In the making
In 2001, for my film, Southeast Passage, I traveled in search of blind spots in Europe, sites that have been neglected by the media. Beginning in Berlin, I traversed through Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, before reaching my final destination of Odessa. At the same time, I embarked on a literary voyage and studied the novels, short stories, and poetry of these countries. At this point I came across the highly intriguing novel, The Twelve Chairs, penned by the Odessa writers Ilja Ilf and Jewgeni Petrow. Published in the late-twenties, it is one of the most amusing accounts of the turbulent conditions during the post-revolutionary period in Russia. Today, this novel is once again timely and can be taken as an allegory of the present state of the former Soviet Union.
During two additional research trips to the Ukraine I discovered what would become the film's central sites. These include Wilkowo, a small village on the Moldavian-Romanian border that with its canals resembles a miniature Venice; Nikolajew, formerly a powerful trade center at the intersection of two tributaries of the Dnjper; the Tartar villages in the mighty Kriem mountains; the elegant nineteenth century spa towns on the coast of the Black Sea that rival the resorts of the Côte d'Azur; and Odessa, with its mixture of dilapidated back courtyards, splendid passageways and descending stairways to the harbor. Every step through Odessa summoned images from Eisenstein's revolutionary film Battleship Potemkin. These geographies are not only the setting for The Twelve Chairs; they also serve as active visual structures that both constitute everyday life and trigger the action of the film's two protagonists, Ostap and Ippolit, as they pursue their quest for material wealth. The result is an exciting story woven out of a dense tapestry of characters and places that tells of yesterday and today.
The film's two main actors recall the authors of the novel, Ilf and Petrow, in a number of ways. Georgi Deliev, a native of Odessa who plays the conman Ostap Bender, is a popular actor who in his own theatre fosters the tradition of Burlesque. Furthermore, through his appearances in the television series, "Mask Show," he is widely known throughout the Ukraine. Genandi Skarga, who plays the tragicomic figure of the former nobleman, belongs to a dynasty of actors from Odessa. He not only plays roles from the classical repertory of Russian drama, but also acts in and directs contemporary American theatrical productions.