certainly no more than can usually be seen on Russian television. So an explanation for the reaction in Ukraine can only be guessed at.

"As for the protests — they were very real and very big. All in all, I think it says more about the society that protested than about the film. There are things which must not be talked about still, it seems," Crombie said.

The strongest protests, he said, were because of the sex and what Sappho says about the church. "Some people really wanted to kill me for this." General anti-gay prejudice also lies behind much of the criticism. "I’ve just been on the Internet and read a review which was no more than a hate letter against me as a gay director, which at least was amusing as well as sickening."

Indeed, the whole thing might look, under other circumstances, like a storm in a teacup — perhaps one that also helped to bring in Ukrainian audiences.

SapphoThe film, a period drama set in 1926 on the Greek Island of Lesbos, stars Avalon Barrie and Todd Soley.Because they certainly came. With box office takings of over million in the country — a figure that at least puts the film in the top 10 for the country for the year — it competes admirably with top Hollywood studio films. Most other Ukrainian productions very rarely reach one-third of that amount.

Crombie admits to being somewhat mystified by the success, given that "Sappho" is very different fare from local attempts at blockbusters. He said he was encouraged by the fact that admissions went up in the second week of its release, rather than down, suggesting that word-of-mouth reaction was working.

Some reactions, however, were certainly curious: At a pre-premiere screening in Sevastopol, the audience cheered when it was announced that the screening would be Russian-language. As a nominally Ukrainian film, it was allowed to be released in both Russian and Ukrainian dubbed versions. This issue has generated local controversy, especially in Crimea, where the population is predominantly Russian. Government legislation insists that films must be released in Ukrainian, thus forbidding the import of international films that come in a Russian dubbed version.

The irony of it all is that "Sappho" was clearly conceived as an international project, and its long-term success will likely come there. "In reality, we must consider any money that we make in Russia or Ukraine as a happy bonus. We were really making a film for the West — as a showpiece to attract other work to Crimea," Crombie said.

And indeed the most memorable thing in the film must be its visual production values, which more than match anything shot on location in places like Eastern Europe. From sumptuous interior locations in palaces outside Yalta to glorious use of Crimea’s landscapes and seascapes, it’s a visual treat.

Crombie’s future plans, he said, are uncertain, although they include trying to start a major new production and film service base in Kiev. "Ukraine is a country of considerable film opportunity, not least because of its landscape. The problem at the moment may be a skill shortage on the technical side, but we can try and work to bring that up to existing East European levels over time," he predicted.

The surprise of the film’s success in Ukraine lies not only in the fact that its aesthetic is so clearly different from most of what does well at the Ukrainian (and Russian) box office. Its budget, at a little less than million, also brought impressive results, with cinematography that is as elaborate as many far more costly films.

"I deliberately chose a fairly traditional style of story-telling, because I felt that I was asking enough of the audience to accept such a story, without loading them with stylistic devices too. In the end, this is a modern Greek tragedy — with unities of place, time and action, hubris, and even the action of the gods," Crombie said.

"There’s a saying that there are only two types of successful movies — usual stories told in unusual ways, and unusual stories told in usual ways. I was figuring on the latter."