The hallmark of greatness in any field is the moment when the subject, artist, athlete or scientist transcends the subject matter and appeals to humanity as a whole. So it is with the documentary film, The Russian Five, by Joshua Riehl. Riehl was in Seattle to show the film at the Seattle International Fim Festival on May 19 and 20. (Tickets are available for a showing at Shoreline Community College on May 29.)
Riehl chronicles the defection of the Soviet players that came to form the core of the Detroit Red Wings team that went on to win multiple Stanely Cups. For those that are familiar with the story, the film is presented in a very entertaining fashion. By using animation, and leaning on the humor of some of his subjects the film appeals to many whether hockey fans or not.
Riehl’s storytelling ability shines through in this film and sheds new light on the subject. The manner in which the story unfolds is at turns amusing, inspiring, heartbreaking and throughout the length of the film passionate. Like the city, Detroit, and the country Russia, the former Soviet Union, the sport of hockey has always played to a hard-working fan base. Those fans love and support their teams and make no bones about wearing their collective hearts on their sleeves. The fans of the Red Wings, of which Riehl is one, are some of the most passionate in the hockey world and this film nails that passion. It shows how a huge number of people hinge on what happens to “their” team and the civic pride that springs from it.
Riehl and his subjects are able to highlight what goes on behind the scenes of a normal hockey team. Told in large part by Jim Devallano, the architect of the New York Islanders dynasty and this Red Wings team. That aspect of the hockey world is little seen. That said it gives insight to fans and non-fans alike that helps to frame the rest of the story.
The film then layers on the international intrigue of defecting players. The cloak and dagger world of spy movies and Tom Clancy novels is definitely in play as the Red Wings work to bring the Soviets to the United States. Riehl secured interviews from legends such as Scotty Bowman and Brendan Shannahan but does not leave out the lesser players in the story. There is a particular interviewee, Darren McCarty, that adds comic relief to a sometimes tense story. His no-nonsense blunt speaking style is a refreshing voice in contrast to the cards close to the chest style of many subjects. That quality is another hallmark of this film. Riehl was able to get the most out of his subjects all of which are engaged and forthcoming in their answers. A remarkable feat considering that Slava Fetisov can be tight-lipped if his trust has not been won.
Riehl’s editing, use of animation and music to tell this amazing story is where this movie rises above the usual talking heads and somber tones of so many sports documentaries. The only complaint consistently heard from viewers was the video quality for some of the old game footage. Riehl addressed this question from an audience member by saying that there were tapes given to them by the Red Wings that they were only able to get one pass on before the tape was unplayable. One would hope with all of the help that the NHL has provided that they would provide clearer game footage.
While the build of the film leads to the first Stanley Cup it does not shy away from the aftermath. From that great high point, the team was immediately put to the test with the injury of a key player. They rose above the tragedy and honored that player by continuing to win as he recovered. The film closes with the last screening of the film at the Seattle International Film Festival. Riehl is arranging to show the film at more festivals and you can follow that progress on Twitter via @RussianFiveFilm
Director Joshua Riehl was kind enough to agree to an interview with me. Though we were unable to meet up in Seattle. He took the time to answer a few questions about the film after his return to Detroit.
What inspired you to make the Russian Five Film and how did the idea come to fruition?
Growing up in Michigan during this era of Red Wings hockey, it was impossible to not be a fan. They were our heroes and the one sports team we really could cheer for but year after year they fell short and broke our hearts in the playoffs. Then when they finally won it all in 97, the city celebrated. And when the celebration ended 6 days later with the limousine accident, our hearts stopped. I never forgot that, nor the perseverance Vladimir Konstantinov showed in surviving and recovering as best he could from that tragedy. I knew when I was going to make my first feature-length documentary, it had to be this story.
What were some of the significant hurdles in making the film and getting it to the festivals?
Every single day seems to present a fresh and interesting challenge when making a documentary film. It took me 6 years and that’s a testament to how hard it is to get everyone to agree to do it, build your team, find funding, actually shoot all the interviews, look at thousands of hours of game footage and then edit it all together. But I just kept thinking about how these Russians didn’t quit and so you keep pushing through until it’s done.
What do you think of the response from the Seattle screenings?
We had two fantastic, sold out screenings, to a really receptive Seattle audience. It was really cool to see the growing hockey fan base come out but we also had more than a few viewers who knew nothing about hockey that told us afterward how much they loved it. There were even a few Michigan ex-pats living in Seattle that came out, including a fellow filmmaker who was screening his movie during the festival too. Based on the response, I think Seattle’s ready for NHL hockey and there’s going to be a lot of new fans of the game who will come to love hockey once they get a team.
What other festivals will you be screening the film at and what are the dates of those festivals?
We’re still figuring that out but hope to announce something soon.
Do you play hockey?
I grew up playing baseball – with equipment and ice time, etc., hockey was too expensive for my family – but when they started a street hockey league during middle school, I started playing that and loved it.
What are some of the more memorable moments in your interviews?
Every single interview presented a different challenge and offered different rewards. It’s impossible to pick one but I will say that getting to spend 2 hours with Dave Strader months before he succumbed to his battle with cancer will be something I’ll never forget. It was an absolute honor to give The Voice – the man who called so many of our favorite Red Wings’ memories in Detroit – a voice in this film.
Who was your first interview? How did that set the tone for your future interviews?
You interviewed some hall of Famers, were you ever intimidated?
The first interview we did once we had funding was Scotty Bowman in Toronto during Hall of Fame weekend. I was a little intimidated. Scotty’s a legend and he’s notorious for being difficult with reporters. It was a little bit like interviewing Yoda. Imagine my horror when I still had a page of questions to go and Scotty tells me we need to wrap up soon because he’s got a lunch meeting and suddenly a fire truck and police sirens start blasting on the street below us! But once I got through Scotty, that kind of eased up a bit until I interviewed Slava Fetisov. He’s intimidating but he was also kind and quite friendly so that anxiety went away quickly.
What takeaways do you have after making this film that are not hockey specific?
I hope people will be reminded of the struggles these five Russians had to overcome in getting to America and the NHL to pursue their dream of playing in the best league in the world. I think that’s what America is all about: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” Their teammates could’ve frozen them out because of who they were and where they were from but as they gained acceptance, they became a better team. And when you finally had the North Americans learning from the Russians and the Russians learning from the North Americans and you’ve got Igor Larionov starting the March 26th brawl and you’ve got Darren McCarty scoring the beautiful deke goal to clinch Detroit’s first Stanley Cup in 42 years, it just goes to show you that if we want to accomplish big things, we need to come together, learn from each other and embrace our differences instead of letting them divide us.