When Soviet film schools banned Vladimir Alenikov due to anti-Semitism, he risked arrest to make his own movies in 1973. The director cold-called Soviet stars, who quickly signed on to his innovative projects. He bought leftover film stock, scavenged equipment, faked documents and bribed guards to use editing rooms after hours.
His resulting movies, although illegal, eventually launched his career as a preeminent Russian writer-director.
The 55-year-old artist, who now lives in Woodland Hills, will return to Russia June 19-28 to lead a UCLA Extension study tour of the industry that once excluded him. (The reservation deadline is March 22.) Participants will attend the Moscow and St. Petersburg film festivals; they'll also learn about the recent renaissance of Russian cinema, suggested by movies such as Andrej Zvjagintsev's "The Return," which languished in the chaotic decade following the collapse of communism.
One stop on the tour will be Gorky Studios, where executives invited Alenikov for a meeting back in 1975. They wanted to adapt the popular children's stories he had written to help finance his illegal films; after viewing the movies, they also agreed to let him direct, launching his official career. Although Alenikov soon became a household name, it was only after perestroika began that he was allowed to make his 1990 Jewish musical, "The Drayman and the King," based on the work of Isaac Babel.
When the film earned good reviews in the United States, Alenikov moved to Los Angeles, where, he said, he quickly learned he was "nobody." To survive, he drove taxis and sold belongings to pawn shops, which ultimately inspired his 2003 drama, "The Gun."
"To jumpstart my career, I knew I had to direct something that was inexpensive and original," he said of the thriller, which follows a gun as it passes among desperate people in the Valley. Filmed in real time (90 minutes), the movie consists of just 15 scenes shot without cuts; it's earned kudos on the North American festival circuit and will screen at the Moscow and St. Petersburg festivals this summer.
Although "The Gun" is an American movie, Alenikov -- still a high-profile director back home -- feels it links him to new Russian cinema.
"Directors are no longer trying to emulate Hollywood," he said. "They're returning to the Russian tradition, which is about examining the soul."
For tour reservations, call (310) 825-9064.