Clayton Vomero: 3OHA

  • Photography   Clayton Vomero
  • Interview  Max Barnett

Our Editor-in-Cheif Max Barnett sat with Director Clayton Vomero to discuss in-depth his latest film: 3oha (Zona)

MB: The second I watched 3oha I got in touch immediately with Somesuch knowing I needed to interview you, as this film had such a powerful effect on me, it left me intrigued to speak with you further about it. I guess my first question would be: What sparked your interest to focus your film on Russia and post-soviet spaces?

CV: The beginning conversation started with a treatment I was writing for an essay film about the villainisation of Russia in America. And how that angle could perhaps be contradictory when looking out from America’s own worldview. And also how that connected with this western cultural fetishisation of people coming from this ‘destroyed post-Soviet wreckage’ kind of thing. I thought that that was just such a cursory representation of the reality of things; as most things in media tend to be. Things getting boiled down to whatever is the quickest thing to write.

MB: Like the most effective.

 Yeah, and then those rhetorics just recycle over and over until people just accept them as facts of what people are rather than really examining who they are.

MB: Exactly, I would say that is very prevalent in British media/culture as well. We have a very particular perspective of Russia fed to us from the British media, obviously, we had the chemical agent attacks in the UK and Chechnya situation being fed to us regularly. It is interesting to see that you have shot this film in Russia and Ukraine, and these heavily political recent topics are not present, which I enjoy a lot.

CV: Yeah, I think the reality is that most people aren’t politically active, most people aren’t aware, to an extent, of what is actually going on. And I think to get a better assessment of how people feel, sometimes you need to speak to people that are just living their lives as best they can. I think also, even in the casting of 3oha, there’s an element of wanting to pull in the culture of the internet, and the idea of what people are seeing online that is fascinating them, and why. Examining all those supposed hallmarks that sit in the images that get recycled from the past, passed back and forth between everyone, and then trying to see what is behind all that in some way, who real people actually are if that’s stripped away. A lot of the questioning has been ‘Why did we cast the people that we cast’

MB: Yes, I did notice that the casting was very strong, visually everyone worked well together, especially the young couple shot by the fence in a very ‘Hollywood romantic’ way. That was a really interesting pairing.

CV: I think the whole thing is really attempting to examine the language of images that we speak to each other with. How images can become a perfume ad for a perceived “reality”. I wanted to still dress things in those tomes but present them strangely to potentially get to a different meaning of things, or confuse people in ways, like, ‘why am I looking at this, but hearing people talk about this’. Finding all those juxtapositions to hopefully come at these topics from an off-angle, so you end up somewhere you didn’t expect.

MB: I feel sometimes that not understanding elements of 3oha is the point of it as well; I enjoyed that as a viewer. I feel we are taught in such a specific way and shown film/visual media whilst growing up that is very linear, with clearly defined narrative content, very full circle, with specific plot points and finished endings. Yet with your film, it’s like you are connecting pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit together, despite feeling that you know the complete puzzle is there, like an unreachable dream sequence in a way.

CV: I think it’s subjective from the perspective of how I remember feeling/thinking when making the film. Those were the moments that stood out to me, those were the connections that I made whilst being in those places. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am speaking with a voice of authority, saying ‘this is how it is’.

MB: Do you feel that this is becoming a more objective way of telling stories now? A more realistic way almost?

CV: I think it’s honest in a way as you can see that it is a subjective film, in a sense, but then at the same time I think it is also trying to dismantle all of the assumptions that a subjective perspective would make about each of those characters, while at the same time I think trying to kind of present people in a more dimensional sense, rather than simply saying this is the ‘type’ of person that fits neatly into this storyline, in a conclusive sense. We didn’t ask people to just give us specific things that we needed for a preconceived idea, instead, we carefully selected things that might later contradict what you saw previously because real people are not consistent. They’re full of doubt, and second-guessing, and selective memories. A neat buttoned up storyline is false.

MB: I guess as someone who is not Russian or from a Post-Soviet country, you are not trying to claim you know what is happening.

CV: I wanted to make something that was about the dialogue of cultures between America and The East, specifically Ukraine and Russia, as Ukraine falls into this cloud of influence that comes from both East and West.

MB: Yeah, and I think we all fall prey to this in a way. I read something really interesting recently; by Carl Jung, it was talking about we are too proud to admit that we are directly influenced, even if we feel as though we are in total charge of our autonomy, we find it hard to think that we can be so easily influenced by advertising and media. Even those who are the smartest in society are still susceptible to this kind of persuasion.

CV: I mean, it’s the problem of capitalism right? For us to survive we have to give and accept things, and I think that, also, has conditioned us to be accepting, and consuming, of information. It’s like even in the guise of Facebook being a free platform that will always be free and so on, all that bullshit. It comes down to the fact it’s free because we are…

MB: Selling ourselves, our information is being monetised. I watched the Deep Hack the other day. It is very interesting because something’s perceived in one-way are essentially something completely different.

CV: Also I think, the amount of interaction that we have with a system like this – in the sense of the Internet, social media, especially Instagram, where we are constantly sharing images and pieces of ourselves – after a point, what is the real value in that for the user? It’s interesting to look at August, Nina, and Dasha, the kids from Vladimir in 3oha. They are really in a remote part of Russia, beaming something out, hoping to receive something back, and really what they get back is a sense of value for themselves. The value created by performing an edited part of their personality to be accepted and then monetized, even if it’s just monetized in the currency of likes and loves and so on. And in that weird currency of acceptance, what’s the real value in that for the user? We know what it is for the tech company, but what’s in it for us? If we continue to give ourselves away for free, we have no power in the exchange. Authoritarians appreciate the value in art and creativity much more than artists do. Especially when they can control its flow as information.

MB: And I am guessing that it is particularly interesting in places like Russia because of this gap in power it experienced after a certain period. I read somewhere that your film looks at how the power in Russia shifted from a more state-based power to a more consumer culture based power.

CV: Isn’t that almost scarier right? Because it’s more nebulous, you don’t know where it is, and there is no centre. And in this ether, it feels naive to demonise the East in any way when it is just the same system that we are all functioning under. I mean, there is effectively no communism left anywhere, so if that was the only counterweight to capitalism in history, that doesn’t exist anymore. Every country, no matter how dictatorial it might be, or autocratic, it’s still a capitalist autocracy.

MB: In terms of the languages, you worked with an interpreter? How did you find that when trying to connect with the people that you were interviewing?

CV: It’s strange, it kind of creates a different connection. It’s much easier to be able to speak your own language with someone and have a connection and give them direction. 3oha required so much research that the person helping me with that for months before naturally became the interpreter and director’s assistant, her name is Maria Babikova. She did all the research with me months in advance and also came to Russia and Ukraine and then sat through the edit with me to just make sure we were catching all the nuances. She attached tone to words in a way that a non-native speaker would not be able to. Maria was such a brilliant part of the entire film, it wouldn’t be the same film without her. I think her level of knowledge and being as well read as she is of these different kinds of spheres of Russian and Ukrainian culture made such an invaluable foundation.

Just in the way of making a film, you get fixated on these details that you start to see and you create a code or visual language that you piece together. Maria was amazing to follow those trails with and she really helped me to constantly be seeing things like the Swan Lake thread, which was a huge part of the film itself as this metaphor for the idea of simulacra that lingers in this ghostly way.

MB: In terms of the challenges you faced making this film, is there anything that stuck out as the most challenging?

CV: There are certain things with being a foreigner in a country trying to make a film that’s always a challenge. I think that the current political situation wasn’t hospitable from a government perspective but then at the same time everyone that we were working with and speaking to was very pleasant. I was the only American in the entire production, we had one English producer with us for a short period and then everyone else in the crew was Russian or Ukrainian. In that sense, everybody realised that we were putting a lot of effort in to try and not just be accurate but to try and further a conversation. It wasn’t just about some curious view of post-soviet culture. It was what this actually links to back in the west and why two things are endlessly intermingled. People started to give us help finding people and casting people and help us along with the narrative, people sat and talked with us for a long time.

I think anybody’s assumption when somebody comes from the west is that you are making some fashion film that is a quick depiction of the aesthetics of someplace.

MB: The post-Soviet aesthetic has been a popular one in more recent years. It’s been glamorised in quite a lot of areas.

CV: Its interesting because certain western media outlets have not quite embraced the film because they haven’t really given it space or consideration to be different from that view. In a sense, there’s such a deep-seated perspective that if you are going to talk about this part of the world it can only be through these “edgy” fashion perspectives and I think that 3OHA doesn’t really do that, so people ask the question; what is this film exactly? I have been conditioned to see this place only through this one lens.

The media view was obviously much different when we did the Russian premier at Beat film festival in June. The weight that people give to things of culture there is much different. People are so much more devoted and interested in the idea of holding onto art, film and culture. And very flatteringly they appreciated a level of nuance to what the film was saying which could be lost in a quick view.

MB: That’s really interesting. It’s not something that one would expect, especially when we are prone to have these very typical perceptions of how Russians would live. It is exciting to expand these ideas for me, to start building a more perceptive narrative of arts and culture in Russia. It feels like culture is being dumbed down a lot in The West.

CV: Yes, I feel it less here in the UK but in the US it’s a massive thing. Umberto Eco’s 14 points of fascism breakdown and he is talking about how the devaluing of intellectualism and culture is integral to making fascism work. But I don’t think it’s devalued now as much as it’s controlled and simplified for mass consumption.

MB: Yeah, I mean one of the main successes of the Leave campaign for Brexit was this phrase, “We’re tired of experts”. That phrase worked so well because it was the average person saying, you may have spent your whole life researching these topics, but I don’t care. That was one of the most successful pieces of the campaign, from my perspective.

CV: The same thing happened in Italy during the fascist era and Germany under the Nazi regime. Its this constant reduction of everything to very quick and rhetorical statements. I think in that it creates an idea that to intellectualise anything is a waste of time because you are abstracting yourself from reality…

MB: How do you feel that you have changed as a storyteller since making Gang in 2015? Has a lot of your time since been spent on 3oha, the research and development of this?

CV: I did another film called Pai Nosso in between. I don’t think I’ve changed as much as I’ve started to think a bit more about why I am doing what I am doing and actively trying not to just create things for the sole purpose of benefitting myself. I’d say that 3oha isn’t doing much for people in a general sense, but I think having larger discussions about some of the things I’m making rather than just putting them on the internet and then doing a victory lap for more accolades and so on is important.

I’m interested in making things that are shown and then need to be discussed after, rather than be just shown and you either like it or you don’t. Also in that sense, I want to be accountable to answer questions and explain myself in person.

MB: I think that’s really important actually, one of the things that I am genuinely interested in at the moment is this idea of our responsibility as image-makers/storytellers and our ethical and moral responsibilities, what this means for the work that we make and how we should be making it, and it’s really great that you have said you would rather be there [during the showing of the film], so that if anybody had any questions or bones of contention, you are there to help understand what they mean and help clarify what you meant at that moment.

CV: I think it’s the natural development of art and creativity in general too, where everything is open and becoming more open, you are pulling an audience in to be a part of something with you. I think Gang was something that was a statement of where I grew up, with people that I grew up with in a way, also communicating a feeling of how I felt, whereas everything since then has been more a matter of having a conversation and a dialogue with people. I think that a lot of people who maybe make films in the style of Gang would then go somewhere else and replicate the same style on someone else’s story that they don’t have a connection to. I think the feeling that you have with Pai Nosso and 3oha is that you have me going in with all these ideas about a subject and asking the people who I make each film with to discuss them with me and see what comes of it. It’s important to be open, you have to allow people to make the film with you.

Please see below a trailer for 3OHA (Zona), by Clayton Vomero.

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