Stereotactic: Moscow's underground film rebels

Straight from the Russian streets, the independent film collective who are telling a different story about Mother Russia

Arts+Culture Feature
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still from Groza

Taken from the spring/summer issue of Dazed:

Independent Moscow film collective Stereotactic meld sound and vision together in fascinating new ways. While their work does have a Russian touch, it’s certainly not a stereotypical one.  

It’s the beginning of March, and we’re in the collective’s studio in central Moscow. Skateboards are scattered around the floor and books on film theory are strewn on tables. The atmosphere is charged with breaking news of Russian action in Crimea alongside reports of attacks on Pussy Riot and a new wave of arrests of citizens who dare to protest against Putin’s regime. It’s impossible not to talk politics. “No stress, no progress,” Stereotactic co-founder Pavel Karykhalin says when asked whether he and his comrades have ever thought of leaving their homeland. “We have all taken part in protest marches. Some of us became disillusioned, but some are still inspired. It’s all quite muddy. Because of the ferocious information war launched by the government, the truth is blurred, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to take a stand and make a statement that would not sound absurd. But we have never wanted to move abroad.”

Karykhalin is 31 years old and thinks he belongs to a generation that doesn’t yet have a manifesto. “Our generation is like an untold story. It’s not represented yet, and there are very few reflections on it. Thirty years ago there was (cult experimental Soviet-era rock film) Assa. Now there’s a feeling that something like that might happen again. There is a feeling of being involved in this process, though it is still a bit uncertain. We know a lot of young talented artists who are real outsiders. Their ideas are radically different. They belong to the under-underground – some of them are in trouble with the law – and what we want to do is take them out of the shadows.”

Founded by four close friends back in 2005, Stereotactic soon expanded to around 15 members, making films, music and commercials and organising parties across Russia, as well as handling Russian concerts for foreign performers like Grimes, Beth Ditto and Hot Chip. They maintain that they try to deal only with institutions that share the same attitude and respect their freedom, creativity and openness. “It’s all about collab-oration and the exchange of ideas,” says Karykhalin. “Stereotactic is like a family, but it’s an open and welcoming family.” The group are named after refers to a special type of surgery that reduces surgical intervention to a minimum (“precisely what we do,” the group say, “a gentle penetration of your brain, with pleasure being the ultimate aim”), and the “stereo” part also refers to the physical and elusive world of sound. “Today, young filmmakers see things differently, says Karykhalin. “They’re not necessarily dependent on linear storytelling and solid narrative. They rely more on the image itself, on its plasticity.” 

Leila Masharipova, director of the experimental black-and-white film Groza, in which Man Ray imagery moves in graphic slow-motion to a soundtrack of industrial krautrock, chips in. “We are orphans of contemporary culture,” she says, “surrounded by the post-Soviet scenery and absorbing different influences – from Bergman and Herzog to stupid jokes and videos of stoned teenagers from (social network) VKontakte. There are influences from the traditions of mysticism, documentaries about physics, Bosch and hip hop, Russian TV trash, metal and noise, Detroit techno and Deleuze. All that as well as something very concrete from each culture constitutes this random hallucination that you follow and try to define.” 

For Stereotactic it all started with snow-boarding, a culture that arrived in Russia in the late 90s. “That was before snowboarding entered the Olympics, when it had more cultural components than ‘sporty’ ones,” explains Karykhalin. “Back then, me and my friend Mitya Fesenko, the first Russian snowboarder, started to make videos about Russian ‘riders’. 

“A lot of young talented artists are real outsiders. They belong to the under-underground – some of them are in trouble with the law – and what we want to do is take them out of the shadows”

But some time later we had two snowless winters, Clockwise from top left: still from Vasily; still from Groza; still from Glaz; still from Groza and the whole industry almost ceased to exist. That forced us to make a shift.” They opened a small ad agency and started to organise music and club events focusing mostly on electronic music, creating visuals with the likes of Russian musician Mujuice. 

Alexander Khudokon, the director of Vasily, probably the most successful Stereotactic documentary, has a background in “Californian” urban culture via contemporary Moscow. “In 2003 I took my father’s VHS camera and filmed a friend’s kickflip over the sidewalk,” says Khudokon, a graduate of New York Film Academy. “I was in tenth grade, played computer games, walked my dog in the forest, did everything my parents told me to and was sure that I would study economics at university. We lived near a skate spot and I could watch the skaters from my apartment’s balcony. One day a guy with a fisheye camera appeared. It was so cool that I wanted to have the same thing, and that’s how I got to know all the Moscow skaters and the city’s only skate photographer. He suggested we film together for his website. I think I made 100,000 videos in the first three years. I always started to edit from the most crazy trick to the most exciting piece of music, and then replayed that moment 1,000 times. This was sex!”

Vasily follows a 67-year-old retired Russian farmer as he’s taken out of his dilapidated village in the middle of nowhere by Stereotactic. He visits New York and New Jersey, and in a Manhattan studio he’s photographed for the cover of Esquire by close-up king Martin Schoeller. It’s a film with a unique lightness and freedom of spirit. “My perfect screenplay is based on real life, but I observe it from a distance, without interfering,” says Khudokon. A similarly natural and subtle doc is Maxim Tomash’s Glaz, about a man who lost one eye and reinvented himself as a talented photographer. Both works were filmed on grainy 16mm and, with ambient soundtracks composed by Russian musician Vtgnike, they share a melancholic atmosphere as well as a sensitive visual texture. It’s clear that music is as important to Stereotactic’s language as tangible imagery. “Music is the only thing that stimulates my imagin-ation and the images I produce,” says Khudokon. “Not a character, not a story, but sounds and atmosphere. When music truly corresponds with a picture a new form is born. I wish my films could start with a sound and end with a sound, with images only in the middle.” 

As a small community, Stereotactic is self-sustainable for now. When asked whether he has ambitions to make feature films and enter the “big” industry, Karykhalin shrugs. “I was involved in the production of a big-budgeted mainstream film once and it was totally frustrating. It’s just unattractive as a business model and as a milieu. If we do make a feature film at some point, we’ll do it our way and control everything ourselves. Now there’s Kickstarter, and I like the idea that you can make a film and put it on the internet and get immediate, live feedback. You’re not limited at all – not geographically, not politically.”

Whatever the future holds, this diverse, shifting crew are finding inspiration and creativity on their volatile home territory. “We are officially called Stereotactic Moscow,” says Karykhalin, “and we are proud that we are from this city.”

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