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There Once Was A Man Called Pjotr Sapegin

From Russia to his new home of Norway, Pjotr Sapegin is bringing his own twisted sense of humor to his re-worked fairy tales. Who is this man behind a salt controlling troll, a genital loving cat and a rat seeking romance? Chris Robinson investigates.

Art, the eternal expression of the soul, key to life's mysteries.The dark chaos beneath the shimmering sheath of banausic sobriety.That's what generations of poets, painters, writers and charlatans would have you believe. Humans all of them and all of them lie, equivocate and spin.Security, stability and comfort sheltered behindthe facade of currency,the roots of these gestures of the grandeur.

Once upon a time there was a man named Pjotr Sapegin. He came from the far away Eastern or Western, depending on your point of view, country of Russia before moving to the Nordic regions where he became an internationally successful maker of animation films (Mons the Cat, One Day a Man Bought a House, The Saltmill). He evolved out of generations of circus acrobats, poets, painters and writers. As a child, he lived in a big court of brick buildings, which belonged to the art union. The courtyard provided a world of discovery for young Pjotr. The enormous backyard contained hips, heads and noses of revolutionary heroes, which lay scattered beside moulds for marble statues. The landscape continually changed as the severed limbs of marble were transformed one by one into gigantic odes to Lenin.

Pjotr Sapegin. All images courtesy of and © Norsk filminstitutt.

Childhood Among Body Parts

Pjotr was born in Moscow. Moscow was dirty. Sure it was green, there were trees and parks and even grass, but it was dirty and ugly. But for Pjotr, the ugliness smelled good. The aroma of dust, snow, marble was the stuff of dreams. "The landscape is one of the strongest memories from my childhood. My parents did not participate in the production of Lenin's head, so they were as poor as rats." Pjotr's parents were painters, but this was no Bohemian Mecca. "Art was work and it was nothing much to talk about; just do it." While they may not have spoken of art, Sapegin and his young mates did indeed talk. "We definitely were talking too much. We all were in the conspiracy against the stupidity of the state, and that was deliciously dangerous." During long vodka sessions at the kitchen table, politics, flying saucers, urban legends, adventures in the dark and the mysterious mountains of Tibet were all topics of conversation. "I knew at least five people who personally saw the abominable snowman. One lady was even carrying his child."

Sapegin enjoyed his years as a young man in the Soviet Union and what life of youth is complete without physical yearnings. While never the most athletically gifted of beings, he did embrace the sports passion of the 1970s: slalom skiing. Of course there were no hills in Moscow, but there were deep valleys. "It was absolutely breathtaking and just imagine most of our equipment was self-made, and often self-constructed." Karate replaced slalom in the '80s. "It was like in Japan in 1800, we had rival schools and secret societies." Oh and of course there was that other youthful pleasure: sex. Erotic games were the bane of Sapegin and his friends' existence; flirting, looking for adventures in odd circumstances and generally dreaming of conquering the milky bosom of any girl acknowledging them.

Time passed. Scents, secrets and desires lay scattered among the cluttered compartments of conspicuous memories. Privileged Pjotr grew and grew and not surprisingly he became an artist. First, he studied with a painter and then he attended a school of theatre. Five years passed and one day Pjotr awoke a state theatre designer. "I got my first artistic job as a theatre designer at the age of 18. It was great to build a world, which is different and live there separated from the rest of life by the parameter of the stage." A beautiful island paradise nestled within the walls of a dirty, hostile sea.

Changing Venue

He found success over the years and produced work for many performances. As Pjotr matured and came to understand his soul, he sought change. The strange power of desire carried him to the shores of Norway and her alluring landscape. At first, the harsh Nordic climate greeted the Russian with indifference. He began by cleansing the chewed remains left scattered on cheap china by the palettes of the people. Eventually Pjotr climbed the sweet thighs of fame and was permitted to feed, care and wipe the asses of Norwegian children before leading them to their lands of dreams, groans and smiles. As a tender of the youth of tomorrow, he did not come cheap, but soon the call of the soul grew louder than the cries of the children and Pjotr found himself immersed in the manual creating of art for magazines, theatre and whatever would enable his family to eat. On this new road Pjotr met the celluloid poets of the soul and turned toward the chemicals of sound and light to learn new means of finding life's cure. Realizing that the Norwegians, aside from Ivo Caprino, had relatively little experience making animation films, Pjotr, the virtuous, honest and pious, who had never animated in his life, spun that tangled web and next found himself standing with a stop-motion camera among the new voices of Norwegian moving images.

Sapegin had a new home, a new career, but no money. Fortunately for Sapegin the Olympics were in town. Realizing that there was now a pot of gold in the Norwegian cultural programme, the hungry Sapegin and a friend licked their lips and began dreaming of an animation series made with the fat bucks of the Olympics. The idea was to have a parallel Olympics with different creatures coming from all kinds of countries. Inspired by the ocean side aroma of a nearby seafood restaurant, the famished duo based their character on a "pink, shapeless, flexible, fresh, tasty" shrimp. Then they dumped the idea as it was too close to the paralympics (for special people) and took their delicious shrimp and turned him into Edvard. Edvard took his name from the composer Edvard Grieg, who while lacking the qualities of a genius, could compose some scintillating film scores. The wide range of emotions expressed in his work was perfectly suited to Sapegin's animation with its melodramatic reflections of Chaplin, Keaton and the other silent shadows from cinema's birth.

A scene from Edvard, Sapegin's first film, utilizing live-action and clay animation.

The premise of Edvard is simple. A Chaplinesque 'shrimp' wanders around the Nordic seascape adapting to the strange environment around him. Sapegin made five Edvard films and they all combine live-action and clay animation. Even in the first film, Edvard (1992), Sapegin's talents are apparent. Edvard meets a young woman and subsequently turns into everything he is feeling (heart, flowers, sculpture) for her. In the rather strange, The Naked Truth (1993), Edvard is introduced to the bare essentials of humanity as he encounters a group of nudists on the beach. During his adventure Edvard assumes the form of all the body parts he sees and also that of a hot dog... Unbearable Lightness of Longing is the most technically accomplished of the five films and foreshadows later films with Sapegin's detailed, multi-textured backgrounds. The backgrounds were created by painting on a mirror and leaving parts of the surface open to reflect other backgrounds. Edvard sees a beautiful woman fall asleep on the beach. Lonely, horny Edvard falls immediately in love and imagines ways to wow his sleeping beauty. Finally he builds a boat for the woman. She awakens, smiles and waves, but alas it is not Edvard she acknowledges but a beau in a boat. Once again Edvard is left alone.

Seemingly taken from Sapegin's Russian backyard, Stand In (1995) has Edvard jumping into action as he reads about a statue of a baby being stolen. With echoes of Starewicz's The Mascot, Edvard takes to the streets and tries to replace the statue. He assumes various forms until he hears the roar of the audience. But we soon see the applause is for the return of the statue, which subsequently leaves Edvard crushed...literally. In the final film, The Cruise Ship, Edvard dreams that he is on a passing ocean liner and chasing the dame of his dreams. Unfortunately the lass is too busy fleeing the perverted come-ons of a hapless old timer to notice Edvard. Seeing that his dream is bothered by the half-soused tourist, he sabotages the man's libidinous plans and sends him fleeing. Just as Edvard seeks to comfort the woman, a handsome stranger comes to take his dream away. From here the director inflicts the utmost cruelty on the shrimp by attaching him to the drunk's ass where he is slammed against walls before being flushed down the toilet. Fortunately it is all a dream.

Silent comedy serves as a major influence in the construction of the Edvard series, although at times Edvard's randiness seems more attuned to the primal antics of English comedian Benny Hill. Like Chaplin and Keaton's characters, Edvard is a perceived unsung hero or loser. Of course, Edvard is additionally handicapped by the reality that he is a clay sea creature who is about the size of my middle finger. Like the great silent comics, Edvard wants desperately to fit in to the surrounding society. He wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted for what and who he is. Unfortunately no one can even see him. Sharing more with Chaplin's tramp, Edvard is even willing, unlike Keaton's character, to shed his identity to gain acceptance.

Ippolita the Little Amazon uses a combination of cut-outs and clay to present a dynamic stage design.

One can't help but think back to Sapegin's rocky landscapes and the discombobulated stones of his youth. Just as the yard was continually transforming with body parts appearing and reappearing, Edvard is a constantly shifting figure in search of a stable centre of being. As in Keaton's films, landscapes are ever present in the Edvard series and play a pivotal secondary character dictating the direction of Edvard. At the same time, Edvard shares many characteristics with his creator, notably the fact that both were new to their environment and learning to adapt to and understand the surrounding culture. Edvard's story is very much Pjotr's; although to my knowledge Pjotr was never flushed or crushed...well not literally anyway.

Despite Edvard's modest popularity in Norway, it is rapidly apparent by the second or third film that he is a one-dimensional character. Edvard's chameleon transformations and Benny Hill hard-ons could only carry the films so far. On the way out, tired of being mocked and tortured by his creator, the shrimp flashed a final explicit pantomime to his creator. And so Edvard now rests, we hope, in peace.

Edvard served Sapegin well. He worked on the series from 1992-1996 and the films afforded Sapegin the opportunity to develop and hone his animation skills. More importantly the sacrifices of poor Edvard temporarily fed and clothed the Sapegin family.

A New Myth

Given Sapegin's inexperience, it is no surprise that his work environment was rather primitive. Working on 16mm for his first film, Sapegin constructed his own glass table. "I had window frames, you know winter window frames, so I just piled up twelve layers and it was great. It was the only time I didn't get any reflections on those window frames. It was so easy and actually fast. So I thought, 'Yep, that's probably my thing to do.'" Sapegin first began experimenting with the glass table for his film, Ippolita the Little Amazon.

Ippolita emerged out of a failed Hercules project. With a stream of rejections and a 'God knows how I needed money then" reality, Sapegin divided the Greek hero into a girl (Ippolita) and a goat (Esmeralda). What is instantly striking about Ippolita is the influence of Sapegin's stage design. Using a combination of cut-outs and clay, the wild, roaring backgrounds explode within the frame lending an expressive theatrical element to the film. Having been abandoned by their tribe (which is visually represented through a jolting fusion of blacks and reds), Ippolita and Esmeralda journey through ancient Greece. Along the way they encounter a variety of Herculean-like labours. A chameleon-like bull, that despite being killed by calm Esmeralda's arrow, pursues the duo in different forms. They are saved by the mighty hand of Appolon, the god of light and music. After being forced from Hesperide's garden, they encounter Atlas who offers to get them golden apples if they will hold the world up. After ditching the worm-infested pommes, they repay Appolon's favour by saving him from a beast. The duo then carry on what Appolon calls, the beginning of their journey. Their journey ends as it begins.

Sapegin's work is casual and sober. We wonder whether we wander through a life in progress. Ippolita and Esmeralda walk through life unaware. Heroism arrives serenely. A serendipitous greeting unrecognized.

Ippolita is a keen inversion and parody of a masculine, virile world. Sapegin re-constructs the masculine world of Greek myths through the unassuming, assured eyes of a woman giving her a silent strength. Ippolita remains an important film for Sapegin because it was his first experience with a female character: "It was the first time I tried to work with a female main character and I absolutely loved it." Not really knowing women by definition, Sapegin found himself less in control of his character than usual. Sapegin found this manner of working exciting and liberating in the ways that it led him toward new ideas and storylines.

With the release of Mons the Cat in 1995, Sapegin made his mark in the animation industry by telling a Norwegian folk tale.

Enter Mons

Nestled beside his window frames with eyes scanning for greener pastures, Sapegin's inner bulb lit: he would become rich by making commercials. Using some left over film, he made the hilarious Fishballs. The film was shot in 1 1/2 days on 35mm and was to be part of Sapegin's new commercial portfolio. Fishballs is a dramatic departure in style from Edvard and clearly foreshadows the crisp clay animation and stylish, colourful flowing backgrounds of Mons the Cat. In Fishballs, a young Mons the Cat (making his first appearance) sits by the water eagerly seeking out food. He rejects a female fish and then a male fish appears, but rather than take the whole fish, the cat grabs at his pearly white genitals. Sapegin received no commercial offers. While Sapegin expresses surprise that he did not get jobs, there is no doubt that the sly transplanted Russian was well aware (Sapegin's voice is heard at the end asking, "How was it?") that he was making an anti-commercial. Sapegin simply could not go gently without first biting the 'hand' that feeds.

Distribution and funding, those tired, repetitive refrains, remain a problem for Sapegin. Funding comes primarily from the Norwegian Film Institute, which also distributes his films. There is a competition for project funding a couple of times a year. Short Animation and Documentary proposals are lumped into one bin and if the idea is worthy enough to be among the top ten, one gets financing. Films are shown in theatres but no money is paid to the filmmakers. TV channels buy films, sometimes even show them, but there is very little money for a short film. So for independent animators like Sapegin, he must rely primarily on international festivals to find an audience and a buyer.

Another still from Sapegin's successful Mons the Cat.

The animation 'boom' has found its way to Norway, however the problem remains the same: most of the money is going to "big companies who just found out where the money is in our humanistic bad conscience towards children's time."

In Sapegin's eyes the Norwegian animation community is quite different from other countries because of the gap between generations of animators. Most of the people in the industry are quite young and have never had any role models. While this can be an overwhelming situation, it removes many pressures and allows the animators to be more liberal and adventurous. Of course with freedom and a staunch refusal to work for the 'bad guys,' most of the animators are opening and closing studios and fighting to find funding. With age comes fatigue and with fatigue comes compromise. "Young people don't really know all those things which we know already because we have families and sick parents. We have to pay bills, the house and the car and God knows what. And they must have Sundays and they must have holidays off, and they don't hear anything." Despite the uncertainty, Sapegin likens this younger generation to the early days of the National Film Board of Canada and believes that many of today's artists "will become the masters for a new generation."

Fishballs, a film Sapegin shot in 1 1/2 days on 35 mm leftover film.

Following Fishballs, Sapegin made Mons the Cat, his first international 'hit.' Mons the Cat is based on a Norwegian folk tale. After refusing to eat his catfish, Mons in turn chews up the entire village community until he explodes á là Monty Python and everything returns to normal...a dream. Mons now enjoys his catfish without complaints.

A haunting nightmarish tale of a hyper consumer living on overdrive within a wild, free flowing capitalist marketplace? Maybe, but Sapegin was more interested in the cat. "The cat as an animal is the perfect anti-hero because it is basically a nasty character. He kills, he steals, he isn't really faithful, he never serves, but at the same time he's so loveable. If you see a cat eating a mouse, that's when the cat is at his best, he's nice, he's smiling, he looks very, very cute." Just like a tycoon as he is taking down another country.

Mons was shot in only four weeks, but Sapegin spent about two months just trying to figure out how to end the story: " In Mons the Cat I used the actual media of animation as an expressive tool, as a storytelling tool. And then I said, 'Ah, hah,' that's where a lot of things are hidden in animation, so you have to see why you are making this film not in live-action but in animation, what possibilities it gives you, how you can play with an environment with the reality of animation."

With Mons, we see Sapegin's most concerted use of mobile, multi-coloured backgrounds that sweep in and out of each scene. Originally, Sapegin had intended to make the backgrounds entirely in clay, but his "rotten clay" was too soft and would not hold a solid form. So Sapegin heated the clay with a lighter and used it as crayons on a glass surface. He would use this technique again in The Saltmill.

As might be expected, Sapegin works with very few people. "The ideal set is that I have one more person working with me, and this person is some kind of orchestra leader." At the moment, Sapegin's team consists of Janne Hansen, a Volda College graduate. Sapegin also works with Lisa Fearnley, who shot One Day a Man Bought a House. "She is a an exceptional, exceptional photographer."

What is perhaps most remarkable about Mons the Cat is the quality of the clay animation. It seems incredible that an artist with no previous animation experience could master the medium so quickly. But as always there is a little secret. A former colleague in Moscow used to work with clay and while Sapegin never saw her work, he did see her puppets at home. "We'd been making some toys for kids and I sort of stole a lot of her aesthetic in a way. But I also thought that if I worked with animation ever I would try to make it as close to live-action as possible. When you look at real people out in the street they are made out of different material, which by definition is different from the environment they live in, so I thought I will probably try to find an environment which is contradictory to the physical substance of the characters. That's why I went for clay, because also of my theatre modeling experience. That's where my backgrounds actually came from, from theatre models."

In 1997, Sapegin finished One Day a Man Bought a House, a love story told in an unconventional and comedic manner.

A Loving Rat

One Day a Man Bought a House is a twisted tale about a man who moves into a house only to discover another occupant: a rat. Unwilling to share his new home, the man embarks on a series of methods to exterminate the rat. However, each murderous gesture (including the use of the infamous Malaysian pitbull cat) is mistaken as a sign of affection. The rat, a woman, soon believes that the man loves her. She dolls herself up, approaches the man and they marry and live happily ever after.

Sapegin wrote the original story and his wife re-wrote it for the film. The story was actually made in 1995 and was in production for almost three years. This perverse bestial fairy tale is actually based on a true story...well, sort of. "The story came out of an accident when I had to kill a rat, and I tried to persuade her with a sausage and she ate the sausage then I couldn't kill her because I thought she now thinks that I'm a nice guy."

Sapegin worked on One Day and The Saltmill concurrently. Once again, bills were outstanding. "It was such a bad day and I said, 'Fuck a duck, we have to do once more like we did on Mons,' four weeks later everybody got paid, and we just kept rolling. So that's how it started, as usual." Once again, Sapegin returned to a folk tale for his story source. The script was written by Studio Magica colleague, Lars Tommerbakke, but both he and Sapegin worked on the story together. On one level, The Saltmill is a tale about how the sea became salted, but deeper still it is about the accidental discovery of independence and identity. In a small town, all the salt is owned by a greedy old man. The Sea has no salt. The town has no salt. A young man digs for salt everyday. He is a 'yes' man who works only for a sandwich...unsalted of course. While digging the man discovers a cave and within it a salt troll. The man trades his sandwich to the troll for control of the salt. The man hastens immediately to the local tavern and offers the patrons salt for their fish and chips. Still being the 'yes' man, the idiot savant gives the rich man all of the salt and tells him the secret to owning the mill. The greedy man sets sail in a boat, says the magic words and drowns in the sea as the salt pours into his boat.

Sapegin finds folk tales a challenge to work with because they are constructed on different moral issues, so they must be twisted around. "If you really look at folk tales, they are completely pre-Christian, they came from pre-moral time, and to tell the story which will communicate with our society, you cannot just tell the folk tale because people will get absolutely confused with what you are actually saying." By altering the ending of the film, The Saltmill, like One Day, became a tale based on misunderstanding. The young man in Saltmill finds his independence completely by accident and despite his utter stupidity. In Sapegin's surreal fairy tale world, there are no grand gestures, no mythical heroes, no profound logic, only everymen who, like Beckett characters inadvertently bump into solutions.

In the Corner of the World -- Sapegin's animated film based on Shakespeare's sonata number 18.

Another New Beginning

Sapegin recently left Studio Magica, a studio he co-founded upon arriving in Norway, with to form Zoofilm. "It became a little boring and I felt we were moving towards different cities. We had a big studio. It became a bit heavy and I also want to work with experimental things and they want me to do television series." Zoofilm was formed in May 1999 with two other partners who, surprisingly, are not animation people. "I have to prove to them that this genre can exist next to live-action. I have to prove that I'm capable of doing things and it's basically great."

The first Zoofilm project, In the Corner of the World, is a short Shakespeare "pick-up" film. In the Corner returns to the style of Edvard using clay characters on a manipulated live-action background. The concept behind In the Corner was to give back the original meaning to Shakespeare's poetry which for all its high brow reception, was basically written to score with chicks. "In the Corner of the World was an extreme experiment. It came from an idea after I saw Shakespeare In Love, which I liked very much and everybody else hated it absolutely, my partners hated it, my son hated it also, because it was wimpy. I thought it was great."

Currently Sapegin is working on a variety of projects including an interpretation of Hamlet and Bernard Bityourtongue. "It's a book which was written by a very famous crime novelist and me. It's a crime story with two murders, for children. So this book is going to be an animation film, and it's half live-action. It's a story which happens in a puppet theatre and the marionettes have a life of their own and one of them is a killer, basically." Sapegin has also approached Canada's National Film Board about co-producing a top secret project involving Puccini.

Despite a prosperous 1997, where Sapegin made four commercials for the National Lottery and four for a radio station, recent financial frustrations forced him to re-consider his artistic direction. "I thought, 'Okay, let's just give up and make a straightforward animation silly for children.'" But poor Pjotr still couldn't get it right. "We made the film and sent it to some Danish consultants and they said, 'What kind of film is this? It's no action and the main character is a well behaved girl.'" Nevertheless, Snails, recently won a top prize at the Montreal Children's Film Festival.

Winner of a top prize at the Montreal Children's Film Festival, Snails.

Given Sapegin's highly stylized backgrounds, it would seem natural that he look the other way and perhaps try more abstract non-narrative animations. However, Pjotr has a very good theory on this. "I absolutely refuse to accept the definition of art on these two sections, figurative and non-figurative, because abstract art is one of the components in figurative art. It's a part of figurative art and by working in abstract media you are cheating yourself in a way because you will end up with a story which is maybe not on the screen but you hear it in back of your head. So, if you develop abstract things up to a certain point, it will start to become figurative. That is what I am doing, always using abstract things in a composition in storytelling. It's kind of hidden inside in the paintings, in the figurative paintings."

For now this life in progress carries on beyond these pages and our slanted tale of one life must come to an end. Young Pjotr is now older Pjotr. He has grown far from the acrobats, karate experts, snowmen and marble landscapes of his youth. His new Nordic life is one of rats, cats, salt and seas. Financial insecurities aside, Pjotr is happy, busy and Norwegian. "I am a Norwegian filmmaker, and I am planted absolutely, thoroughly. I just don't wanna go back to Russia; it's a really hectic place."

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and founder and director of SAFO, the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is a board member of ASIFA International and editor of the ASIFA magazine, ASIFA News. Robinson has curated film programs and served on festival juries throughout the world. He writes a monthly column ("The Animation Pimp") for Animation World Network and has written numerous articles on animation. His iconoclastic tendencies have led him to be called the "John Woo of diplomacy" and most recently, "the enfant terrible of animation" by Take One magazine. He is currently working on a documentary with Otto Alder on Estonian animation; a biography of writer, Richard Meltzer; and a book on animation entitled, Unsung Heroes of Animation. Apparently he's a Canadian.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.