Oleg: The Oleg Vidov Story Director Nadia Tass on Bringing the Story of the Russian Robert Redford to Life

Oleg: The Oleg Vidov Story is an award-winning documentary about a Russian superstar actor – The ‘Russian Robert Redford’ – who defected from the Soviet Union in 1985 after being targeted by the Brezhnev government. Narrated by Brian Cox and featuring interviews and archival footage with people such as Walter Hill, Amanda Plummer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alexander Mitta, Milena Dravic, and Costa Ronin who plays Oleg in flashback.

Nadine Whitney was privileged enough to speak with legend Nadia Tass (The Big Steal, Malcolm) about her documentary.

Oleg: The Oleg Vidov Story will screen on SBS June 24, after which it will be available to stream on SBS On Demand.

You are one of Australia’s premier directors…

Nadia Tass: I’m a storyteller, like all the others.

Everyone is a storyteller to an extent.  Some people tell stories better than others. I’m interested in what brought you to Oleg’s story as a documentarian, is it because you have a mixed heritage yourself? And it was something that that you thought was important to explore?

NT: Well, that partly, but it’s it really came from a friendship with Oleg. I knew him for many, many years, when I lived in Los Angeles. Even when I came home to Melbourne, I commuted to Los Angeles, and I still do. So, we met for coffee and lunch and dinner, and both Oleg and I and then sometimes his wife Joan Borden (a film producer). It was Joan who introduced us, she thought that we would get on really well. And we did. Because, you know, I come from the north of Greece, which is Macedonia. And it’s predominantly a Slavic race. And, also, I have Russian heritage in my background. Oleg and I really got on well, we talked about movies about literature about art. And our friendship continued right up until he died.

At end of an intimate documentary such as yours, when you know that the person has passed away, there’s a melancholy note. It must be difficult for somebody who is putting the archive together to sensitively document what happened during a truly tumultuous life without feeling a touch overwhelmed. How did you cope with doing that?

NT: I just wanted to make it a most beautiful ending. I didn’t want dramatics or trauma at the end of the documentary, I just wanted an absolute smooth passing on. And hence, I found a I found a piece of footage from one of his films, which really spoke like that to me. It made it so much easier to tell his story because of my communication with his widow, Joan, who’s been such a strength right through the process. Joan is invested in telling his story in the best possible way.

We have been the team with me at the ‘filmmaking helm’ and she at the ‘detail helm’. She would furnish me with all the detail that I needed, and the connections I needed to so many of the Russian stars and directors that we had to interview.

Also, the amazing period where both she and Oleg took on the responsibility of the Russian animation archive that they purchased from Russia, and diligently restored together (along with Mikhail Baryshnikov). The Soyuzmultfilm Studio animation library.

Oleg hoped that the world could understand that Russia was not all about, a bleak USSR Cold War KGB propaganda like Hollywood would have everybody believe. But in fact, Russia has such an incredible history of culture, of art, of music, of literature, of film, poetry. So, this is why they picked it up. And I am in awe of the fact that they spent so much money, all their money and so much of their time on the archive. Oleg felt that this was his calling.

After coming to Los Angeles or to Hollywood people recognised the power of his acting, the fact that he was such a brilliant actor. But still, because he had that Russian accent, he was being given the bad guy role in the movie, to play the KGB. He became aware of the two-dimensional image of Russia only as a Soviet entity and wanted to correct that perception.

So that was one of the things that really made think we must tell this story. And I do want to tell my friend’s story – Oleg’s story.

That’s one thing that I found quite extraordinary about the documentary is that he did not hate his country. He hated what was happening to his country and what was happening inside his country.

As an actor he took every chance to be in great Russian tales. To act in an adaptation of Pushkin. There are these incredible storytellers and, historical tales that he wanted to get into cinema and thus out to the world.

But in doing so he sort of slipped beyond party doctrine (strict rules about acting and film school) and he was he was punished. But when he came to America, he was also vaguely punished as well, for being Russian and Russia just being seen as the enemy and a very bleak and artistically devoid place.

NT: You’ve just summarised it so beautifully. Absolutely. He was punished in his own country that he adored. He loved mother Russia, but he hated the USSR. Because it was so evil, it treated people so badly.

It had created these theoretical fences around a small group of powerful people who could live their lives within those clusters of clubbing and going to the specialised stores that only they could go to win by the blue jeans. They set themselves apart from the normal public in Russia. And he was invited into that world with his marriage to Natalia, who was clearly you know, a communist and part of the party and her family. And of course, she was very much a Brezhnev family person. So, he was invited to into that elite world, one because he was so phenomenal with what he what he was, which is a brilliant actor, and an extraordinary figure that everybody adored in Russia. And secondly, because he was married to her, he was offered the portfolio of Minister for Culture. But he was driven by truth, driven by freedom, the pursuit of freedom for everybody to be what they want to be within the country.

But that elite world was not right, and he knew it. He turned it down and because of not accepting that, then they pursued him to kill him. He was watched. The black cars would follow him in the streets in the alleyways. Because he stood by his own truth and so in pursuit of freedom, he tried from that point on, to get out of out of Russia physically.

But yes, he still loved Russia. So straight after Perestroika, he knew that he was able to somehow negotiate to at least visit to go back. And he did, and people remembered him. And people just continued all over the world, wherever he went, to find him in the streets and say, “Are you Oleg Vidov?”

It was incredible to have these moments. I witnessed these moments with him when I was in Los Angeles. And I thought, there is so much power in the truth and pursuit of freedom that this man brings to the table. There were the reasons why I just had to tell the story.

You do it with delicacy. You have such a rich archive to work. From his home videos, and his film work of which quite a few people will not be completely aware.

His resume is filled with such varied roles, perhaps even in the roles that he was taking he was expressing his convictions. Such as in the role that he took as a British soldier at the Battle of Waterloo; he’s saying, “War is bad. Why are we doing this? This is madness. “

His choices represented the sentiment that art is important. Love is important. But what the Soviet state is doing is futile.

NT: That’s exactly where he was. That’s what he was doing. He was saying, “Why? Why are we doing this?”

We could ask that same question now with Russia and Ukraine. Why are we doing this now? Why are we here? Why is Gaza in the situation that it’s in now? Where is reason, compassion, and logic?

He pursued his own logic right through his life. It came from such an honest and good place. So, there are parallels and intersections between where he wanted the world to be what he was himself in his own life living, and the world that he grew up in, which was full of falseness and torture.

His own uncle was killed in the Gulag. His mother was, after being part of the that elite part of the USSR, not as a politician, but certainly a communist, and an inspector in the education system. As soon as they decided they didn’t need her anymore, she was dumped on the rubbish heap. As a child, he saw that and so this was the memorable moment for him about the regime that was in power at that time. And of course, it’s not just that time, it’s who is at the helm of the Russian people now. It’s the same evil as it was there then. And the parallels between how they lived and how they live now is so similar. So, I wanted to bring this film out.

Now it’s an essential document. I was reminded of other famous defectors. Of course you have Mikhail Baryshnikov in the film, but also Rudolf Nureyev. Of course, Yul Brynner who inspired Oleg because he managed to escape and have a huge Hollywood career.

Such things are sadly almost eternally relevant when regimes oppress people. For example, ballets with Nureyev’s choreography are banned in some places. Such is only the tip of the iceberg because the immense human cost (lives, culture, families, whole environments) is overwhelming.

NT: Well, yes, the storytellers can’t really be truthful, they can’t be honest, they can’t tell the real story. It all must be hidden. I mean, look at the people who are truthful, they get killed. They, that’s the way that world is, at least, hopefully, in our world, in our Western World, in Australia, we can at least have a dialogue or start discussions to try to find that truth. To use that truth to guide us.

But that is not the case in Russia, you can’t speak, you go out of your very confined space that you live in whether you live by yourself, or you live with eight other families. You know, even within that space, you can’t speak. Because if you do, you will be initially marked, as you know, a bad person who should be watched, and eventually gotten rid of somehow. Look at all the wonderful people who’ve been killed – it’s criminal. There is a criminal at the helm of that world. And they were criminals at the helm of the USSR.

Now, who am I to say this? I’m just a filmmaker and storyteller. But here I am. And I’m saying it because that is my truth. That’s what I perceive. I’m grateful to the world I live in, because I have the ability to say that. But to be in a place where you cannot voice that. I don’t think I could survive; I would also be looking for an escape, how to defect.

It’s clear for me a lot of the landmarks in Oleg’s life; where they started, and then the fact that he couldn’t breathe in the very end. And to save his life, he just had to go, he had to escape and made a life for himself and a good life in Los Angeles, even though he had to play the ‘bad guys’ to get by.

He did so with a level of complexity. In Thirteen Days (2000) by Roger Donaldson, Oleg is giving a transformative performance as Valerian Soren. Perhaps doing a major Hollywood film about Cuban Missile crisis provided an opportunity to speak in certain ways about the regime.

NT: Absolutely correct. Thirteen Days is the film where he was able to bring to his work all the power that he had as a as a performer as an agent, not ‘entertainer’ but as an actor who saw the character that he was playing, and he was the best person to be able to do it. He understood that world so clearly.

The way you bring Oleg to life is to tell the audience how he tried to avoid being one kind of actor. He could play a handsome Viking, or be in a comedy, be a doomed lover, a prince, a soldier, and a hero in a western. A Russian Western – The Headless Horseman (1972).

NT: Set in America and based on a novel by an Irish writer. It’s ridiculous. But it’s so universal. What was happening in that film was just such a universal comment, that this is what I find in his work.

His range and the of types of films is magnificent. Oleg wasn’t defined by “I’m a comedy star, or a comedy actor or a drama actor.” He was defined by, “Who is this human I’m going to be playing? And, oh, this is the tone of that film. This is the style of that film. Okay, now I get it. I know what to do.”

He was so handsome. So incredibly handsome. If there is a perfect body and face, his is that. And you can imagine me sitting opposite him having coffee in some cafe in Los Angeles. Everybody who walked through the door would just look at him.

And mind you, his grandchildren are just like him. It’s wonderful to and two of them are so determined to be actresses.

Through Oleg and Joan’s lives there is the seeding of a beautiful culture. Especially with the animation archive.

Oleg: Oleg Vidov Story – shows the world a man who was generous and survived a terrible ordeal. And still he brought what was beautiful to light as well as the darkness. Russia’s Robert Redford.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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