As our taxi speeds across town, strange buildings appear out of the darkness like slightly sinister animals. Our destination is Elena’s apartment for the 7 am shoot but when we arrive, how are we to know which block is hers? Everything looks alike! Luckily she appears, a beacon of bright red in the snowy morning. Inside and up we go, into the land that time forgot. A former babushka abode untouched for the past 30 years, Elena lives here with two pals and a three-footed cat named Lion. After shooting a mini Maya Deren-esque masterpiece starring the very calm roommate (and drummer!) Katya, we sit for a while in the kitchen, drinking strong coffee, eating delicious homemade vegan pumpkin pastries, and talking about samovars (“Three samovars, three of us. When we saw that, we knew this place was ours! They make a nice sound when the tea comes out.”), growing up in an industrial town by the Volga River called Balakovo and whether it’s possible to make contemporary social commentary films that aren’t just played-out cheesy throwbacks to past Soviet cinema.
Now it’s time to leave grandma’s house and get back to the city. It’s rush hour, there aren’t any taxis, the local metro station is closed for renovation and Uber keeps crashing. What are two rapidly-becoming-late-for-the-next-shoot SWS facilitators to do? Enter Nena! Not only does she approach us as we’re gazing helplessly from our phones to the street and back again, but she finds out where we need to go and proceeds to ride with us on the bus to the next Metro station, helps us get tokens and avoid having to put our cameras through the x-ray machine, rides the escalator down down down to the tracks and makes sure we get off at the right stop. Of course we’ve made her horribly late for her own work but our guardian angel just shrugs all that off with a smile.
At last we find ourselves in front of a stunning art deco apartment on Tavricheskaya Street and again the hour’s filmmaker meets us at the door, this time adorned in green. Jane tells us that the building, designed by renowned architect A.S. Khrenov, features the first-ever elevator in town. Over more strong coffee in a kitchen done up in high ’90s style, we talk about Saint Petersburg: the bones it’s built upon, its reputation as the most melancholy city in Russia, the ways and whys certain glamorous apartments survived communism intact while most did not, and her journey here that originated in a famous spa town in the North Caucasus where Pushkin and Lermontov lived in exile. Although she shares the space with a poet, a perfumer (shout out to Saskia Wilson-Brown and The Institute for Art and Olfaction!) and a musician, Jane’s Super 8 minute also celebrates quirks left behind by the apartment’s previous inhabitants: a ballerina barre in her bedroom, icons on the wall where the poet writes, a little gold religious sticker on the inside of the front door… strange little connections in this city of strangers.
After scoring some warm winter boots for Paolo and some camel hair socks for me at a super friendly Mongolian shop, it’s time for lunch. Heading into one of the many cheap and cheerful cafes on Nevsky Prospect, I feel my backpack jostled briefly and realize I just “happen” to be surrounded by three burly men who suddenly melt away into the crowd. Looking down, the zipper on the backpack is half open. What’s missing??? NOTHING! Foiled by the old Bag-Within-A-Bag system! Not just any bag, but a magical fox bag designed and made especially for me (“Lis” in Ukrainian means fox) by the amazing Ms. Naomi Uman! Thank you, dear one! Those would-be thieves never stood a chance!