Boris Volodarsky

Boris Volodarsky is an English historian, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, specialising in Intelligence History, which he has studied for almost 30 years.
Volodarsky has a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Since 2010, Volodarsky has been a Research Fellow at the LSE's Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies; a member of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar; and a member of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS), Stanford University, USA.

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Your project has entered our festival. What is your project about?  
We have entered the Cannes Festival with what is known in the trade as Documentary Feature, a documentary film with a running time of over 40 minutes. Our documentary Spy Capital: Vienna is one hour and fifteen minutes.

            There may be various types of documentaries like those that concentrate on the observation of nature (known as la photographie animée) or the observation of some human activity like, for example, cleaning the public toilets in Japan. Documentaries may concentrate on recording some important historical events, for example, the poisoning of Navalny or the crewed landing on the Moon. Film directors may experiment by showing life filmed surreptitiously or provoking a reaction. What we seek to do in our documentaries, we put forward a theory or a thesis, and do our best to prove it using a docudrama, which is a hybrid of documentary and acting.  According to the officially accepted theory, “the docudrama genre is a re-enactment of actual historical events - however, it makes no promise of being entirely accurate in its interpretation”. We, on the contrary, try to be very accurate in our interpretation of historical events.

            Our great advantage, of course, is that we work in a highly seductive, even sexy area of human activity: international espionage.

            In the film that we bring to Cannes this year, we explore a thesis that Vienna, the capital of Austria, has for at least 150 years been serving as the world capital of espionage. Although this idea is generally accepted by intelligence professionals, at least in what concerns the period known as the first Cold War (1947-91), we discovered that Vienna had actually become the spy capital of the world much earlier so the film traces the 150-year-long history of international espionage between 1873 and the present using Vienna as a hub.

            - Okay, you convincingly prove that Vienna is a spy capital of the world, - Michael Mann, a legendary Hollywood director said to me when we discussed our film a few days ago. – So what? Where’s the drama?

            Vienna is probably one of the most beautiful and comfortable cities in the world to be and live in. It is also the city with perhaps the tensest concentration of international organisations, diplomatic, trade, and other missions like the United Nations European headquarters, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and hundreds of others. Like in any other great city, days and nights in Vienna are divided into their visible part and invisible part. This invisible part however is not similar to that in Moscow, New York, Las Vegas or Bangkok. This secret part has nothing to do with the ritziest and most prestigious nightclubs or fancy entertainment like, say, in London. The invisible life operates in Vienna 24/7 multiple 365.

At the same time, it is certainly one of the most peaceful and secure cities in the world but when you stroll along Vienna’s first district on any given day, you are sure to meet a spy – whom you will never recognise. We simply want people to know that there is another life under the façade of this wonderful city. Very much different from any other place. Just be aware of it. Our film is une nouvelle source d’histoire et de la réalité.

What are your ambitions with your project?  
We hope that those who have a chance to watch it, appreciate our effort and like our film.

 Tell us something about your shooting? What pleasantly surprised you?  
Because everything in our film is real – real places where activities that we show took place, real imperial train which is still running, real documents, period dresses, historical objects and so on, - we also decided to use real people, not professional actors. Thus, the Americans are played by real Americans (when we say that he is from Washington, DC, he is indeed from WDC), Austrians are played by Austrians and Russians by Russians. Moreover, we suspect – no kidding – that some people who play secret agents in our film may really be secret agents working for this or that secret service. I was genuinely surprised that they agreed. There’s one person whom both Russian and British secret services tried to recruit in Vienna and another one is a renowned spy catcher. But what surprised me most of all was that our casting team also managed to bring in people who today, in the third decade of the 21st century, live and dress exactly like in 1873 or 1913. In the scenes showing events of 1913, there is almost no makeup and people are dressed in their own clothes while their props are real objects of the time that they use in their everyday life. It is amazing. 

For what group of spectators is your film targeted?
We believe that our film will be interesting for everybody who is seduced by espionage games.

Why should distributors buy your film?
It is sort of a spy thriller but everything in the film is for real. It is also modern, dynamic, and not what you usually expect from a serious documentary. It is easy to watch and leaves a lot to think about. I am sure distributors will be happy. 

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?  
I am an academic historian by education and the author of several books on espionage history. I believe in this field you may probably do more in a docudrama than in a book because you have by far more instruments at your disposal.

Which movies are your favourites? Why?
Talking about documentaries, I am sure there are plenty of excellent films and some of them I watch with great pleasure. Sometimes I am invited to take part in documentaries like, for example, most recently in the TV series Once Upon a Time in Londongrad, but I often feel I can do a better film when it comes to this particular genre where I am an expert.

Where do you look for inspiration for your films?
In my books.

Which topics interest you the most?

What do you consider your greatest achievement in your career?
There are already quite a few: the doctorate with flying colours at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the fellowship at the Royal Historical Society in London, several important books on the history of intelligence with the most important one (so far) published by Oxford University Press, several international films where I acted in various roles, plus my own film. And there’s still a lot to do. 

What do you consider most important about filming?
Those who do a film, and I am talking about documentaries of my genre, must well understand what they are doing. Unfortunately, this does not happen often or sometimes filmmakers have political bias which prevents them from doing a truly important film that shall live long. Sometimes, they have other considerations than simply doing an honest film. 

 Which film technique of shooting do you consider the best?  
I like direct interviews and re-enactments if you speak about traditional techniques. It is of course great if you can obtain rare stock footage not used by anyone before but this is rare. I believe that today and in the near future we should use more sophisticated computer effects that could not be used earlier because they simply did not exist. In several episodes in our film, we combined stock footage with re-enactments in a rather unusual way to achieve good effects.

What can disappoint you in a movie?
Falsehood is always disappointing.

Who supports you in your film career?
My wife and son both of whom are working with me and are my greatest inspiration.