When Richmond native Kevin McNeer moved to Moscow in the mid-'90s, he had no idea he'd be witness to a transformative moment in that country's history — or that he would meet his future wife and settle in the thriving city.
"It was a boom time. Then in '98 the bottom fell out, the ruble devalued, stores closed," McNeer recalls via Skype. "Then the city came back to life in a new way."
A St. Christopher's School and Kenyon College graduate, McNeer had been living in Los Angeles, his first exposure to a truly cosmopolitan city (previously we were roommates in San Diego). While in Los Angeles he watched movies at the New Beverly Theater, an art-house cinema eventually saved by director Quentin Tarantino. It was where McNeer first saw works by legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.
"His films were so different and just had such a mysterious atmosphere," McNeer says. "They piqued my curiosity to move there."
After attending film school in Moscow, McNeer's first documentary, "Stalin Thought of You," told the fascinating story of political cartoonist Boris Efimov, making what one prominent critic called "masterful use" of archival material that McNeer secured from the KGB archives as a student. The film screened at several film festivals around the world, as well as receiving its U.S. premiere at the Byrd Theatre during a James River Film Fest several years ago.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the festival, which has brought some of the most interesting avant-garde artists to town of any locally curated series. Filmmakers such as William Wegman, Stan Brakhage, Albert Maysles, Ross McElwee, Les Blank, Jonas Mekas and music artists including Pere Ubu, Tom Verlaine and Ed Sanders of the Fugs.
"It's a testament to Mike Jones and others who started the festival in '94 that it's still going strong," organizer James Parrish says. "There are still enough people in Richmond who love films outside the mainstream."
McNeer returns this year with his new documentary, a work in progress about an old puppet and stop-motion animation studio considered "the Soviet Disney," he says. Founded in 1936, the Soyuzmultfilm studio, which translates to "the Animation Union," fell on hard times but was recently given some hope by President Vladimir Putin.
"After the country fell apart, the oligarchs wrested control of most government assets and cash and the studio came to a grinding halt," McNeer says. "It fell into disrepair, and was robbed, the mafia was involved. Many animators started working out of their homes, founding mini-garage animation studios."
A Russian emigrant to the United States returned and bought the entire collection of the studio's films under questionable circumstances, leading to a duel between Russian and American courts. Putin since has ordered the film collection to be bought back, as well as providing funding for the studio.
Meanwhile the artists have been getting back on their feet by completing a 12-year labor of love, the stop-motion animation film, "Hoffmaniada," about German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, an early surrealist writer who influenced Poe, Gogol and Kafka and wrote the story that inspired "The Nutcracker."
The labyrinthine studio is housed in an ancient church in the center of Moscow — the Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker — once used to store provisions during Napoleon's invasion. After the Communist revolution, many churches were shut down and turned into museums dedicated to atheism with exhibits mocking religion, McNeer says, adding that the place retains a certain haunted quality.
"I was told they used to bury the priests in the walls of the church — it's like 'The Shining' in there," McNeer says. "So it goes from church to atheist museum to animation studio, and after the fall of the Soviet Union there is a big resurgence of the Orthodox Church in Russia and now they are getting the building back. So the wheel is coming full circle."
This year or next, McNeer says, the old building will be given back to the church. After meeting with Putin, however, the artists secured financial backing and are shopping for a new building and location for the studio, as well as finishing "Hoffmaniada."
In Richmond, McNeer will show roughly 20 minutes of his documentary, which follows the dedicated crew of a dozen artists around the old studio, where they've been working on this film for years, many going without pay for long periods. Last winter the radiator broke, spilling water over the floor, and the workers skated around making puppets.
"They don't care about commercial prospects. They just want to make a beautiful film, that's their sole concern," McNeer says. "It's art for art's sake. ... Russian animation is different, many are fairy tales with a good-hearted or philosophical message — much less violence and sarcasm then American cartoons."
McNeer appreciates their craftsmanship foremost. "You can see little specks of dust or scratches on the puppet; it's a real object, not a superclean 'Toy Story' computer-generated shape."
One Russian trend he doesn't like is the fanatic desire to emulate the West by younger filmmakers. "They think English is the key to everything," he says. "American culture is so loud, it drowns out everything. Local traditions and ways of looking at things start to vanish."
In a coup for the festival, McNeer also is bringing the respected Russian director of the "Hoffmaniada" film, Stanislov Sokolov, with him to Richmond. There will be a screening of the documentary in progress and the film in progress, in addition to several shorts by Sokolov, who's won numerous awards, including an Emmy in 1992 for his contribution to "The Animated Shakespeare" series.
The return home will be an emotional one for McNeer, who lost his father, Dr. Keith McNeer, suddenly last week.
"I have this allergy to words now," McNeer says. "With my work, I really just want to tell stories with images." S
"Soyuzmultfilm," "Hoffmaniada" and Russian Stop-Motion Animation with animator Stanislav Sokolov and documentarian Kevin McNeer screens April 13 at 2 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre, admission $5-$8. Visit jamesriverfilm.org for the schedule, updates and latest ticket information.