Gabe Polsky’s documentary RED ARMY plays like a high-stakes sports match, with glory and heartbreak, and more than a few thrilling twists and reversals of fortune. It follows the Soviet Union’s premier hockey team, called the Red Army, through its peak years in the 1980s, when it boasted the formidable five-man lineup known as the Green Unit. Heading the Green Unit was defenseman Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, now a hard-nosed politician in Russia, with whom Polsky interviews extensively in the film. Through Fetisov’s story we come to understand the backbreaking and often soul-killing nature of the Red Army’s training, the team’s importance as a national beacon of Soviet might and the tumultuous transition its players made to the NHL.
AFI spoke with Polsky about the film, which will screen at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi.
AFI: Can you talk a bit about how your own background as a child of Soviet immigrants and a young hockey player shaped your approach to this film?
GP: I was born and raised in the United States by Soviet immigrants. I got my first pair of skates at age six, and I wanted to play at the highest level possible. When I was 15, I tracked down footage of Soviet hockey and what I saw was eye opening and nearly religious. Soviet hockey was amazingly creative and improvisational; it looked more like an art form than a game. The Soviets moved fluidly, like one collective body.
I found it fascinating that this kind of creativity emerged from such an oppressed society, and I wanted to learn more about the team. What I realized was that hockey was a small part of a much larger story. Today’s Russian leadership is comprised both of devoted fans of the Red Army team and of the players themselves. To understand the history of the team and the era is to understand much about who makes decisions in Russia today. My intention in making the film is to honor the Soviet struggle and celebrate the art that emerged from such a charged and unique moment in history.
AFI: You’re able to build such sympathy for Fetisov, and really give the viewer a sense of the sadness he’s endured in his life. And yet he’s also hilariously rather blunt and dismissive in the interview process. What was the most difficult thing about getting him to tell his story?
GP: After Fetisov rejected my first several attempts to reach out to him, he finally agreed to talk to me for 15 minutes. That interview ended up being five hours long. I had to win his trust quickly to convince him I understood the Russian people and that the story I wanted to tell was authentic. Russians can be tough on the surface, but it’s often because they’ve endured a lot. Fetisov is no exception. But usually those who have a tough exterior have a great story to tell. Fetisov was very reluctant to open up but once I got inside, his story was unique and extraordinary.
AFI: Talk a bit about the editing process. How did you cut it so that it played, in a way, like a particularly tense sports match with highs and lows?
GP: Fetisov’s career had a lot of inherent drama so it was my job to accentuate those moments and ensure they were strung together in a dynamic and compelling way. I have a short attention span and I like films that are multifaceted: that have momentum, humor, heart, suspense, emotion and real intelligence.
AFI: Werner Herzog is an executive producer on this film and you were a producer on Herzog’s BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS. RED ARMY actually had some very Herzogian elements, particularly in how it looks at men in incredible circumstances that test them physically and existentially. Was this on your mind at all as you were making the film?
I’m honored that you find comparisons between my work and Werner’s. He’s a spiritual mentor to me and I’ve learned a lot watching his films and spending time with him. To say he has an atypical point of view on life is an understatement — he finds powerful and strange things in the human experience. I always like to find behavior, words and sounds that are unique and that serve the story I’m trying to tell. You can find a movie in a look or a glance.
AFI: Has Fetisov seen the film? If so, what was his reaction?
I screened the film for Fetisov but he never let on if he liked the film or not until it premiered at Cannes to a prolonged standing ovation. It wasn’t until that screening that he realized the film might be something special.