With the American debut of Natasha—a Canadian film playing in select theaters this week that’s based on the short story by National Jewish Book Award winner David Bezmozgis — Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss the story, the film, and his career and writing at large.
Ranen Omer-Sherman: Your short story, “Natasha,” contrasts a young Canadian’s stoner, suburban life with the tough exigencies of his newly arrived female relative’s earlier adolescence in Russia. What were some of the most significant challenges you encountered in trying to capture the story’s essence on film?
David Bezmozgis: To be honest, the most significant challenges were practical, not creative — although the creative ones weren’t insignificant. Perhaps my primary motivation for turning “Natasha” into a film was to render a faithful account of contemporary North American Russian Jewish immigrant life on the screen. I’d seen it done in Israeli cinema, but never North American. To do it, the film needed to be mostly in Russian and cast with real Russian-speaking actors. Raising the money for such a film and finding the right actors was hard. There were just enough quality Russian-speaking actors in Canada — most of them trained in the former Soviet Union and Israel — to make the filming possible.
ROS: You vividly evoke the sharp generational contrasts dependent on when individuals emigrated from Latvia and Moscow. Are those differences still strongly felt?
DB: The film was shot in 2014, before the most heated debates about refugees and immigrants, but one aspect that rarely gets spoken about even now is the difference within immigrant communities. Most of these differences have to do with class — which today is about money — but some have to do with psychology. And so part of what accounts for the conflict in Natasha is the disparity between older and newer immigrants. It’s a distinction that diminishes over time, but in the film, we see it when it’s most acute.
ROS: After immersing yourself in shooting Natasha for many months, have your feelings about your vocation as an artist changed in any way? Do you feel a greater affinity with cinematic expression than fiction now? In your self-reflective article, “Origin, Story” you candidly describe your unease about the future of literature. Do you worry about the fate of the novel?
DB: I worry about the fate of literature and cinema pretty much equally. I’d worry less if there was some other form emerging that did what great books and films do — which is allow a reader or viewer to feel a sense of communion with another human consciousness. That kind of art is usually the product of a single authorial voice. An author. A film director. I don’t know if the readership or viewership is shrinking, only that there seems to be less money for people to write books and make movies whose objective is not primarily commercial.
ROS: Why did you choose to update “Natasha” (originally set in the 1980s) to the age of social media? Was that primarily a pragmatic choice, given the production costs of getting historical details right?
DB: I updated it for both practical and creative reasons. My previous film, Victoria Day, was set in the 1980s and I was well acquainted with the hassles of making a period picture — even one set in the recent past. I asked myself if the Natasha story was particular to the 1980s or if these characters and situations remained plausible today. I concluded they did. Once I decided that, I was glad for the cinematic and narrative opportunities that texting and the Internet provided. The way we communicate and the way we access pornography is very different today compared to the early 1990s.
However, very soon, my film will be dated. Canada is legalizing marijuana. So Mark’s sideline, biking around the northern Toronto suburbs delivering weed, is soon to be redundant.
ROS: What was it like to cast the film — to bring Mark, Natasha, and others to life?
DB: Like everyone, I had an image in my mind of how the various characters should look. Once casting starts, however, you discover just how plastic that image is. A great actor will revise your sense of how a character can look — up to a point. Certainly with Mark and Natasha, the actors had to be able to credibly pass for teenagers.
As for Alex Ozerov (who plays Mark), I was aware of him from smaller roles in independent Canadian films. Once I saw his work and met him, he was the only actor I considered for the role. Natasha was the first film in which he played the lead and assumed the challenge of carrying a picture. I think he’s exceptional. And thanks in part to his role on The Americans, many other people are now discovering what a great talent he is.
ROS: The film’s final frame shows Mark gazing from the outside of his home through the window, occupying Natasha’s former position in their relationship. That profoundly evocative image is faithful to the story, but did you have any doubts about whether that choice would succeed as well as it did cinematically?
DB: I always imagined the film would end in the same way as the story. Even in the story, it is an imagistic ending. The film, however, doesn’t grant the viewer the benefit of Mark’s interior monologue, but I think what he feels is implicit in his action and informed by the audience’s experience of everything they’ve just seen. The ending is supposed allow the viewer space to infer the meaning. For viewers who like to be granted that kind of space — and I am one — I think it is satisfying. For viewers who want more explicit emotional instruction, it can be frustrating — though even most of these people, after asking for my interpretation, intuit more or less the correct meaning on their own.
ROS: Although you have written two more recent novels (The Free World and The Betrayers), not so long ago you described the stories gathered in your first book, Natasha, as “constituting the core of my imaginative life.” Could you say a little about why you still feel so deeply connected to those earlier works?
DB: That line from my journals refers to the curious little anecdotes and personal stories I’ve heard from my family and other Russian immigrants. That entry referred to my mother receiving the gift of a thermos from her friend, Anya. My mother and Anya are both widows and live in the same condominium building. Other Russian-Jewish widows also live in this building. My mother has known some of them for decades. They go for walks together. They meet for coffee. They know one another’s children and grandchildren. When my mother demurred about accepting the gift-thermos, Anya said: “What, I can’t even give you a thermos?” Much of my artistic sensibility can be derived from this exchange.
ROS: You have written movingly on the personal and professional impact of the great American writer Leonard Michaels (1933−2003), especially on what he taught you about embracing the inescapably personal nature of writing, not evading it. Can you say more about his influence?
DB: I recognized in Leonard Michaels a kindred spirit. His writing seemed like a more erudite and better-realized version of what I wanted to do. His sensibility had also been sufficiently informed by the class of gift-thermos stories. He’d found a means to transmute the humor and the pain of those stories though a highly condensed prose style. It set the standard to which I aspired. It still does.
ROS: There is a moment in “Minyan” when the narrator describes Shabbat morning services in an old shul: “Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.” Is that just the narrator, or does that affinity for Jewish historic consciousness rather than traditional practice speak for you as well?
DB: Is it possible to write that line and not share the sentiment?
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.