Within her debut feature-length film, Beware Of Dog, Russian film director Nadia Bedzhanova explores the cognitive changes and ultimate desire for human connection under the influence of both Russian and American cultures. Inspired by Tarkovsky and Zvyagintsev with their motifs of “hopelessness and despair”, she considers herself more optimistic: “The cure for it [life], from my own experience, is a connection with someone who understands you and is willing to build something bigger than themselves, visceral reciprocity”. We speak with Bedzhanova before premiering the movie on Slamdance Film Festival in Utah on January 25.
Your opera prima, Beware of Dog, follows three young adults who, according to the press note, “experience parallel struggles with mental health and identity.” How did the idea of the movie come up?
It was so loud because of the traffic and a crowd on Kenmare and Bowery… unbearable it was, correlating completely with whatever it was going on in my head. I was standing on the corner and had to step on a certain manhole 108 times. Everything seemed okay, but I couldn’t move. The idea of Beware of Dog stems from my history with OCD and immigration, and poeticizing it into a motion picture was my way of getting it out of my head to understand what was happening to me in my life and mind more intelligibly.
We are all self-concentrated egoists who just want to be seen and heard. It's more often than not we write about our life experiences and traumas, but in this case, I wanted to raise awareness on mental health. This was a way of entertaining, showing the beauty of a portrait of time to the world through cinematography, and the instincts that light up in us while watching something meaningful or relatable.
How did you decide on making a film with three tangentially-related plot lines?
During my upbringing, I grew up and lived under the influences of multiple cultures – Russia and the United States, primarily – but traveling often and having close relatives in Germany. I wanted to honor the places that molded me into who I am. As one psychiatrist said, the fact that I couldn’t concentrate on only one character emphasizes my indecisive personality.
To the extent that you feel comfortable discussing it, how did you research the various mental illnesses portrayed in the film?
I experienced it introspectively. The inner self-research diffused into a generational observation of time in big city realms. A lot of people struggle with mental deviations, and when I was sharing my story with friends, I often was getting, ‘I understand’ and ‘I feel ya’ responses. It felt right to make something and cover a theme that you don’t see in movies often, yet is extremely relatable to a lot of people whether they are comfortable admitting or not.
The cognitive changes over the past few years provide us a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over a reason, social connections over individual choice, perceptiveness over I.Q. I had OCD, I lived through it and am still conquering; now, it brings more joy than struggle having more control over it with each passing day.
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Beware of Dog uses a variety of types of film (including Instagram stories and text message screenshots). What was your goal with this type of mixed media presentation? 
We are drowning in screens every day; they bring joy, anxiety, despair, laughter. It just seemed to make sense, including this extension of self in the film. The main reason to use the digital intermissions is to shrink the space between characters and emphasize the commonality of each story, no matter what part of the world we live in. The ensemble of protagonists connects online: physical locations are juxtaposed with digital space.
A lot of these characters seem to experience mental illness in conjunction with a sense of loneliness or isolation. How do you see these phenomena as being related?
Sometimes, it feels like we need less and fewer people in our lives. Physical human connection becomes luxury in a world of online self-concentration and presentation. Also, not a lot of people can confront mental issues – if it’s not visible, it might not even exist. So we hide it until it becomes unbearable. The cure for it, from my own experience, is a connection with someone who understands you and is willing to build something bigger than themselves, visceral reciprocity. It can be a project, like we did with Lilit, or it can be a personal emotional experience with a person you love. The importance of it is in fulfilling communication and creating a good thing outside of ‘I’ – for others.
Much of the film is told through the main character’s voiceovers. Are these all their inner monologues? Or are they potentially speaking to an off-screen character? What effect do you want this displacement of speech to have on your audience?
In Marina’s story, there is an inner stream of consciousness that grows the obsession and makes her have repetitive tendencies. She wants ‘to get over it’, but somehow creating an even bigger obsession. In Mike’s story, it is a self-analytical narration, a personal story he shares with the audience, it is much more graphic and real. They are both reflections of an outside world projected from the prism of their personal psyches.
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Often, the camera movement resembles a handheld/phone camera. What did you hope to accomplish with this rougher style of shooting?
This aspect of cinematography brings us closer to the characters, we see them more intimately, we breathe their air and think their thoughts. The raw style depicts their unstable conditions; through the visual tools, we experience and feel for them as opposed to compositionally static shots where the audience can just observe. Handheld brings empathy and makes the audience feel differently for the characters.
While Beware of Dog often has a very realist tone, there are a few choice segments where the film breaks into more experimental and surreal territory (particularly in the hospital scene and the film’s conclusion). What led you to the decision to have these occasional breaks from reality? What significance do these moments have in the film?
I always incline towards dream sequences as a powerful moviemaking tool – that’s what separates the genre from just documenting reality. The goal of these scenes was to express an emotion, the audience can interpret it however they feel, it doesn’t have to be objective or discreet. The extremity of what is interpreted as a break can be the norm for some. We can often lose track of our own reality quickly, become lost in our mind from outside influence or even our own inner monologue.
Despite Beware of Dog’s heavy subject matter, it has quite a hopeful and satisfying ending. What led you to the decision to choose this type of ending over more pessimistic (realist) one?
Despite my pessimistic nature, I do believe in a light at the end of the often gloomy tunnel of lives many ups and downs. Despite my Russian origins, where all the movies have Zvyagintsev’s motifs of hopelessness, despair, and inability to resist the system, I wanted to have all the harshness, but intertwine it with the American ‘happy ending’ resolution, while still leaving it with an open end.
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