“I was a kid, maybe five or six years old, how could it not affect me?” wonders Russian filmmaker Masha Osipova, who was sent by her parents to Soviet sanatoriums and forced to undergo obscure health treatments such as light therapy and oxygen cocktails. She explains to Dariusz Kuźma how she turned her traumatic experiences into an experimental short documentary about how memories of the past can drive healing processes in the present.
It is a brave thing to do, to go deep down the rabbit hole of your past to explore what you went through as a child and how it affected the way you are as an adult. Not many people could do it. What persuaded you to make this film? Curiosity? Anger? A need for answers?
It actually started with my brother. I come from a big family and my brothers and sisters had also experienced trips to Russian sanatoriums. I deliberately say “Russian sanatoriums”, as these kinds of institutions existed in countries like Poland, Germany and the Netherlands (where I live now), but they served a different purpose. They were intended mostly for older people. A couple of years ago, my mum accidentally found a letter my brother sent from a sanatorium. He was five years old and could barely write, but he basically asked her to take him home because he was not happy. We had a laugh about it but after a while my memories started coming back. I realized that I wasn’t the only one with bad experiences.
Was it because of this personal connection that you did not want a traditional documentary with talking heads, but rather explored memories through a kind of visual essay?
No, nothing like that. I actually wanted to make a documentary about us, my brother, my family, but then I realized I didn’t want to go down that path. We were a family of seven, two parents and five children, it was hard for my mother and father. We grew up in poverty, when one of us got sick, the rest were immediately sick, too. So they tried to spread us around, to grandparents, summer camps, sanatoriums. All doctors advised sending children there – it was a common thing. I realized it would be more honest if it was only my story, explored through a blend of documentary and fiction. That way, I could also leave more to the viewers’ imagination instead of forcing my vision of what happened.
Even so, you still decided to shoot in a now-derelict sanatorium to which you were sent as a child.
Yes, one of several I went to. While doing research, I realized none of them existed anymore – I think more than 50% of those built in the Soviet era are now gone. But it was kind of interesting to go back to that abandoned sanatorium that brought me so much misery. I also shot in an existing sanatorium after being given permission from the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, but that was on the condition that they would choose one for us. We went to this sanatorium near Moscow, which was probably one of the modern ones, and we tried our best to shoot impactful footage there. We focused on close-ups of children who were undergoing procedures similar to those I lived through.
That made for the more elegant part of the film. What I found curious in the part shot in the abandoned sanatorium is that you created a soundscape that seems as if it was taken from a horror movie. Is that how you remembered it?
Not really. I just realized now that, funnily enough, I don’t remember any sounds. I do remember a lot of visuals, some of the faces, I perfectly remember how I felt emotionally being there, but sounds escape me. This is interesting, I don’t think I realized that before your question… But in the film, I just wanted to mix all the sounds I recorded when shooting at the place, and then increase the volume. I think through the use of sounds and imagery, I wanted people to feel like I felt there. You know, not literally, in a more abstract way, and yet real.
This theme of how memories shape you as a person runs throughout the film, but memory is quite whimsical, it can fail you when you least expect it. Did you ever consider that what you remember might not be true? I mean, your own father questions your memories.
I never questioned what I remember. I have a very good memory and I’m a very visual person, which is probably why I became a photographer and now a filmmaker. I do question the intensity of how I perceive my stay at the sanatoriums, though. Because some people didn’t mind going there. One of my sisters remembers that she had fun there, she had her first kiss, she fell in love, she was one of the cool kids. Which is quite strange because we often went to the same place. Maybe that was because I had a more fragile personality; maybe I needed more personal attention, which I wasn’t given in those places. I don’t know, but I do know that my memory doesn’t fail me.
Do you have some good memories?
Of course, I remember borrowing clothes from the girls, having fun with some of them. But even my good memories can be strange and painful. I became friends with one girl when we were put in a quarantine zone. You know, a place where you go when you are sick, not to infect other kids. In this case, it was a small room in which I stayed for several days. I was really lucky that I discovered that she was staying in a similar room next door to mine. I don’t know what I would have done without her. I was a kid, maybe five or six years old, how could it not affect me? This is something that always makes me sad – no one from the staff reached out, no one tried to make personal contact with me. They were all push-the-button people who simply put me in bed to do one of the treatments. And I didn’t make this up, this is not some fantasy. It happened.
During the film, you say that your childhood trips to sanatoriums left you with numerous fears as an adult – fear of abandonment, fear of serious relationships, fear of starting a family, etc. Did you ever discover what the purpose of it all was?
I wish I could answer your question, but I still don’t know what the purpose was. Or if there was one. My theory is that it might have had something to do with the Russians’ obsession with physical health. My parents’ generation, and possibly generations before them, were brought up in such a way that they were always concerned about making people better physically, not so much mentally and emotionally. Sanatoriums were something in between hospitals and day cares – you could send your child there for a month or so, and they would give him or her a boost to the immune system. This is not to say Russians wanted to create supermen, like one of the popular conspiracy theories goes, it’s just that physical health is somehow imbedded in the Russian psyche to such an extent it often clouds judgement. This may or may not be the answer you were looking for, but I don’t have any other.
I don’t want to enter the realm of conspiracy theories, but it did occur to me during your documentary that the Soviet system was to an extent based on the idea of making everyone feel the same, even by breaking some of them, so that no one would have the strength to oppose. Could it be somehow applied in this case?
I honestly don’t know, but there probably is something to it. My mum talks a lot in the voice-over about the fact that if you were above or below a certain idea of the average, the Soviets would do whatever it took to level you with that average. She feels that it was the government who was in control of the way the children were raised, not the parents. It’s like nothing was individual about the Soviet regime. Luckily, right now it’s slowly changing in Russia, even when it comes to the sanatoriums – on their websites they have sections for parents where they list potential problems children may experience. In a way, the process became more individual, everyone looks at a person and tries to understand his or her needs. The government would like to avoid changes and ban free thinking, but the changes are already happening, whether they want it or not.
How was the film received in and outside of Russia?
It was screened during a film festival in Russia, but unfortunately I couldn’t attend. However, it’s interesting that many Russians whom I know and who saw the film felt hurt. I’m not sure why, but at a Q&A during Camerimage film festival in Poland, someone said that he recognized parts from his own past in the film, and that it did hurt. So, maybe the critical reaction comes from people who do not want to accept some truth about them that the film revealed? It’s still a little bit of a mystery to me. The truth is, however, that I made Sanatorium with foreigners in mind. And, honestly, I couldn’t be more happy with how the film was received outside of Russia. I had great discussions, people were curious and asked interesting questions.
Was screening it all around and having those discussions at least a bit cathartic for you?
Not really, but it didn’t have to be. I think I had already done enough soul-searching before starting to work on this film, maybe to some extent to convince myself to shoot it. I talked to my parents about their feelings and ideas about what had happened, I understood what kind of impact the sanatoriums have had on me. The process of filming became a nice closure. And when I started to travel with the film to different festivals, I was just curious about the audiences’ reactions.
You make confronting your parents about their child’s troubled past seem quite easy…
Oh no, it definitely wasn’t! It probably was the most intense experience of the whole process. Sitting down with them, face-to-face, and asking all those difficult questions, knowing that some things were simply beyond their control. And I have to say, my parents were amazing, they were super open and willing to explain everything from their point of view.
At one point in the film, your father tells you that you should forget about the past and try to live in the here and now. Do you intend to take his advice, or will you dig deeper?
I think I’m the kind of person who always tries to understand how things were and are now; how something could have had such an impact on me and others. Yes, it would be amazing if I could just let it go, I would probably lead a much happier life, but unless you know a way to change my personality, I will have to stay as I am. And it was quite funny that of all people it is my father who always talks about living in the moment, being positive, laughing about the past. I can tell you – he definitely doesn’t live by those words. But the truth is, many Russians are like that. They just don’t want to face what happened before, and try to block others. It’s an interesting issue that definitely has many layers. Maybe I should make my next documentary about that?
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Watch Masha Osipova’s short documentary “Sanatorium” here.