Mormon Artist

Alla Volkova

Alla Volkova was born in Tomsk, Russia. She moved to the United States in December 2002 to attend school at BYU and was baptized five years later. She is currently studying at AFI. Among her projects there, Alla directed “Lilith and the Woebringer,” a cycle film about a demon boy named Deamien who is reluctant to possess a little girl for his term project because of his desire to be good (see photos). Alla is currently working on her thesis film, entitled “Dreamland.” Website
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Photo courtesy Alla Volkova

How did you first get interested in filmmaking?

I was always interested in storytelling, and that’s what filmmaking is. Before I could properly talk, I started repeating my parents’ jokes and little anecdotes. I had a burning desire to entertain people and tell them something interesting and fun. I first got interested in filmmaking specifically when I was seven. I used to watch television shows and movies and the visual differences between the two formats puzzled me. Television shows were shot on digital cameras and the quality of the image itself was too sharp and looked extremely fake. Movies, however, looked like real life because of the grain and texture in the film itself. I was very intrigued by this nuance. I wanted to find out how it was possible to create something like that.

Growing up in Russia, it seemed unattainable to attend a film school because they are located only in big cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and the programs are extremely competitive and expensive. My family had neither the means nor the connections necessary to help me with that, so I was going to pursue a career as an interpreter studying English and Japanese. That’s why, when I found out about BYU and its film program, I got extremely excited. I actually had a chance to get in there.

What filmmakers have been most influential for you?

I grew up mainly on comedies and period dramas. Among the Russian filmmakers I admire are Eldar Ryazanov and Nikita Mikhalkov. However, my main influence came from Leonid Zaharov. Among the foreign filmmakers who had the biggest impact on me are Steven Spielberg and Baz Luhrmann. I was also strongly influenced by the work of Charlie Kaufman, although he is mainly a screenwriter, not a director.

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Photo courtesy Alla Volkova

What differences can you see between Russian and American filmmaking? Which do you prefer and why?

That’s a tricky question; there are pros and cons to both. I appreciate Russian filmmaking—and European filmmaking in general—because it takes its time and allows you to think. It has very specific subtle mood that can be very captivating and tends to focus on emotion. I also like it more because I understand the subtle nuances in dialogue and the cultural references. Russian comedies are definitely funnier to me than American comedies. However, I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of Russian films recently. I think they are trying to pump out Americanized comedies and blockbusters, which are not their main strengths. They should focus on soulful interpretation of the stories and structure their films better in terms of narrative.

As for American filmmaking, I like it very much, of course. It has a much quicker pace and can be exciting and fun. I really respect films that are not driven by plot but focus on character. I don’t like that the American film industry is concentrated so much on franchising these days. Everyone seems to be dying for new and fresh ideas. Studios are often misjudging good projects and making a lot of weak films. That’s why independent filmmakers rock.

How did attending BYU influence your art? What about the American Film Institute?

BYU definitely helped me to define myself as an artist. The Media Arts department faculty was very nurturing and helpful. I never realized that the study of the gospel could be applied to the study of film. It taught me my purpose as an artist and gave me a lot of inspiration in terms of telling the stories that can carry a high standard and inspire others. I found a stronger connection to God because of my work. I think all of us have a divine spark that allows us to feel like creators and produce something meaningful and wholesome. It’s very important to me to be able to share what I know about the gospel through my work. I might never be doing Mormon-targeted films ever in my life, but there are certain truths that unite all of us as human beings and lift us up. I definitely want to convey them through my films.

AFI was extremely influential for me because it taught me what kind of professional artist I want to be. It gave me a strong grasp and understanding of narrative storytelling and polished my skills as a filmmaker in general. Also, I think AFI finally solidified my understanding of self. There I was able to finalize in a way the themes and stories that I want to explore in my films. So I would say that BYU gave me soul and AFI gave me tools and means to achieve my vision.

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Photo courtesy Alla Volkova

How do you associate with your peers as a Russian Mormon filmmaker? Do you have more differences or commonalities with them?

Well, as I’ve mentioned above, we are all human beings. One-third of the fellows at AFI (that’s how we refer to students there) are international students and come from completely different backgrounds. We are all very much different but I don’t think our cultures separate us because we feel the same way about many things. Not only can we relate to each other on a purely human level, but we also can share our experiences here at AFI and our love for film. We know what good and bad filmmaking is. We are distraught if our films don’t do well at the screenings or if we have difficulties with family matters. We are happy when we get a good evaluation in class, we laugh at the same jokes. Of course, I have a different lifestyle than most of my peers, but we still relate to each other on many levels. So I would say we have more in common.

What aspects of film are you most concerned with?

Two years ago I would say it was image. I was obsessed with the quality of the photography when it came to films.

Today I would say it’s the story and the actors’ performance. If the story you are telling isn’t meaningful and captivating, you have nothing. If the performance of the actors doesn’t carry your story or ring true, you are ruined no matter how good the story is. All other elements of filmmaking bow down to these two.

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Photo courtesy Alla Volkova

What opinion do you have about new technologies in filmmaking such as 3D? Do you think that these technologies benefit the filmmaker?

I think technology is good because it makes filmmaking accessible to people. It also makes the life of a filmmaker easier. Take for instance digital editing. Before, they had to cut negatives and rearrange the strips of the film by hand, taping them together with glue. That’s just insane! Can you imagine doing a quick montage with a system like that? I would go nuts. Today, Final Cut and Avid make the lives of editors so much easier. The same goes for advancements in any software or tool created specifically for filmmakers. However, I am old-fashioned and I would choose to shoot on film over digital any day of the week. Film is so much easier to work with and it has this certain quality about it that makes the image come alive. Digital just doesn’t have that quality.

I also don’t like all the fuss about 3D. Honestly, when I come to the theater, I see 3D images only for the first two minutes, then my eyes adjust and it looks just like if I was watching a movie on a regular screen. If your story isn’t good, 3D won’t be able to sell it or help it. Props to people who have money and want to work with it, but I prefer regular screenings.

Why are you drawn to directing as opposed to other filmmaking roles such as editing and cinematography?

I started out as a cinematographer and tried myself as an editor as well. I think directing came as a natural consequence of these two disciplines combined together because it deals so much more with story and performance. I think it was just natural progression in my growth as a filmmaker. I started on the outskirts of what is important to me in film and came to its core.

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Photo courtesy Alla Volkova

What have you learned about the filmmaking process from the films you’ve already made?

The first and most important thing about filmmaking is that everything is in the details. The more specific the world you are creating, the better your film will be. Some people think that they can get away with pointing the camera and shooting whatever, but I think it makes their work generic. Attention to detail requires a great deal of organization. You have to know how to manage your time well and be extremely motivated.

Second, filmmaking is very much a social career and you need to get along with everyone. Preferably surround yourself with people who do things better than you, who are more skilled than you, who inspire you and who you can look up to. It will allow you to grow professionally as you learn from them.

Finally, filmmaking is hard work. In order to do well at it you have to learn how to balance your personal life, relationships, and health. Never let your work consume you.

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Photo courtesy Alla Volkova

What influence has the gospel had on your art?

It has always been huge. The gospel defines who I am and what kinds of stories are meaningful and inspiring to me. In the past it definitely helped me make choices between projects I wanted to work on. I don’t really know how to answer this question because the gospel is not something I can remove from my life. It’s essential to my creative process because it’s simply a part of me. I don’t know how else to put it.

In terms of examples, then the gospel definitely helps me feel promptings about certain projects and stories. It’s a very personal thing for each artist. When I lack inspiration, I go to the Lord and ask for help. He has never rejected me so far. I also think that the gospel helps me keep going no matter how hard things get. It is where I get my creative energies from even if my ideas have nothing to do with religion.

You were baptized after a few years at BYU, so you have been able to see the gospel from the outside and from the inside. How does that perspective influence your faith and your art?

I always thought I had that perspective while living in Provo, but after I moved to Los Angeles I realized that I lost a huge chunk of it because I was in Utah for too long. Now I feel I’m gaining it back. Seeing the gospel from inside and outside, I guess I learned that people are the same everywhere no matter what country or religion. Our task and responsibility as members of the Church and as individuals is to be able to connect to other people and connect to each other. That’s why storytelling is so important. It helps us reach out to something we have never seen before, learn it, comprehend it, accept it, and love it. Often in church we unconsciously separate ourselves from others because of our religion. We can build fences all we want, but I don’t think this is what God wants us to do. We need to embrace, not exclude. That understanding brought a new meaning to my faith and art. I hope it will show more in my work in the future.

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Photo courtesy Alla Volkova

What do you hope to accomplish with your art? What impact do you hope to have on filmmaking and on the Church?

I really hope my art will prompt some change in people. When I go to an exhibition, read a book, or watch a film, I judge its value by how much it made me think or how much it prompted me to do something. I really hope that I will create media that will inspire people, give them motivation, or make them re-evaluate their life in some way. I’m not aspiring to always make happy-go-lucky, make-you-feel-good films. But change is definitely important.

I also think there is a lot of media today that is meaningless. There are films that make you cry for the sake of crying, or laugh for the sake of laughing. There are also a lot of negative, disturbing messages portrayed on screen. That’s why I think it’s very important for LDS filmmakers to bring their values into their work. I hope to do that.

I hope that my work and the work of my peers will change the stigma on LDS films. Frankly, there are too many cheesy, poorly made movies sold in LDS stores, and it’s frustrating—it gives LDS filmmakers a bad name. But a number of well-made films were produced in recent years and I hope their quality and quantity will continue to grow.

How do you see yourself helping to build the kingdom with your art?

Right now I don’t see myself making films that are based on LDS religion or history, but I really want to create media that will provide meaningful lessons and insights for the LDS audience. I want to generate change and help people remember who they are and what their divine nature is. I think that’s very important in the building of the kingdom. If I ever feel prompted or will be asked to make a film that will help spread the gospel or support the LDS faith, I will definitely do it. In that work I will try to speak to a wider audience and allow them to understand and embrace our faith. ❧

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