Meeting Gorbachev was undeniably one of the standout archival productions on Archive Valley during 2018. As the head of the archive research, Rhodri Lowis found archives that eventually helped to build a very different portrait of Gorbachev, following the unique artistic vision of Werner Herzog and Andre Singer. We had the chance to catch up with Rhodri and learn about his experience working with these two amazing filmmakers and how Archive Valley became an important part of this archival production.
How did you get involved in this ambitious project?
I was doing some research for André Singer’s company Spring Films and he was going into production with the project, having finalised the funding. He took me on in a preliminary research role and I stubbornly stuck around!
When you started the project how specific were the directions gave by the two directors?
There was naturally some specific direction, but I was given some freedom to explore interesting areas. A lot was rather implicit, given that what is most important about Gorbachev’s life were the 6 years during which he was the leader of the USSR. As an international project (we were supported by A&E in the USA and MDR/Arte in Germany) there was a degree of focus on Gorbachev’s international dealings – with the USA, Germany, UK etc. – and how this resonates in present-day geopolitics.
As one might expect, there were some very precise demands from Werner Herzog – for example, a specific aerial shot of the “Baltic Chain”, where two million people across the region linked arms to demonstrate for independence. He also remembered reading of some footage of Gorbachev’s predecessor, the dying Chernenko, voting from his hospital room made to look like an official polling station. To him, these and a few other clips were essential to the narrative, and that was clear quite early on. My instructions from André were more broad, ranging from Gorbachev’s early life under Nazi occupation, following his rise through the ranks of the Soviet system, to the aftermath of the fall of the USSR. We amassed as much footage as possible and periodically would go through images, filtering out generic material to be best prepared for the edit.
Our producer Svetlana Palmer grew up under Gorbachev and worked on CNN’s Cold War series, and so had both first-hand memories and strong archive knowledge of major events in the Eastern Bloc. This really enriched the scope of the archive we could look for and her input was invaluable. Beyond that, as I also worked across the general research and preparation for interviews, that put me in a good position to think of areas to explore for archive footage.
You made quite a few requests through Archive Valley’s platform. What were your goals – trying to bring as much context as possible or finding the unexpected?
Well, both really. We had done some extensive background research and so had a good idea of the footage we wanted for some sections of the film – protests in precise locations leading to the breakup of the USSR, landmark events such as Chernobyl and the Reykjavik Summit, and particular press conferences. But I also put out a few requests hoping for some unexpected material. For example, we came across some little-seen footage of the Belavezha Accords, an agreement to effectively dissolve the USSR between the leaders of the Soviet republics. This was a huge moment that sealed the fate of the Union and decided the future of the now former-Soviet countries, and it was great to find it on camera. The Archive Valley platform was really useful to get these requests out to a broad spectrum of companies and independent researchers
with whom I could then discuss directly and in more detail the nature of our requests so as to ensure the best possible footage could be sent to us.
Is there a specific footage that you personally think stands out?
There’s some wonderful rarely-seen footage from the Russian State Archives in Krasnogorsk, which we used throughout the film but especially in a sequence depicting the funerals of Gorbachev’s three predecessors in very quick succession: mass parades, elaborate hearses and the frail remaining members of the gerontocracy that Gorbachev inherited. Werner also remembered a rather understated coverage of the initial opening of East-West relations. This was confirmed when we dug around local news archives. A clip from Austrian TV news in 1989 offered some gardening advice: to use a mug of beer to entice your booze-loving slug infestation and kill them off… The report is then followed by a somewhat underwhelming announcement that the Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh had ordered the dismantling of the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria – the first hole in the Iron Curtain! Werner was astonished that somebody had decided this was less important news than beer and slugs, and it formed an amusing and memorable sequence in the film.
What was your experience dealing with Russian archive sources?
Our project was split about 50-50 between Russian and non-Russian archive sources. Everything in Russia and the former Soviet Union was expertly sourced and managed by our excellent Archive Producer Masha Oleneva, whose encyclopedic archival knowledge found us the best material there was. She is immensely experienced and ensured that negotiating with Russian archives was a relatively painless process.
The documentary is composed of three big interviews with Gorbachev by Werner Herzog. Did the archival research start before the interviews? What was their impact on your research process?
Yes, there was an initial scout to see what was out there, and as the interviews progressed, we had a better idea of what we could search for and use to furnish these conversations that form the film’s backbone. We didn’t have a very orthodox schedule, owing to Gorbachev’s health and availability; this demanded that interviews be carried out sometimes at very short notice or delayed at the last minute. This definitely dictated the direction of the film’s archive research; while we waited for an interview, we collected and refined material, but as soon as an interview was completed, it would throw up many more areas of interest for research and so it was really on a week-by-week basis in terms of direction.
How did you perceive the work dynamics and creative process between these two filmmakers?
This was my first time working with Werner and André, and both had very distinct methods that melded together well during the film’s progression. I was based at Spring Films in London with André and we worked much more closely.
André is a leading anthropologist, and as expected the research was directed with academic rigor. Over 9 months I saw his very methodical approach: we combed through reams of transcripts of dialogue between Gorbachev and other leaders and in parallel looked for interesting corresponding footage. Early on, he had a pretty clear idea of the film’s structure, and that certainly informed the visual material we researched.
Werner’s approach was rather different… He had the ideas in his head and in a small notebook that he took to the interviews with Gorbachev, but it was hard to predict which areas he would explore in the conversations. The same could be said for the edit: we had a pretty good idea of the film’s narrative, but Werner arrived and highlighted many other areas that we hadn’t, and this carved out a different direction.
I learnt quickly to predict nothing with Werner, and to only expect to be surprised!
What was the most challenging part of the archival production?
Our schedule was unforeseeably accelerated during the edit, so this gave us less time to negotiate and finalise deals with archive houses. I’d say the most challenging part, however, was keeping on top of all the material we had coming in – so many spreadsheets! I had to stay on top of where a piece comes from and how to access it, how much we were using from each archive house, all in the middle of an accelerated and naturally constantly changing edit period. It was certainly challenging, but to wish for more time would have been a luxury. This constrained time frame, in fact, helped us to focus more and be a bit more ruthless in negotiation! If something was going to cost too much, we dropped it, and our 6-month old catalog we had assembled often gave us cheaper and better alternatives.
How different is this film from a regular political biopic?
As the film’s title suggests, it is more the “meeting” of Gorbachev and Werner Herzog and the far-reaching conversations they had, rather than a day-by-day of Gorbachev’s life. Having said that, it was important to guide the viewer chronologically given that it was such a short time period (6 years) in which he changed the world. It was also essential to lay out these key moments explicitly for the younger generation – to which I belong – who have little if any memory of his impact on the 21st Century. I think we managed to avoid a regular portrait by highlighting the personal side behind Gorbachev’s political image – his family life, especially his profoundly moving relationship with his wife Raisa, which brings out the human side to a global leader. To add to this, we focused on the lesser-known and arguably pivotal moments of the era – the Hungary-Austria border fence for example. I think André’s all-bases-covered approach to research combined with Werner’s unconventional tendency to pick up on these unexpected areas strongly contributed to “Meeting Gorbachev” being more than a straightforward biopic.