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Based in south London, we’re a new company formed in April 2013 initially to develop the film with Slava, and then move onto other projects. We offer services in film (feature, short film, documentary, promo videos, commercials); photography (digital and film); scripts and copy; graphics; set builds; design; location scouting; and pretty much anything within these areas.
BLUE CANARY is 100% digital in terms of equipment and process. For aesthetics, however, we cannot forget the magic of our first true love – old-school film, art that puts soul and personality, mood and atmosphere as priority.
All our work has a crafted quality, burnished by the human hand so the light shines through. We love art that is alive and real, but also takes in those moments when the dream world becomes visible. We love things that are half-glimpsed, unguarded or unnoticed; the spontaneous and the timeless, the vague and the beautiful. But we also have time and respect for darkness and gloom. The world, and the people in it, is complex and contradictory, and we try to reflect that in our art.
Working like this requires a great deal of patience, craft and an eye for spotting and embracing the offbeat, the unexpected, the accidental. We’re good at what we do, mainly because we work damn hard at it and set ourselves really high standards.
Our project began when a friend invited us to film him backstage in “Slava’s Snowshow”. This was a stage spectacular that had completely sold out the long Christmas season at the Royal Festival Hall.
It featured clowns, but it was immediately clear that this was no conventional clown show, nor was it just for children. The show opened with Slava, in a beat-up yellow costume, trying to hang himself with a noose. This moved into a fluid sequence of sketches and tableaux culminating in an enormous artificial blizzard that totally engulfed the audience. The clowns themselves were utterly unlike any circus performers we had ever seen before, a cross between medieval plague physicians and Meer cats. No story and no obvious structure; no singing or speaking; hypnotically slow and strange, the show was far more Samuel Beckett than Coco the Clown. Yet the entire audience, children and adults, loved it and left with big grins on their faces.
Backstage, Slava was beaming with delight but rather aloof from the antics of his clowns. He was the Master Clown, a serious artist pulling a medieval tradition into a digital world. What was particularly fascinating for us was the way he had managed to straddle both this serious art world and popular entertainment, with an act that genuinely appealed to both very young children and very sophisticated adults without compromise or condescension. In addition, we were fascinated by an art that had its origins in Soviet Russia and had somehow become truly international, or perhaps ‘supranational’.
He saw our footage, and liked it so much he invited us down to his extraordinary home outside Paris.
After several more visits, Slava asked us to film a festival he staged in his wild woodland grounds. He felt the resulting film matched his own aesthetics in the way it blurred the border between the real world and dreams.
Slava then mentioned a project that was very dear to his heart. He wanted to take Snowshow into the far north of Russia, his mother country, in the middle of winter.
It had to be the ‘real Russian Winter’, in January when the world was at its most cold and dark.
And it had to be by train.
Slava is an enormous global star. He has been a clown and visual artist for over forty-five years. For nearly twenty of those ‘Snowshow’ has sold out the most prestigious venues all over the world.
He could go to any glamorous, comfortable location – Mexico, Brazil, Hawaii, India, Italy – or even Russia in the Spring or Summer.
Instead, he chose to go to Arkhangelsk, an unlovely city close to the Arctic Circle. Not only would it be brutally cold (minus thirty) there would also be exhausting logistical problems with travel and labyrinthine bureaucracy. But for reasons of his own, Slava had to have ‘the Real Russian Winter’.
“Perhaps we would like to come, with our cameras?”
We realised immediately that this was a fantastic opportunity to film a unique and fascinating artist. The long train journey would be a great vehicle for him to reflect upon his life, his art and Russia.
The sheer strangeness of the project – joining a bunch of anarchic clowns and their charismatic leader on an epic train journey through Russia, to take Snowshow into the real snow and onto the frozen White Sea – was something that leant itself naturally to a film that merged documentary, performance and fantasy.
Slava smiled and nodded.
He had been approached many times to make a film of his life and art, but had never agreed until now.
The journey begins, curiously, in the brilliant sunshine of Rio, where ‘Snowshow’ has sold out yet another tour.
We first see the clowns on the Copacabana, incongruous figures from a dream world.
The clowns then appear in performance onstage, drawing a clearly Latin audience into the enchanting witchcraft of a show loosely based upon snow.
We learn several things from this: first, that Slava has developed an art that is somehow universal, appealing to all ages and all nations of the world; and second, that he can take Snowshow anywhere he chooses, and sell out tours.
We then move to Slava’s gloriously eccentric home outside Paris. It’s a creative workshop, a busy, relaxed open house for artists, performers, technicians and occasional runaways.
It’s where he dreams up new projects, dangling his feet in the waters of the river to think…
And he has a new project. He looks at maps, makes phone calls. His family, who handle the admin, also make calls – to the Kremlin, to visa agencies, travel agents… Slava wants to take Snowshow to Russia, in particular to Arkhangelsk –
“a city on the edge of the world, near the Arctic Circle, in the middle of winter when everything is most cold and dark”.
News reports show Russia going through the worst winter for 50 years – images of gloomy cities, 200km traffic jams, closures and disruption… Slava’s grand-daughters are mystified as to why he should want to go there.
As are his clowns, when they receive their call-up emails.
“Why does Slava want to go THERE? We grew up in that shit! Why not Hawaii, Mexico, India? Why?”
However, Slava’s clowns always trust his instincts, and pack their bags with winter gear.
Slava bids fond goodbyes to his family – although Russian, visa problems mean they cannot easily go back to Russia – and sets out on his own on a train from Paris to Moscow.
In Moscow, he meets up with his entourage of clowns, technicians and organisers, who have converged from Russia and Europe for this journey.
For Slava, it’s a ‘carnival’ – a traveling caravan of friends and kindred spirits, spreading joy and creative chaos.
The massive train rumbles through day and night. Slava’s entourage has an entire compartment to themselves.
It’s a journey that both retraces Slava’s life as an artist, and explores the roots of his art.
Moscow is the vast imperial city, knee-deep in the dull dirty slush and perpetual gloom of winter, the ‘shit’. For many of the adults that will go to Snowshow, this is their ‘real’ world – one of mundane hardships, everyday problems and tedium. Snowshow offers an antidote to this, an escape route into a magical dimension.
As the train rumbles on, the multi-national clowns and technicians offer their own ‘whys’ - how they came to be on this train, and what it means to be a clown in a digital world.
They arrive in the beautiful city of St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was when Slava from first became an artist.
After unloading the equipment, Slava and the clowns put on Snowshow to an enthralled audience. All the while, Slava reflects upon what it means to him to come back home, and his perspective on both the new Russia and the hardships and repressive Communist censorship.
The train continues its epic journey, and the landscape becomes increasingly beautiful and magical.
The film also becomes more dreamlike, as the images of travelling and mysterious journeys in ‘Snowshow’ spill out into the real world. The stage and theatre give way to the ice and snow of the far north, and we see the clowns stumbling up snowy hillsides and across frozen seas that are mirror images of the earlier visions of them on bleached-out beaches.
This is a trip not only to the winter wonderland of the far north, not only back into the Old Russian culture of weddings in the snow, vodka and gherkin rituals, gypsy processions and old circus families, but way back into the emotional roots of Slava’s unique art, in snow-covered woods, frozen lakes and oyster-coloured skies like those he knew as a child growing up in a little Soviet village.
We then understand why it was so important to come back to the brutal Russian winter, and how Slava managed to create a universal art from his experiences.
The production is intentionally small and intimate – just Steve Haisman, Clive Howard (Blue Canary) and a cameraman.
Using digital SLRs and a Canon C300, the film was shot entirely on location in Slava’s home in Paris; Russia, including Moscow, St Petersburg, Arkhangelsk and on trains; London; and Rio.
Further filming and additional material are to be determined.
Initial post-production will be in London, with editors and translators (the film was shot in English, Russian and Italian).
Complete post-production from a rough edit will require additional editorial and producers’ services.
To date, the project has been self-financed and partially sponsored.