Eastern consciousness of corruption is an overlooked reality by ‘Westerners’ who want to feel superior as if our political climate isn’t dictatorial. Putin’s Russia continues to be our fascination, whose censorship is direct and extreme. Clayton Vomero’s 3OHA makes the same salient link between communist and capitalist regimes as Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto. We talk about reality, control and politics.
Screening June 8 at Sheffield Doc/Fest, the director has previously located his definition of 3OHA (Zona), “the Zone has come to represent the thin vapor of consumer culture that allows people to live a fantasy of their own life and to eventually become a full simulacra as they simulate different versions of themselves until the original no longer exists.” In modern Russia, it means prison. Now, it can mean the hedonistic film with a killer use of sound manipulation – see Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake warped beyond recognition. A quote in the opening sequence of 3OHA, “The vast silent majority don’t give a shit, they’re just trying to survive”, cuts to a universal truth that political engagement continues to be a privilege.
Your short film Gang, recording hedonistic youth in New York, gained critical acclaim. Now, you turn your lens to Soviet youth through Russia and Ukraine. Why did you choose to shoot your first feature film in this part of the world?
I’d been interested in making a film about the way memories and media collide to form repetitive ideologies across generations and was developing a project that could be a through-the-looking-glass examination of how Russia and America connect in the sense of that. At the same time, I was approached by M2M asking if I wanted to make a film about fashion in Russia, which I thought could be a good opportunity to examine these ideas in maybe a more accessible form. Basically, 3OHA is a ramming together of all of those things.
You refer to 3OHA as a film, but it has the features of a documentary. Is this a comment on constructed reality?
I think objective documentaries are impossible. There’s no way to make a completely pure and honest image. The meaning within a film is created by the context that images provide each other; because filmmakers make decisions as to which images come before and after certain others, a film cannot help but be subjective. In that sense, I think the only thing honest in a film is the filmmaker’s recollection of a place, an event, or a person.
I try to be very democratic, have long conversations with people to understand how they feel, and really listen rather than attach myself to preconceived ideas; and then, hopefully, from there I can craft image and sound into something true in feeling. But it’s the nature of film itself or media/images for that matter. Nothing is actually a fact. It’s all constructed reality. 
3OHA opens with August citing Lana Del Rey’s song Paradise – “My home is where I’m going” – to answer where his favourite place is. Despite speaking in Russian, he communicates through lyrics from Western popular culture, which in a way masks and silences unique expression, since he avoids using his own words. Was it your intention to criticise the homogenisation of culture?
That’s an interesting way of viewing that. Humans always use the words and concepts of others to express how they feel. Songs, poems, films, ideologies, etc. I think it could be that August appreciates those words as particularly poetic and feels they speak for him, or perhaps, he’s avoiding his honest feelings by hiding behind song lyrics. I think this is often the problem with creative mediums. When we’re aware our expressions are being edited down to clips, soundbites, or words are truncated to fit into max text limits, we’re forcing our expression to conform to a space or a length that is deceivingly objective.
Someone said to me once that “words are a trap for ideas” and I think the unfortunate reality of using bits of media or culture or memes to speak for us creates a homogeneity of thought that doesn’t allow us to appreciate the beautiful intricacies of being alive. I think with August I found it interesting that he was saying that in a field in the middle of Russia because he was performing. And I thought, ‘who is he performing for?’ And really, it was him performing an idea he has of how a specific world he looks up to wants him to be. To speak the same language of people out there, somewhere, who are like him. To conform through culture. 
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The young people locate American culture as an ideal, as marketable. Where do you think their preference for a foreign culture comes from? 
I think the propaganda of Western culture has become so pervasive and relentless in the form of capitalism that there are few places in the world that don’t hold it as an ideal. There are plenty of individuals who don’t, but it’s hard to find large groups in the world that don’t attach some highly marketed bit of Western culture to themselves or what they’re doing as some form of identity. It’s become a binding agent. I think what is unique about Husky is his usage of a Western form to express deeply Russian things and hold on to identities that exist outside of aesthetics.
Russian rapper Хаски (Husky) is the central voice of 3OHA. You write, Husky speaks “about the mythology of a capitalist utopia and how modern totalitarian societies establish total control not by force, but by saturating the populace with products of mass culture that serve as a relentless tool of social conditioning.” Did you aim to thread comparisons between totalitarian control in a communist state and a capitalist state?
I think this sense of totalitarian control being pervasive is the primary thing I took away from making the film. The sense that we’re any more free in the United States than in Russia is sadly naive. I think this is why people have fetishized the concept of post-soviet culture. You get asked the question so often of ‘how can they live?’, and it’s like, ‘well, how do you live?’ The details are different but our social progress is only allowed in the West as long as it aids a very specific kind of economic progress. When one runs afoul of the other, social progress is immediately capped.
The Keystone Pipeline is a perfect example of this. Trump is another. The politics of division are sewn through niche debates on culture that are manipulated by bots, trolls-for-hire, etc., and these are in many cases government-led – either via political party, lobby, or actual intelligence agencies. I think the West is less aware of this manipulation than the East is. This propaganda playbook was mastered by the KGB over decades of spying and controlling their own people. The East has seen this all before so they’re accustomed not to trust certain things.
A level of manipulation grows exponentially when culture is capital. In order for it to be profitable, it has to be controlled. Every creative utterance that’s submitted to the Internet is being focus-grouped for its value. And now, here we are, submitting ourselves to an approval process of our peers constantly. How many likes, how many views, what will the trolls say… Where is the free thought in that? The only free thing to do is seek anonymity and put creative expression in physical spaces maybe.
The trio of Instagram bloggers you follow discuss their lack of freedom of movement and the sense of false freedom. In America, do you feel you experience false freedom too?
As long as we have sovereign power, freedom will always be subjective to the wants of that power. We don’t set the rules, the laws, we navigate a system and, at best, we can choose one over the other. To many people, the best power to live under and be subject to has been capitalism, which has improved the outer lives of many but has emptied us out completely as human beings. South Korea is capitalism in maximum flex and they have the highest suicide rate in the world. And this is ultimately what capitalism wants, an expulsion of waste and prioritization of efficiency. Human beings are getting cancelled by capitalism.
The film is sound-tracked by haunting, ethereal, psychedelic soundscapes from string arrangements by Lucinda Chua and Alex Epton’s “weird box with wires in it”. I can hear references to Swan Lake. What was the concept behind the music?
In 1991, the most famous Russian ballet was taken out of the context of the theatre and used by the government in a way that was probably unintentional but has led to a cascading trigger effect that many people in the film didn’t realize until we’d discussed it with them. It’s almost like the last gasp of Communism, or it’s the last seed of culture to remind people of who they are and where they come from.
It’s something that can be endlessly examined and a representation of the way culture can be used by power, even as that power shifts. So we took this into account as we unravelled strands of the ballet and played it for people during interviews and while filming certain sections. Alex and Lucinda created a few iterations before I started to film and we were able to create a presence of the music within the film itself rather than laying it over the top.
You shoot the city or those with a ‘city mentality’. Is there a reason you focus on the urban?
I’m from New York and had lived there for most of my life until recently moving to London. I think it’s a matter of what I understand, the personalities I’m most comfortable with, the most instant shorthand. But August, Nina, and Dasha were interesting to me because they were the rural kids who came looking for something in Moscow. Not only is that representative of many people in Russia, but it’s also the nature of commerce. People come to the cities for prosperity and they commodify themselves and that has been through all time. It’s interesting to see in detail how we exist now collectively and in urban zones, we’re constantly crashing into each other. 
As long as we have sovereign power, freedom will always be subjective to the wants of that power. We don’t set the rules, the laws, we navigate a system and, at best, we can choose one over the other.
“I’m as lost as everyone else is”, a quote from Artemy Troitsky, celebrated academic, music critic and journalist, is featured in one of your trailers. Would you explain ‘outsider’ cultures in Russia and Ukraine as a backlash from this feeling?
I think people have to shield themselves from the mass conformity of the state in order for progress to exist, but what’s strange is this illusion that a flashy conformity is better than a boring one. It’s nearly impossible to exist unmolested by power. We’re all navigating an elaborate hamster wheel and outsider culture was once a refuge from that, but now, nothing can remain outside long enough to have real meaning. As long as we submit ourselves to commerce, all of our thoughts are just aesthetic because we’re serving the machine that grinds it all up to be sold.
I do think kids in the East are more aware of this than we are, and you see people like Husky and others trying to hold on to something definitively cultural that exists outside of isms and aesthetics. But this is also what autocracies are recognizing and inflaming thru religion, nationalist views of culture, and anti-globalization attitudes. In the sense of Ukraine, their existence within the influence of this feudal zone that Russia is trying to draw is enormously important as it is being pulled in two distinct directions, but only being offered the option to the same economic model. One is definitely more beneficial than the other socially, but economic freedom in either direction doesn’t seem to be on offer.
Artemy Troitsky also discusses ‘90s club culture and ‘new religion’ Melomania rave. How does the hedonistic, ecstatic, drug-fueled delirium of the ‘90s compare to what you have seen now?
I don’t know to be honest. There are extreme elements of nostalgia in the retelling of ‘90s history by anyone in any country. I think there’s an added dose of hope in how we frame our histories sometimes, and I think the best way to ensure that the moments we’re living now have relevance and meaning is to be honest and learn from the mistakes of the past. All of these cool brilliant people in the ‘90s in all cultures didn’t take over any ministries or government bodies; instead, they focused on making what was cool to them at the time.
This is similar to the current concept of ‘consumer activism’. It might feel good to bring your own bag to the grocery store but it almost has zero effect, and without any economic punishments being delivered to sovereign power, nothing will change. I think we’ve all got to take a risk somewhere. Otherwise, it’s just buying into a lifestyle and that just maintains the systems of oppression that we’re all navigating in varying degrees.
How would you describe 3OHA in three words?
Aesthetic thin air.
Any other projects you’re currently working on?
I’m finishing up a script for a new feature that explores a lot of these ideas in a fictional setting. In New York City this time.
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