- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dublin native Johnny O’Reilly was so confident of his Russian language skills that no only did he move to Moscow, he started making films in the city’s native language.

Mr. O’Reilly, who started out as a journalist before switching to filmmaking, witnessed the particularly troubled times in the early-1990s when President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks in to resolve a standoff with Russia’s parliament.

“It was a pretty exciting time for any young person seeking adventure in the world,” Mr. O’Reilly told The Washington Times of his journeyman days as a cub reporter in a foreign land. “I kind of fell in love with the place, not because of that tragic circumstances, but just because of the friends I made.

“After that I always looked for an excuse to go back.”

Some of Mr. O’Reilly’s friends had gotten into filmmaking, and encouraged him to rejoin them in the Russian capital’s thriving entertainment industry. In 2011 Mr. O’Reilly directed “The Weather Station,” a thriller set in the later-disputed Crimean Peninsula.

Mr. O’Reilly’s subsequent work is the slice-of-life drama “Moscow Never Sleeps,” a Robert Altman-esque multi-character and multi-storyline work portraying the intersecting narratives of contemporary Muscovites dealing with families, careers, romance and the various other challenges of daily life.

Mr. O’Reilly says he isn’t particularly fond of Altman’s work, although he said the reception Altman’s 1993 film “Short Cuts” received gave him some confidence that multiarc films could work — even in a contemporary Russian setting.

“I probably was more influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “I liked ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Magnolia’ very much partly because the storylines of both films were clustered around family units or groups of characters. And that helped with [‘Moscow Never Sleeps’] with its intention to portray Moscow as a singular ‘character’ and idea.”

The Russian film industry is remarkably busy, with roughly 200 feature films a year produced and distributed throughout the world’s largest country. Most of them are romantic comedies, thrillers and action movies. However, rather few homegrown films are ever seen outside Russia’s substantial borders.

“Unlike other European countries, they don’t need to rely on international release in order to get financed,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “For every [Russian] movie that you see in the West, there are a hundred that are produced for internal consumption and never get released outside Russia.

“The only movies that get released internationally are arthouse films,” he said. “And I think that’s pretty standard for many foreign language territories — partly because film festivals might only be interested in non-genre films.”

In addition to being prolific, the Russian film industry is also awash in state censorship, Mr. O’Reilly said, with nervous bureaucrats combing through scripts for objectionable material.

Moscow Never Sleeps” didn’t receive the imprimatur of the Russian Ministry of Culture, its director believes, due to a particular narrative thread.

“I suspect they turned it down because there’s one particular story which revealed elements of corruption in Russian government structures,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “I suspect it was because they were uncomfortable with a foreigner making this kind of film, or simply because of that scene.

“It’s not like someone important decided not to fund my film; someone low down in the chain of command looked at the submission, shrugged his or her shoulders and just kind of thought, ‘nah, I won’t give money to this one,’” Mr. O’Reilly said.

Eventually Mr. O’Reilly and his producers turned to his native Ireland for funding, but even with that hurdle crossed, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea made international festivals squeamish to accept any Russian films at all, even ones made with nonnative directors.

“Despite the fact that it was directed by an Irish director, it was still considered a Russian film,” Mr. O’Reilly said, adding that he has had to do much of the distribution legwork on his own, including in the U.S. (The film opens in the District Friday.)

When audiences see “Moscow Never Sleeps” now, the filmmaker says viewers often wish to discuss with him the policies of Mr. Putin, as well as Mr. O’Reilly’s opinion about Russian culture and politics.

“I think a lot of people are surprised by how Moscow looks,” Mr. O’Reilly said of the film’s setting. “Also, they’re interested in why they haven’t heard about” the film, he said of the difficult game of getting a film seen at all, let alone worldwide.

Despite official state censorship, Mr. O’Reilly said that Westerners often harbor an incorrect image of the KGB as an “all-knowing, efficient government censorship organ.”

“The Russian government is the most inefficient body of organized people that I’ve ever come across,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “The main problem with corruption is that it breeds inefficiency and bad government. But, of course, that’s not an easy media narrative to portray.”

Furthermore, Mr. O’Reilly said that he finds an atmosphere of pervasive apathy in Russia, whether it’s on the health of the republic or the ongoing accusations of collusion between President Trump and Russian proxies to interfere in last fall’s U.S. Election.

“The big difference about how things are discussed in Russia is due to the fact that the Russian government controls and, in many cases, owns all major media,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “So the only people who are promoted and employed are the people who toe the government line.

“The government line in Russia is that Western powers are paranoid,” he said. “Any accusations are part of a bigger game in the West to control Russia, to diminish its power. They’ve been quite successful at brainwashing lots of people into believing this.”

Mr. O’Reilly splits his time between Moscow and Los Angeles. He would like his next film to be in his native language, he said, which will likely require him to move back to Dublin for a spell.

“I’ve made two Russian movies in a row, and it’s time to do something in English,” he said, adding he is now developing a dark comedy about Irish undertakers. “I’ll have to move back home for that.”

Moscow Never Sleeps” opens Friday at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema.

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