Australian director Dr Stuart McBratney is familiar with a suitcase. Currently based in Xi’an, China, he’s also lived in the UK, and Germany, and his Couchsurfing profile lists stays in 28 countries.
Back in the Soviet Bloc portrays contemporary life in Russia and Ukraine, in which co-director and presenter Julia Nalivaiko interviews the people, explores the landscapes, and samples the cuisine. She meets famous singers, homeless youths and retired soldiers. She dines at opulent restaurants, swigs home-distilled vodka, and revisits her childhood in an emotional reunion. McBratney was the co-director and camera operator.
Completed in 2013 – before Ukraine’s revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – interest in the region has been sparked due to the ongoing Russia investigation in the US.
“SBS is open-minded when it comes to programming – in terms of both content and date of production,” McBratney said about the long-completed series. “I mean, their food station recently aired Floyd on France which was filmed in the eighties, so 2013 is nothing. But yeah, it can’t hurt that Russia’s in the spotlight.”
Production of Back in the Soviet Bloc was a do-it-yourself affair. McBratney and Nalivaiko spent two-months on location, amassing 56 hours of footage, which they cut down to 182 minutes on a pair of MacBook Pros. The project was self-funded, so their ultra-low budget forced them to be resourceful. With the help of relatives, friends, and social networking sites, they scrambled together a few helpers in different countries, who assisted with accommodation, fed them, gave them advice, and helped locate stories.
“We were a two-person production team. Julia was in front of the camera. I was behind it. That was it. I shot it on a Canon 5Dm2, and brought only two Canon L-series lenses – the fast and beautiful 50mm, and the 24-70mm workhorse. I didn’t even bring a tripod so we could be more agile and inconspicuous. The last thing we wanted was to attract the attention of the Russian police.”
McBratney’s work avoids the parochial trappings of “national cinema”. His last film, Pop-Up was filmed in Romania and Australia, and was invited to 22 festivals in 14 countries. He’s close to wrapping production on his follow-up, Don’t Read This on a Plane which was filmed in Greece, Italy, Hungary, Romania, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, and Australia. And his next film will be filmed entirely in China as part of the post-doctorate research he’s currently undertaking at Xi’an Polytechnic University.
“I didn’t set out to be some type of post-national filmmaker. I guess I just fell into it. Making Back in the Soviet Bloc showed me that a microbudget production need not be restricted to one location. So, I’m running with it. Whether I’ll get sick of living out of a suitcase, only time will tell!”
Back in the Soviet Bloc screens on SBS VICELAND at 5:30pm Saturdays from February 9, and on SBS at 3:30pm Fridays from February 15. More of McBratney’s work can be viewed here: https://www.mcbrat.tv/
Main Photo by Pixels & Spice Photography