Meet Sofia Kapkova

Sofia Kapkova, founder and CEO of the first Russian cinema hall for documentary films, talks about work, current projects and her preferences in cinematography. Whether she creates art, sells it, or funds it, Sofia is always driven by passion.

Text by Polina Firsanova

Photos by Maria Lipikhina

TMT Clubs: What inspired you to open the Documentary Film Center (DFC)? How did it come about?

Sofia Kapkova: The Documentary Film Center emerged out of a different project, called "The Open Show," which was run by Ekaterina Gordeeva and myself, when I was the head of the documentary projects department at RIA Novosti. We would show movies every Wednesday, with people coming over and discussing our selected pieces. In a couple of months it became clear that the project was a success, and needed expansion, so we had to make our movie nights available for the visitors not just every Wednesday, but every day. That`s how the idea of the Documentary Film Center was born, although platforms showing high-quality documentary work appeared in Europe, the US, and Asia long before the DFC. When I was looking for the right place, the Museum of Moscow showed an interest in my project and suggested that I check out a former warehouse that was undergoing reconstruction. When I saw it, I knew the place was meant to be a movie house. It`s also worth mentioning that the movies at DFC are never dubbed for the sake of sound clarity and retaining the actors` voices. We use subtitles, which makes us quite popular among foreigners.
TMT: Did you face any obstacles during the project`s realization?

SK: Firstly, we had amazingly talented architects working for us – Oleg Shapiro and Dmitry Likin, who had done various projects in Moscow and could put up with my constantly changing ideas. Thanks to financial support from investors, the DFC went into operation, and now it exists as my personal initiative. There are still some things to implement though.

I wanted to create a nice, spacious, well-proportioned movie theatre. You know the feeling when you enter the room and want to push the wall back – that`s what I needed to prevent. I wanted my movie house to convey the message of liberation, which was possible to achieve, with high ceilings and red brick walls as the main design elements.

Having seen similar movie platforms abroad, I was eager to bring the project to Moscow. Excited to become the producer of the Open Show, I started reshaping the path we were on. As a state-controlled organization, Ria Novosti required special admission to the building. One had to register online in order to be included on the admission lists – this was already a strong contradiction to the idea of freedom.

It was also important that the movie house was oval in shape, in order to enhance social interaction and enable visitors to sit next to each other and discuss the content. Since opening its doors six years ago, the DFC has become a vital site of community collaboration and engagement. The discussion is essential for the visitors, sharing the same high level of intellectuality, or, as I should better put it, the same "cultural nerve."
TMT: What projects is the DFC currently engaged in?

SK: Now the number of projects has substantially increased – the DFC operates as the main movie house and distributor of Russian documentaries. We recently launched the project – it`s an online cinema that comprises both the documentary and fiction films from the most talented Russian directors, which we are very proud of.

Besides that, we`re running the M`Art project. We decided to present the cultural image of Russia to audiences in New York, London, and Tel Aviv. These cities weren`t randomly selected – there`s plenty of interest in Russian culture among the people there. We had a couple of interesting events in London: a concert featuring the music of Ukranian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, performed by Alexey Goribol. London also saw an amazing play, "The Unknown Friend," performed in participation with Ksenia Rappoport and Polina Osyetinskaya. We brought "Do you know, Mother, where I`ve been", directed by Leo Gabriadze, to Tel Aviv. In September we had an Oleg Nesterov concert in London. We`re showing the "The Sunny Line," a play written by Ivan Voropaev, starring with Yulia Peresild. One of our greatest plans is for the Gogol Center to tour New York next April.

I have also been running the Context, the festival of contemporary Russian choreography, jointly with Diana Vishneva for the last five years. I have known Diana for a while and have always admired her talent. When the festival kicked off with a short, three-day program, Diana turned for my advice to add an educational or cinematographic component, thus I took the initiative to work on the cinematographic element of the festival and soon became in charge of the whole program. Since the first festival, the number of visitors has risen to thirty thousand people, based on last year`s attendance. The Context is going on a tour to Tel Aviv and London in March, and hopefully to New York in 2020.

The core, unaltered feature, which unites all these projects, is the audience. The cultural code, as well as the cultural nerve, remains permanent regardless of your nationality.
TMT: How did you discover the need for the creation of an online movie theatre?

SK: Nonfiction is a result of my effort to expand the DFC offline. We received several proposals to locate affiliate documentaries in the region, but managing the movie house distantly deprives you from the ability to control the ongoing processes. You are no longer the person fully responsible for the product, so I gave it up. Still, it was clear that the DFC needed development, so we decided to go online. Since we launched Nonfiction in spring, the website has acquired about 200 selected movies, available for rent or purchase. In September we introduced a subscription system that allows you to see any movie for 299 rub per month. They are award-winning movies, carefully selected under our guidance.

TMT: What is the main criterion for the films selection?

SK: Our concept is very simple: we only distribute those movies that have gained support and approval from the people we trust and find professional in this sphere. In other words, our repertoire is the product of the international market, which, now more than ever, is booming and in constant flux. We`re talking about award-winning movies, blockbusters of the international documentary market. We also trust local Russian documentary festivals that have their own mission and concepts. We have a curator who selects films for distribution, as well as a curator for special events, who`s responsible for various festivals, like the one we had in September. The Center Festival premiered with "After the Summer," a new movie that`s directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, who keeps on working despite his current situation, which we all know about. We also introduced a film by Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist who`s been combating the world`s standards and stereotypes, as well as a movie about the artists, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.
TMT: What`s the current situation surrounding the documentary film market in Russia?

SK: The word "market" is not relevant, it simply does not exist. We didn`t begin distribution because we had ambitions to develop the market. It became obvious that we needed content, which we could get from international copyright owners. Compared with the situation we had 6 – 7 years ago, a lot has changed: we are producing more movies, and the audience is more prepared for the content we offer. Our recent movie, "Delo Sobchaka" is being distributed by more than 80 cinemas in Russia. It is a huge number for our country, as we had to negotiate with each cinema house separately. All movie theatres are commercial, and, without any financial support from the government, they`re interested in making money. Each movie in distribution is a potential source of good income, and our job is to persuade them that this particular movie is worth it.

TMT: Could you elaborate more on the topic of documentary movies? How has the genre changed since the first documentary?

SK: Documentaries reflect our lives. People have always raised important issues in their movies, discussing and making statements about love, friendship, freedom and betrayal. These topics are eternal and will never lose their relevance. What has altered is the form of representation, the creative means directors use to transmit the idea to the audience. That`s why I do not like the idea of having two separate terms – fiction and documentaries. I accept the definition of non-fiction movies, because all of them in fact reflect the problems in our real life. Thus, movies directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev and Aleksei Balabanov are still documentaries, presented in the form of fiction.

TMT: So do you see any advantages that documentaries have over the fiction movies?

SK: What I always care about is the quality. I am a bigger fan of documentaries, as I am often irritated by untalented actors in fiction. I have nothing to complain about when it comes to real people. I vote for life and sincerity, which you can get only from watching documentary movies
TMT: Can you single out any directors and movies in particular?

SK: I really like Boris Khlebnikov and Andrey Zvyagintsev – I love their style, and I am a big fan of their work. As for movies in general, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "Arrhythmia" are definitely worth watching.

TMT: In one of your previous interviews, you claimed that books help you escape from reality and are the most intimate information that can be passed over to the reader. In this context what can you say about cinematography, and what is it for you?

SK: Any person can be on a path of intellectual and emotional development. The way one`s preferences -- one`s likes and dislikes -- change throughout life marks either intellectual growth or decline. Our tastes also form our vision and who we become as adults. I am often asked how to show documentaries to kids. For example, my kids are big fans of documentaries – I learned from my 10-year-old son about one movie we acquired for distribution two years ago. So, when my kids grow up, watching documentaries will be as essential as reading books and brushing your teeth in the morning.

TMT: I know you like New York. Compared with Moscow, how can you characterize the city?

SK: I have always loved New York, long before the relations between the two countries deteriorated. When I`m in New York, I feel like a young woman who has her whole life ahead – I don`t get that in Moscow. New York is a place of freedom, ideas, equal conditions for everyone. It gives me food for thought, it gives me the sensation of life – life, cruel and difficult as it is, but true and sincere. There are so many things about New York that I find inspirational and try to fulfill in my work.

TMT: What about your favorite spots in Moscow?

SK: That`s a tough one. I used to love Patriach`s Ponds. Now the place has become unbearable, tearing down the Ponds of my youth, the Ponds I fell in love with. We had a huge number of foreigners coming to Moscow for the FIFA World Cup, and my advice was to take them to the "Nureev" ballet at the Bolshoi, the exhibitions at the Garage Museum, and the DFC.

TMT: What is your personal drive that keeps all of your projects working?

SK: My work has to keep me interested. As soon as I lose interest, I no longer feel the desire and energy to waste my time on something that will not bring results.
Meet the Boss at the
Documentary Film Center