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Alexei Popogrebsky: How I Ended This Summer

We talk to the director of the Best Film winner at the London Film Festival about his latest drama, set at a meteorological station on an isolated Russian arctic island

Best Film winner at the London Film Festival was Alexei Popogrebsky’s atmospheric, tense psychological drama 'How I Ended This Summer'. Beautifully shot on an isolated Russian arctic island, it turns on the deteriorating relationship between two men working at a tiny meteorological station; naive college graduate Pavel, who’s just there for a summer internship, and surly, intimidating long-timer Sergei. We caught up with the Russian director, who waxed lyrical on rare books and mystical coincidence.

Dazed Digital: How did the idea for the film originate?
Alexei Popogrebsky:
It took almost my entire life. As a child I was intimidated by winter, completely. It was such an infringement on freedom because of the darkness and cold. By accident I came across, or rather that book came across me, a little paperback called Diaries of a Polar Pilot. It was published in the far, far east in very small circulation, and it was just a complete accident that book existed in Moscow. I read it and became completely fascinated with the fact there are people who come to terms with existing beyond the Arctic Circle, and that something completely extreme can become mundane and everyday life. I read pretty much every documentary account of polar exploration ever published in the Soviet Union, and thought there must lie a story.
DD: How did you find the location?
Alexei Popogrebsky: I looked at pictures of all the polar stations across the Russian arctic coast, and saw one which completely fascinated me, and reminded me of the image in Tarkovsky’s Solaris of the house on an island surrounded by water- except that house is almost imaginary, and here it was real. It turned out to be the most remote place from Moscow, Chukotka, in the extreme east of Russia. In the summer of 2007 me, my DOP, and production designer went there and stayed for two weeks. We felt there were a lot of enigmas there if we approached it gently and didn’t fight to direct nature, just submitted ourselves to it. I returned to Moscow and opened a huge atlas to show [lead actor] Sergei Puskepalis, and he said he’d lived there for nine years. When you strike the right chord the overtones start vibrating. I’m not a mystic, but I think there are still even with modern physics so many levels of interaction between different things. The creative process is one of them.
DD: The drama turns on failed communication between the two men. Is their problem mainly generational?
Alexei Popogrebsky: To me it’s not the story of a dual relationship, it’s a triangle, about a complete failure in the relationship between man and time and nature. The boy goes there for this romanticism, to come back and put all the pictures on Facebook, or tweet how cool he is. People keep asking how he can be such an unbelievable idiot, but it means they’re in denial, because he’s us, completely. He’s not just typical of a generation, he’s typical of any of us. Here we’re jammed with everything that’s completely unessential. Once you’re there you get this almost cleansing effect. And you get down to very essential feelings. There was a man who’d been living at the station for 40 years in such conditions, and he told me over time you get completely disinterested in the other person, strangely enough; you stop talking. They wouldn’t even drink together, and that for a Russian man is really something. It happens very naturally- it’s part of the psychology of the people on these stations. It’s not about going crazy; there are parts of us we don’t usually experience in this life that come out.