Soviet poet turns to film. Yevtushenko's `The Kindergarten' will premiere in US
New York — ``A film director shouldn't be only a professional,'' says Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the celebrated Soviet author. ``He must be a great philosopher.'' That's quite a challenge to raise before the filmmakers of the world, but Yevtushenko is willing to face it himself. His latest work to reach American audiences isn't a poem like the plaintive ``Babi Yar'' or a novel like the recent ``Wild Berries,'' his first major prose effort. It's a movie -- as crowded and energetic as his well-known writings, and rich with autobiographical details from his Siberian boyhood.
Although its title is ``The Kindergarten,'' the film's subject is anything but childish. The hero is a schoolboy cut off from his family and roots during World War II, armed only with courage and a violin as he travels from Moscow to the rural town where he hopes to find his grandmother. Along the way he meets a wide assortment of characters who help or hinder his progress -- pictured in a whole catalog of cinematic styles, from realism and melodrama to surrealism and symbolism.
Yevtushenko has been ``a faithful moviegoer since childhood,'' he told me in a recent interview, his pale blue eyes shining with enthusiasm while his melodic voice -- a key to his fame as a poetry reader -- rolled from his throat in comfortable rhythms.
He sees movies as far more than simple entertainment, though. Admitting that he may be an ``idealist,'' he says he has no wish ``to participate in so-called mass culture'' as either a writer or a filmmaker.
``I absolutely believe in the power of the word, or picture,'' he explains in his attractively accented English, pausing at times to search for just the right word. ``If we [artists] don't change the world, who will? It seems to me, sometimes, we are giving up very easily. We are saying to ourselves, `I am a little man. What can I do?' But a real artist mustn't give up. A real artist must believe in his creative role. He creates the present and is responsible for the present. And responsibility for today means responsibility for the future.''
He feels he exercised his responsibility as an artist in ``The Kindergarten,'' which -- in his view -- makes a new contribution to the wartime-film genre. ``Even for the Russian audience,'' he says, ``I'm probably the first director to show the Second World War through the eyes of children. I didn't show big battles or thousands of dying soldiers. I showed war like a cruel witch, killing -- in children -- the possibility of being future Mozarts, Tolstoys, etc.''
Yevtushenko has made news lately publicly criticizing some Hollywood pictures for painting negative Soviet portraits. ``Films like `Rambo' create distrust between people,'' asserts the poet, who has also been outspoken lately in urging more openness and candor in Soviet literature. ``In the Soviet Union . . . when Russian actors play Americans, sometimes they look very primitive, even stupid. But I could swear . . . I've never seen in Russian films such a nasty image of Americans as you show here!''
Underscoring his call for more understanding and less confrontation, he quotes Walt Whitman, his favorite American poet. ``Many years ago [in] an open letter to the Russians . . . he said, `Both our nations are children of big spaces.' . . . I see so many similar features in the character of Americans and Russians, and even some common defects. I think we could understand each other perfectly. The role of writers, moviemakers, painters, and composers could be great in this mutual understanding.''
The urge to communicate is at the heart of Yevtushenko's work. As a child, he started in the arts by singing on railway platforms and dancing at weddings. ``I don't like solitude,'' he says firmly. ``I like to see eyes [of the audience] while I read poetry from the stage. Even when I am alone and I write . . . I see those eyes expecting my words. I couldn't imagine myself in an ivory tower. Some very good poets are created by solitude . . . but I am a different man!''
Similarly, the urge to communicate across cultures was a big factor in causing Yevtushenko to put aside his pen (temporarily) and turn movie director. ``I always suffer when my poetry is translated,'' he says. ``The language of poetry is very tender. If you touch it with clumsy fingers, all color falls from the butterfly's wings. The screen is an opportunity to speak with other people without translation, because cinema is a visual art.''
Yet his film style shares a lot with his literary style, he feels -- including an unpredictable mixture of moods and atmospheres.``Life,'' he says with a smile, . . . is a cocktail with many different ingredients. So my film is like a cocktail with music, melodrama, cruel realism, some jolly fragments, etc. My poetry is . . . eclectic. But life itself is very eclectic . . . a collage of everything!''
Yevtushenko will be present at a screening of ``The Kindergarten'' tonight at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Mass. The film will play at the Coolidge Corner Movie House in Brookline, Mass., starting Feb. 14, and at the Film Forum in Manhattan Feb.12-25, with further engagements expected in most major US cities.