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Interviews from Russia: DVD

Interviews from Russia. In Russian. 90 minutes. NTSC format, all regions. ISBN 1-58269-020-0 (one video DVD, 27-page PDF transcript by download). Director of photography: Slavomir Grunberg. Edited and produced by Slava Paperno and Viktoria Tsimberov. US Copyright Registration Number PA0001312093. $39.00.

The footage for this documentary was filmed in Volgograd and Alexandrov in the mid-1990s. It was funded by World Bank: the bank supported many nascent businesses in post-Soviet Russia and wanted to know how they were doing. The nineties were an interesting time, unique in Russia's history. The whole world was watching: will the USSR turn into a normal democratic nation? Perhaps even into a normal economy?

We watch the filmmakers meet people from various walks of life and talk to them about their families, their work, and, in some cases, their businesses.

An old man shows us the mushrooms he picked in the woods: “These are for me only; they are not for sale, they’re too good to sell.”

A young factory worker complains: “I’ll never be able to buy an apartment, not even an apartment to share with another family.”


The owner of a grocery store proudly shows her sale room, and later her own little swimming pool, the first one in town. "Our business world is a little wild, a little uncivilized. We are still learning."

A former policeman, now owner and manager of a candy store, tells us, “Yes, we have racketeers, but they don’t come to my store.” Small wonder.

There are no simple conclusions for the viewer to make. Life is complicated. These Russians are going though a shock: their entire system of values collapsed when the Communist Party disbanded itself, and the propaganda machine stopped working. How do they even know what to think? Say, a friend goes to China and buys a truckload of cheap T-shirts. He brings them back to Russia and sells at ten times the cost. Is he a clever businessman? Or a thief? Opinions vary.

The same film may be used online in our Cloud pages, with the transcript displayed on your computer or tablet next to the video. Why, then, buy the DVD? We think that a teacher may prefer using this DVD in class with a DVD player and room projector, and an individual learner, too, may very well benefit from the DVD's superior image and sound quality. For artistic impression and practice in listening comprehension, watching a film on your TV is a different experience than working with your computer screen. The transcript (with no glosses or notes) may be downloaded and printed.

Using documentary films for language learning fits our teaching philosophy. We have done this again and again in our own courses.

A film by accomplished and talented filmmakers tells the language learner much more about the foreign culture, people, and country than can be said in words. Since a language learner is informationally disadvantaged to begin with, this is very helpful.

By the nature of its genre, a documentary film is especially rich in carefully focused information. An idea, an attitude, a controversy is what drives a good documentary. This is the stuff that makes us think, and we know that learning of any kind—including language learning—must involve thinking. Formal language exercises with their typically disjointed pieces of information that have little relevance to our lives are never as effective as a story that consumes the viewer.

Unlike a typical textbook exercise, the language spoken by characters in a documentary is usually not scripted and thus reflects the speaker's personality and background. This is likely to benefit the learner in a number of ways: unscripted speech is more believable (and therefore more engaging), closer to the actual everyday language use (and therefore important to experience), and is rich with all the irregularities of linguistic reality (unfinished sentences, conversational fillers, on-the-spot creative distortions, etc.) that very few textbooks tell us about.

Our documentaries are not filmed for language learners, but they are edited with the language learner in mind. We tend to create short, well-focused scenes; avoid excessive use of music and sound effects that interfere with listening comprehension; and stay clear of ideology. But we do not shy away from challenging the viewer, both intellectually and emotionally, because learning is enhanced when the learner is engaged.

Slawomir Grunberg is an Emmy Award winning documentary producer, director, cameraman, and editor born in Lublin, Poland. He is a graduate of the Polish Film School in Lodz, where he studied cinematography and directing. He emigrated from Poland to the US in 1981, and has since directed and produced over 40 television documentaries. In addition to the national Emmy Award for his film School Prayer: A Community At War, he has won a regional Emmy Award, four Grand Prix awards at various international film festivals, several Best Documentary awards, and numerous other honors and prizes.

Slava Paperno has directed the Russian Language Program at Cornell University since 1991. In addition to his many publications for learners of Russian, both in print and electronic, he has published over two dozen Russian translations of works by American, British, and Canadian authors. In 2000, he received the Best Contribution to Language Pedagogy award for “achievements in computer- and video-assisted language teaching” from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL). In 2005, AATSEEL awarded its Best Contribution prize to Lauren G. Leighton's Modern Russian Culture (available at this website) that was designed and produced by Slava Paperno.

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