25/10/2014 22:56
RIA Novosti

Analysis & Opinion

Hollywood Wrestles With Getting Russia Right

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Matt Damon’s forged Russian passport in “The Bourne Supremacy.”Christ the Savior Cathedral was demolished in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s.Actors Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet spies in “The Americans”
02:02 10/05/2013
Tags: Hollywood, CIA, Joe Weisberg, United States

WASHINGTON, May 9 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – It’s a mere three seconds of stock footage in the critically acclaimed Cold War television series “The Americans,” a nighttime panorama showing Moscow’s renowned Christ the Savior Cathedral as a US counterintelligence official explains that a top KGB officer is about to be assassinated.

There’s just one problem: The scene takes place in 1981, a half century after the cathedral was demolished by the atheist Bolsheviks. A massive outdoor swimming pool was ultimately built at the site, and the cathedral was only resurrected in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“You never want to make a mistake, but when I saw that one, I thought, ‘Well, if that’s the worst, maybe we’re doing OK,’” the show’s creator and executive producer, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Joe Weisberg, told RIA Novosti.

Hollywood has long raised Russians’ hackles over what many see as crude national stereotypes propagated on the silver screen, including the drunken cosmonaut in the 1998 blockbuster “Armageddon,” which sparked outrage in the Russian parliament.

But just getting the facts right about Russia can be a tall order for the US film and television industry, even for series like “The Americans,” in which linguistic, cultural and historical slip-ups are more the exception than the rule.

Cyrillic gibberish, anachronisms and Russian phrases that appear to have swished back and forth between languages a dozen times in Google Translate: all of these are par for the course in portrayals of Russia on American screens big and small.

Matt Damon’s titular character in the 2004 action thriller “The Bourne Supremacy” rifles through a phone book at a Moscow pay phone to find an address. In real life, Jason Bourne would have a better chance finding the apartment by going door to door in the city of 11.5 million than finding a public phone book there.

In the same movie, Bourne flashes a forged Russian passport with the unusual but believable name “Foma Kinaev,” written in the Latin alphabet. The Cyrillic rendering, however, reads “Ashchf Lshtfum,” a cavalcade of consonants likely to elicit a “Come with me” from a Russian border guard.

Whoever whipped up the prop apparently switched the computer keyboard over to Cyrillic, typed in “Foma Kinaev” and hoped for the best.

“Just a simple Russian lad, Ashchf Lshtfum,” Moscow photographer Dmitry Lukyanov drily noted in a blog post about mangled Russian in famous movies that has made the rounds of the Russian blogosphere.

Oddities collected on Lukyanov’s blog include a scene from the 1986 Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Red Heat,” in which a Soviet police officer for some reason is typing a report in Russian but using the Latin alphabet, as well as a screenshot from the 1963 James Bond movie “From Russia With Love” that features glass doors in a Russian embassy stenciled with non-Russian words to indicate “push” and “pull.”

Hollywood producers occasionally invest money to ensure the accuracy of such details – investment that is typically hyped in the pre-release promotional campaign, said Eileen Jones, a movie critic and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Film and Media.

Mostly, though, Hollywood films have relied on “absurd” stereotypes and “rough approximations of what might imaginably be true,” Jones told RIA Novosti.

“If you want to represent France, you shoot a beret-wearing, baguette-carrying man in a black turtleneck bicycling past the Eiffel Tower,” she said. “Big-budget Hollywood movies are supposed to play around the world, so there’s a reliance on iconographic stereotypes that can convey broad-stroke dramatic situations to vast numbers of people.”

Over the past century, most Hollywood directors who contemplated making films involving Russia “knew next to nothing” about the country, said Harlow Robinson, a history professor at Northeastern University in Boston specializing in Soviet and Russian culture.

“Even if you did go to the Soviet Union for research, you were absolutely limited in what you could see,” Robinson told RIA Novosti.

This myopia is not limited to Russia, of course. Portrayals of China and the Chinese language in US films and television feature a plethora of mispronounced names and considerable confusion between Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who has written extensively about Chinese cinema.

No film director or producer goes into a project intent on being willfully ignorant about these details, said Sam Pollard, an Academy Award–nominated producer and longtime collaborator of American film director Spike Lee.

When mistakes are made, often it’s merely because there’s not enough time or money to nail the particulars, Pollard told RIA Novosti.

“Usually it’s likely you just missed it, or you are at the 11th hour of production and you’ve got to shoot the shot,” he said.

No special outside consultants other than a translator are brought in to ensure the accuracy of the Russian language and other Russia-related aspects of “The Americans,” which follows the lives of two married Soviet sleeper agents living in the United States in the early 1980s, Weisberg told RIA Novosti.

He added that he had vetoed exterior shots set in the Soviet Union that did not appear to him to be consistent with the place and time in which they were set.

The translator and several members of the cast who speak fluent Russian are the last line of defense against obvious language flubs, Weisberg said.

The scripts for the show, which earlier this year was picked up for a second season on the FX network, are penned in English, with the Russian-speaking parts then translated and tweaked for idiomatic fluidity, Weisberg said.

“We do have a ‘no-Google-Translate’ rule,” Weisberg said, referring to the popular online translation program that can produce preposterous results if deployed willy-nilly.

A majority of the blunders that fans of the show catch have nothing to do with Russia, Weisberg added. “The Americans” is set in Washington but filmed in New York City, meaning evidence of the geographic sleight of hand occasionally creeps into a shot, he said.

“We have mistakes sometimes like a street sign from Queens,” Weisberg said, referring to one of the New York City’s five boroughs. “You catch a lot of mistakes, too. You probably catch nine out of 10. But boy, that last one, you just miss it.”


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RIA NovostiMatt Damon’s forged Russian passport in “The Bourne Supremacy.”Hollywood Wrestles With Getting Russia Right

02:02 10/05/2013 It’s a mere three seconds of stock footage in the critically acclaimed Cold War television series “The Americans,” a nighttime panorama showing Moscow’s renowned Christ the Savior Cathedral as a US counterintelligence official explains that a top KGB officer is about to be assassinated.>>

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  • arsanlupinNicely done!
    03:36, 10/05/2013
    This article does well in explaining what often happens in such circumstances, and why. It also shows that American movie companies try to get it right, but often can’t. I have some fun criticizing such films, but I know they aren’t trying to offend Russia – they just can’t afford the time and money required to get ALL of it exactly right. It’s a pity, because most Westerners never get to see the REAL Russia as I do.

    But then movies and television aren’t meant to tell the truth. They are used ONLY to entertain – to tell a story. Real life is boring, and thus never honestly portrayed. This is the message lost on most non-Americans who watch American movies. And many Americans …

    If only citizens of both areas could see what the other is really like, perhaps the world would be a better place.
  • hobbitofnyNew York used for Washington
    04:14, 10/05/2013
    The Americans can not make me believe New York is Washington. And the Soviet Union shoots are no better. I lived in New York City for a few years and I am always seeing thing from there in the show. My wife is Russian and I have visited a few times. I get many laughs because of the mistakes. Best thing I can say: the show is fiction and Moscow and Washington look the same as New York City. Sit back eat pop corn, a beer and have a good laugh. Hollywood can not get Washington right. So Please do not expect them to get the CCCP or Moscow correct.
  • Panthera Parduswhat about computer/console games?
    10:14, 10/05/2013
    It would be interesting to read a summary about how evil the Russians are in computer/console games,
    for example:
    you could also check result for
    "modern warfare russian ban"
    - GHOST RECON where gentle mercenaries help Russian to establish a democracy by freeing the right Russian (as opposed to the bad one)

    example between many, what I find interesting is that there are no - to my knowledge - computer/console games where the evil guys are Chinese, say something like peace and freedom loving americans fighting to protect taiwan :-) .. I think they fear a ban for whole China market

    P.S. Do remember that video game industry is larger than hollywood
  • Mikhail1228Orthodox Churches
    00:53, 15/05/2013
    I am a 2nd generation American of Kuban Cossack ancestry and an Orthodox Christian. What annoys me about US made films is when they enter a supposed Orthodox Church in Russia. The church usually has statuary and is really some Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe where they bring in some icons as props and the actors refer to our Divine Liturgy service incorrectly as a "mass'. You would think that in America with all its Greek, Russian, Serbian and Antiochian Orthodox Churches someone could make a local call and get this one right!
    • arsanlupinConcur
      22:31, 17/05/2013
      They could have used the Serbian Orthodox church here in my town as a model.

      Sometimes it's just sloppiness.
    • vigorousyou think Hollywood's bad, try Google!
      17:49, 16/05/2013
      Google's depiction of the venerable Il-76 aircraft is absolutely awful. A casual search would lead the reader to believe the airplane is a piece of junk.

      Then, there are the omissions. Recently, a flotilla of these aircraft was dispatched to Siberia to fight fires. This was covered by Voice of Russia but never figured in Google's search results.

      ITAR TASS reported immediate results of this recent firefighting expedition. Again, no Google search results at all.
      • arsanlupinYou miss several points:
        22:33, 17/05/2013
        1. Well of course ITAR-TASS and Voice of Russia would have articles touting Ilyushin’s products – all three companies are owned by the Russian federal government.
        2. In all the news articles of wildfires in the West, while the use of aircraft in fighting the fires is usually mentioned, they make no mention of make or model – it just isn’t done that way in the West.
        3. I disagree with your assessment of what Google search on IL-76 shows. I see a lot of factual articles and a couple of YouTube videos. The factual articles describe an aircraft with a long history, but not as long as many aircraft in Western military inventories – The C-130 is 15 years older than the IL-76 and the B-52 is 16 years older. It also shows a lot of improvements, upgrades, and enhancements to the aircraft; a sure sign of a solid, reliable aircraft – just like the C-130. In fact there are 3 American companies who bought IL-76 and IL-78 aircraft.
        4. The only possible negative I could find was the number that crashed – 27 that I could find. With an aircraft of such solid reputation I would question pilot error, maintenance problems, or bad weather before I’d question the aircraft.
        Reply | Comments: 5Expand branch

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