Film Society Selection
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Tuesday 8th March. 7.45pm
Director: Gabe Polsky, US/Russia, 2013, 83 minutes, Russian/English with some subtitles
Cast: Viacheslav Fetisov, Scotty Bowman, Anatoli Karpov, Alexei Kasatonov
history of the Red Army hockey team. As much about the propaganda machine
of Cold War Soviet Union as the blood-spattered battleground of international
ice hockey, this energising, often hilarious, film transcends typical
sports documentaries with serious reflection and insight.
As entertaining as the slick interplay on the ice. EMPIRE
Thursday 8 October 2015 13.30 BST Last modified on Monday 12 October 2015 10.54 BST
For Gabe Polsky, the chance to finally meet Viacheslav Slava Fetisov was a godsend. It was 2012 and for months Polsky, a young film-maker from Chicago, had been desperate to interview Fetisov, one of Russias most beloved sporting heroes. Now, in Moscow, his quarry was sitting before the camera, a politician these days, brawny but smartly dressed. He didnt look at Polsky though. He just stared at his phone, smirking slightly. Polsky asked questions, coaxed and prompted. Fetisov was unmoved. Until, eventually, he put up his middle finger.
So begins Red Army, a new documentary about the Soviet Union and the grand sweep of history; about loyalty and betrayal; and about ice hockey, a sport made into art by the all-conquering team of the former USSR. Throughout the 1980s Fetisov was its captain: a hero who then became a pariah, after demanding the politburo let him play in the US, where he stayed for almost a decade.
From somewhere he had got my number, and asked me to talk for his film. Three years after that first encounter, Fetisov, 57, is speaking from his office in Moscow. His accent bears little trace of America. I said no. I wrote a book about my story already, in 1998. In Russia it was reprinted three times. There were more calls; more refusals. But he was stubborn.
Polsky is 36, the son of Russian émigrés and a rising force in the film business. Google him and youll find tabloid stories (falsely) linking him romantically with Jennifer Lawrence. In 2009, he produced Werner Herzogs Bad Lieutenant. Hockey was in his past: at Yale, he played to a high enough standard to nurse hopes of going pro. Then he was given a VHS tape of a 1987 match between the Soviets and Canada. The impact was: Religious. It was one of the most creative sporting displays Id ever seen. Later, his ambitions changed. Instead of playing like the Russians, he wanted to make a film about them.
In 2012, Polsky arrived in Moscow. Fetisovs phone rang once more. He said, Slava, Im here! So again, I said no. But one day I was in a good mood, and he said, I have to go back to the US soon, I have spent all this money, please, 15 minutes? And then I said OK. (Polsky says speaking some Russian probably made the difference).
The interview lasted six hours. He was a good psychologist, Fetisov says. There were further meetings; Polsky left Russia with 18 hours of Fetisovs story. Now, it is the spine of the film, one that starts with a poor childhood in postwar Moscow with few luxuries but a gift. I play a game, he says in the film. I play hockey.
Fetisov was the most celebrated member of a freakishly talented group of players nicknamed the Russian Five. In the early 80s, their home was a country still bullish about winning the cold war. Along with chess, the space race and nuclear weaponry, hockey was an arena for superpower muscle-flexing. Officially, the Soviet team were soldiers. They had another nickname too: the Big Red Machine.
Its difficult to oversell quite how good they were. See Red Army with no knowledge of hockey, and you still boggle at the ease and intricacy with which they rule the ice. Opponents are made to look like mannequins. Polsky cites the football of Barcelona as a reference point; he also mentions the Beatles. When we played in Europe, Fetisov recalls, the people who came to cheer the other team, by the end supported us.
In 1989, with the Soviet economy withering, he was ordered to pack his bags. Fetisov had been sold to the North American National Hockey League. He was outraged: I thought I was a hero of my country, and at least I could get a conversation before they decide my life. But the decision is made. That changed my mind about the system. Then there was the money: while his new employers would pay a handsome salary, he would receive just $250 (£163) a week. Everything else would be siphoned off by Moscow. Bitter negotiations followed. Finally, satisfied financially at least, he agreed.
At least until national coach Viktor Tikhonov intervened. A tyrant who saw the players as his chattels, he blocked the transfer. Feeling toyed with, Fetisov snapped. He told the press he would never play for Tikhonov again and insisted on being allowed to leave.
The earthquake was instant. People would not talk to me. Friends walked away in the street. There were dissidents in the Soviet Union, but they were invisible. I was one of the countrys most popular athletes. Then I was the enemy.
One team-mate publicly disowned him. Eventually, he met with the Soviet minister of defence, Dmitry Yazov; Fetisov was screamed at and threatened with internal exile. A fortnight later, the Kremlin blinked. He was told he was free to go. How frightened had he been? I needed to be understood, even if bad things happened.
But American efforts to claim him as their own were doomed. Yes, he says now, he wanted to show that the party could be defied. He also points out it was never his idea to go to the US. He couldnt have defected; above all, he says, he was a patriot. I got a happy life in America, but I never wanted an American passport. Even that happiness only began after a brutal adjustment period in which he and later, other members of the Russian Five were insulted by fans and attacked by opponents. Americans disliked Soviets, no matter what we went through to get there.
One of Red Armys most intriguing ideas is that something unexpected from the soul of each country bled into its sport. The big-money NHL was tactically crude, brutal in its violence. In Moscow, grace and invention came out of repression. You wonder if that was uniquely Russian, Polsky says. You ask, Well, why is Dostoevsky so profound? Under a dictatorship, freedom flourishes in strange ways. I mean, its hard to censor hockey.
Fetisov stayed in the US for nine highly successful years. In 1998, he returned to Moscow, restored as a national idol (he has had both an asteroid and a sports arena in Vladivostok named after him). Inevitably, government beckoned: now a member of the federal assembly, he was Vladimir Putins minister of sport from 2002 until 2008.
I built a new system in sports, especially for kids from poor families. Now, Russian kids get the same chance to realise their dream as any kid in the US or UK. He answers a question I havent asked yet: People say, How can you fight the government then work for the government? But these are different countries. Russia was only born in 1991.
Yet of course, some of the old country remains in place. Mention that the current president was a KGB agent, or the complaints that surround Russia internationally, and theres a pause. Of course, for western politicians, its a good way to win points, talking about Russia as the enemy. But you are a well-known outlet, so I invite your readers to come and look at the changes here.
Inside hockey, there has been conflict too. As the chairman of the Russian Kontinental hockey league, Fetisovs stance now is that players cannot leave for the US until the age of 28. The irony feels glaring, but he protests hes only following the example of the NHL, which has labyrinthine rules over who can play elsewhere, and when. I dont know why everyone is jumping on me because of something that has existed there for many years. Hundreds of teenage Russian players go to the NHL, he says, get rejected, and come back broken. So Im saying, Stay until 28, then go to America. No one is lied to. No one is sold as a slave.
Russia, Polsky says, faces inwards a lot. You dont know if somethings going to be seen as good or bad. At first, Red Army was greeted with suspicion in Moscow. Things changed only after a screening at last years Cannes. That went for Fetisov too. He wasnt sure how it would be taken, so he wasnt supporting it. Then, maybe his family wanted to go to Cannes, I dont know, but he came with us and the movie got a standing ovation, which the Russian media loved. Thats when he got excited. I still dont know if he likes it.
I ask Fetisov that and he laughs, briefly. It was good to explain my life. Then the line to Moscow goes quiet for so long I think he might have hung up. Yeah. You can say I like it.