Cred­it: David Franco

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 (19332003), 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 his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.