Uzbekistan-born Michael Borodin is making his feature debut with the Russian-Turkish-Slovenian co-production “Convenience Store,” a story of modern-day slavery in Moscow, unfolding under the noses of thousands of indifferent witnesses. Demonstrating his interest in pressing social issues, Borodin’s Berlinale Panorama selection is inspired by his personal experience as an illegal immigrant in Russia and the 2012 “Golyanovo slaves” case, which is now making his way before the European Court of Human Rights.
Developed as part of the Cannes Critics’ Week Next Step program and other co-production markets, the film, like the case of the slaves of Golyanovo, centers on citizens of former Soviet republics, illegal migrants in Moscow and forced to work long hours, unpaid, in local shops 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without being able to leave the premises. Their documents are confiscated and they suffer physical and sexual violence.
“I would be happy if the film had a positive influence on the lives of migrant workers, but I realize that there is little chance for that,” says Borodin. “If you want to change something, you have to adjust the political situation, the attitude of society and the government towards the problem. I think it’s a very difficult and slow process. I believe that only political will can really change something.
Nevertheless, he thinks it is important to raise awareness of the problem. “If even one person in the audience would stop and think about the issues we’re talking about in the film, that would be great enough,” he says.
While filming a documentary about cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan (forced labor of a different kind), Borodin first heard about Golyanovo slaves. He told the case to Metrafilm producer Artem Vasilyev, who said, “It’s a story that needs to be done.” At the time of launching his research, Borodin received considerable help from the Civil Assistance Foundation, which has been working on the case for more than 10 years. He also met several of the case’s original workers who shared their stories of life in the store with the cast.
The cast is a mix of experienced actors and non-pros. “Professional actors realized they had to stop acting, and non-professional actors ended up looking pretty organic in all scenes,” Borodin says. Having time for rehearsals and a pre-shoot also benefited the end result.
The character of Zhanna, the brutal shop owner, is downright creepy. Borodin says: “We found an actress for Zhanna only at the start of filming. Fortunately, we met Lyudmila Vasilyeva, who is a great theater actress and even looks like her prototype, the real owner of the store. This is her first film role, although she has been acting in theater for 30 years.
Depicting the real and tangible violence in workers’ lives was a challenge for Borodin to film. He handles it with care and delicacy, expressing it through the behavior of the characters, the camera movements or the day after an act of violence. As Borodin says,[a] the direct demonstration of violence does not serve the artistic tasks.
First DP Ekaterina Smolina helped bring Borodin’s concept art to the screen. “We worked meticulously on each scene. I would say that the confinement even helped us here, since we had time to work on more details, to find our own visual voice,” says Borodin.
Then, for Borodin, some additional projects for Metrafilm, a leading Russian independent production company specializing in feature films, documentaries and auteur director series. He said, “I can’t say anything in particular. Maybe we’ll try a genre film.