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Red Army: An Interview With Director Gabe Polsky

Director Gabe Polsky sat down with MHH's Sandie Gauthier to discuss the documentary about Slava Fetisov's struggle to go from a Soviet star to NHL player.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Red Army is a fantastic documentary about the Soviet Union and their hockey team the Red Army. It's main focus is on Vyacheslav Fetisov, better known to the Western world as Slava Fetisov. I discussed the film, and the process, with the director Gabe Polsky.

The film opens with Slava Fetisov appearing to be rather uninterested in the whole process. He ignores questions while he is puttering on his phone, "I'm busy now, hold on". Over the course of fifteen hours Polsky was able to get Fetisov to open up and tell him his life story by "building a relationship and trust and, I think, as soon as he saw that I was going for a very deep story, multi-layered, story, and that I was asking questions that he wasn't used to being asked. He realized that I was trying to do something unusual and very interesting and profound. He kinda opened up on that idea. He said that he's never spoken to anybody for so long. He was finally allowed to be himself. He wasn't a politician. He was just genuinely telling the story. He needed to tell the story and I really wanted to tell the story. I didn't know he was even going to be in the movie, or a character or anything. When I interviewed him, he didn't want to be interviewed... and then he agreed to met with me for fifteen minutes. That turned into an interview that lasted five hours."

"When I interviewed him I realized that this guy is *the* guy. He's a very unusual character, and he's very engaging and compelling. His story is fascinating. I just felt that he could be a great main character."

I asked him if Polsky knew how difficult it was for Fetisov to leave the Soviet Union, because he became Enemy Number One (and tells a chilling tale to support it in the film) and Fetisov seems to be a very patriotic man. "No, I didn't realize. A lot of stuff was new to me. But, obviously, fascinating. All the twists and turns, the fight with the minister, the betrayal of his best friend... all things that were incredible dramatic moments. You can't write that. It's so insane and amazing."

In the film, Fetisov gives us some of his background, including his youth and the hardships he faced as a young child in communist Soviet Union, but through it all he was a happy child - because of hockey. The vast amount of heritage film used was fascinating. Gabe Polsky had some difficulty getting the material, and access to the players, in Russia. "Basically, it's all about persistence, and who you can get, who you can use. With the archival I went to Russia, I looked through a lot of things, I told them I was making a hockey movie, and they were a little more open to that. You just collect the best footage that you can, that no one has seen before, and organize it in such a way that people cry and laugh." I told him that he did seem to chose the perfect footage and clips every time and I asked how he did that. " I know hockey very well, and it's the exact kind of hockey that I dreamed of playing, and wished that North American could conceive of hockey like this. Wished that we could have this collective creativity. This intelligence. It was a renaissance in sports, that I thought we could've learned from. This is the hockey that I dreamed of. I would watch the '87 Canada Cup tapes over and over and over again."

Throughout the film Polsky aims to highlight the difference in play between the North American players and the Soviet Union's Red Army. The players from the Red Army played together for so many years that they were able to move as a cohesive unit. Polsky, son of Russian immigrants, fell in love with the way that the Soviet played at a young age. He played hockey when he attended Yale, I asked if he tried to emulate the Soviet style of play. "Yeah, yeah, but it's impossible. That kind of hockey, you need to play with four other guys that know how to play that way. That have vision, skill, creativity, individual skills, you have to all learn this style together. You can't say 'hey, watch this, let's play like this'. "

At one point in the film, Polsky has a scene from a Hockey Night in Canada in which Don Cherry speaks harshly of Europeans and says that they need to go back to Europe. As soon as I brought up Don Cherry, Polsky had a lot to say. "Don Cherry might have been one of the worst things that's ever happened in hockey." That's a pretty strong statement, right? "Yeah, I think we would've had a much more interesting game if it had not been for Don Cherry. He stunted the development of the game." Polsky went on "If Wayne Gretzky were Russian, Don Cherry would've thought he was the worst player of all time". With that I asked if he knew if Don Cherry had seen it, or if he wanted Don Cherry to see it to realize what he said and what the Soviets were going through: " I don't really care, I just want Canadians to see this movie. I just think it'll be a topic of conversation. I think that they will, on various levels, appreciate this film."

"I've never met someone who wasn't satisfied by the movie." I mentioned to Polsky that I had a friend go to see it at a film festival in Barrie and she was almost brought to tears.  "Yeah, I wish that they spread the word like this". We then talked about how people who don't like hockey can still appreciate this film as it isn't "just" a hockey movie. "Yeah, that's the point, it's not, people that don't like hockey do like this film. It's been to Cannes, and these festival people don't care about hockey. It's being released in places like France, Spain, Germany. These aren't hockey countries. It's about humanity. Human nature at it's core. On a macro level it says a lot of interesting things about the meaning of sport, politics." The USSR team camps were rather intensive, "11 months of the year, training 4 times a day, living isolated, all this stuff".

I asked Polsky about the Miracle on Ice, for the Soviets it was a crushing blow, for the Americans it was a victory "Well, I think that the Miracle on Ice has been kind of played to death in US. You know, with all the movies and documentaries, everything. It's like the story of history and sports, and I just wanted to approach it in a different way. In my story it's really just kind of a small part of it. It's not the story of the Miracle on Ice, it's the story of Russia. At the end of the day there is nothing to say about the Miracle. Nothing. It's a game where one team that was better, didn't show up to play, and the other team, that was worst, showed up and they won. How often does that happen? All the time. And the team that was better, was far better. Obviously, but upsets happen all the time, right? It just happened at the wrong place, at the wrong time. It turned into this huge thing. The greatest story of all time. What's so fascinating is that after that loss in 1980, everyone forgot about the Soviets. So there's no history left. That's all we chose to remember."

Another part of the film focuses on the friendship lost between Fetisov and Kasatonov that happened when Fetisov was trying to play in the NHL. When Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov were in the United States at the same time, they "weren't like brothers, when they were in the United States they weren't friends. But, afterwards when he came back to Russia then they kinda reconciled." What did the other Russia players think of the situation? "Just sort of, every one knew what was going on, it was just sort of fucked up. What are you going to say?"  When I asked him about the KML line and how they were treated in North America as these finesse guys and not rough and tough guys, he said that "they got criticism from people, like Don Cherry, that they were pussies, and that they couldn't handle the NHL and all this crap. But the truth is that they played a whole different style. It's like asking a guy, I don't know the analogy, but it's like asking an engineer to build with Legos or something..."

In the film he features clips of moments of the Blood Feud, between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings, up to that point the film was all about finesse and the beauty of the Soviet's style of play, and then it essentially shows two teams beating the crap out of each other. I've heard of numerous North American players, who were involved, and they say that the Blood Feud was amazing, but I wanted to know if he knew what any of the Soviet players thought "It's hockey. Sometimes passions rage and it's part of the game. That was part of the game then. Everyone knows what that is, it's just kind of a show. Emotions brewing. Rivalries. Stuff like that. It's hockey, that's all that is. The Russians are aggressive too. It's just they didn't learn to fight as well. In Canada and some places in the U.S. you sort of learn, you grow up fighting. You learn to fight. Fist fight, literally. That's part of the game. They didn't grow up playing that way."

I asked Polsky to tell me what he'd like people to leave with "I don't know, 'that this is one of the best movies I've ever seen.' I mean, I don't know, I can't control that. That they leave with a completely different understanding. With a better understanding of the world and Russia.", with that I asked what Fetisov thought of the film "Fetisov, he was initially a little was a little, like, worried, that he'd look like a bad guy or something. I don't know, he didn't really say anything and then finally at Cannes, he and opened up and was supportive of it."

As for Polsky, he's working on putting several projects that he is putting together next. So go watch Red Army, it really is enjoyable, and then keep an eye out for what this director has is store for us next.