Freedom on the ice: interview with Red Army director Gabe Polsky

Their training programme was equal parts sports and ideology. Their game was power combined with elegance. Their victories on ice were hailed like triumphs on the battlefield. The stratospheric rise of one of the most successful sports dynasties in history - the USSR ice hockey national team - is the subject of the upcoming documentary Red Army produced by Werner Herzog.

Formed by the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, the 'Red Army' would dominate ice hockey for nearly 40 years and act as a display of world-class power and propaganda. Using archival footage from both sides of the Iron Curtain, Gabe Polsky’s terrifically entertaining and fascinating documentary depicts the rise and fall of this national institution from the perspective of its renowned captain, Slava Fetisov. His rebellion against the Soviet political system would highlight the incestuous link between sport and politics, while paving the way for change for generations of Russians. Received with huge critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival 2014, Red Army is a revelatory look at the Cold War that goes far beyond the ice rink, providing a vivid insight into the cultural and political tensions that defined the era.

We discussed the film with director Gabe Polsky:

Q: With the FIFA corruption scandal still hot in the news, and the new Lance Armstrong biopic The Program coming out in a few weeks, do you think that there's a sense of nostalgia for an era where sports seemed more straightforward or more simply about competition and skill? Is there anything in the relationship between sports and politics today that specifically motivated you to make Red Army?

GP: I don’t know if there is a sense of nostalgia or not. Sports have always been used as metaphor. I feel that good movies don’t focus too much on a topic like “sports” or “politics”. Good movies are about telling a great story and telling it in a unique and powerful way. I like work that takes the audience into uncharted territory and blends many different ideas in a cohesive and powerful way. In the Soviet Union, everything was political, and sports were no different.

The Red Army hockey team expressed their freedom on the ice. Sport can be subversive just like literature or movies. It’s a creative expression. For the trained eye, you can see and feel this. It’s hard to censor sports and call them subversive.

The Red Army faces Canada in archive footage from Red Army

Q: How did your interest in ice hockey and this particular period of hockey history develop? 

GP: I was a serious hockey player and I remember seeing the Soviets play for the first time and feeling chills down my spine. It was a religious experience. It was collective art and magic. This made me more curious about my background. I wanted to know the story of this team, how they lived, how they trained, what their life was like. I had the opportunity to interview these legends, but I knew the story had to be about the Soviet people and the Russian soul. Hockey was a way into the story of the Soviet Union and to my heritage.

Q: How did you knowledge of the sport contribute to the selection of specific games and clips to show?

GP: When I was selecting footage, there was so much to choose from. I went for the best clips I could find that really illustrated the intensity and importance of hockey in the Soviet Union, things that would amaze western audiences, because most of the world had never seen this stuff before. Showing the superior skill of the Red Army team was very important for people to connect with the story and to experience how incredible these guys were.

Q: The film is very fast paced and exciting combining great music and editing. At the same time you don't lose sight of the human stories of the various characters, always ensuring that the sportsman and the man do not become two different entities. Are there any specific films or filmmakers that inspired this approach to the making of Red Army?

GP: I honestly wanted to do something different than what I’ve seen before, because I don’t like many sports movies or documentaries. I wanted to make something more real, philosophical, funny, and emotional. I tried not to think of it as fitting in the genre.

Slava Fetisov in Red Army

Q: Could you talk a bit about how you got hold of all the players who are interviewed in the film and how did the relationship with them develop as you prepared the film? What was the experience of revisiting that time for them? 

GP: I had some mutual connections with [Red Army goalie Vladislav] Tretiak from back in Chicago and I was able to get in touch with him and set up an interview. With Fetisov, the first time we met he was only going to give me fifteen minutes. But then he saw I was very knowledgeable about the sport and the team’s story, and we ended up meeting a few times. I think they’ve spoken about all of this so many times over the years, but the difference was this was for a new, Western audience.

Q: What is the most valuable thing you have learnt making Red Army?

GP: I learned to trust the process. I learned to follow my gut and tell the story I want to tell.

Q: Why should someone who is not interested in hockey see this film? And what do you hope people will take away from it?

GP: I want people to feel this isn’t a hockey film after they see it. It’s a story about a country and its people, and a personal story about a unique character that lived in unique circumstances and who achieved greatness and endured failure. I want people to feel they just witnessed a very timeless story. 

[Red Army is released in our cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 9 October.]

#DocDays Special Screening: Red Army + panel discussion
6.30pm, Thursday 1 October 2015 at Curzon Soho 

The USSR ice hockey national team in their official army uniforms 

As part of our documentary strand DocDays we welcome Jeremy Hicks, Ursula Woolley and Andrei Sidelnikov for a post-screening conversation about the themes of the film at Curzon Soho.

Jeremy Hicks is Chair of the Department of Russian Studies at Queen Mary University of London and has written several books on Soviet Cinema. 

Ursula Woolley is the Executive Director of Pushkin House in London, has worked in senior roles in the British Council in Russia and was responsible for setting up the first British Council office in Kiev.

Andrei Sidelnikov is the leader of the U.K. based Russian activist group Speak Up and the son of Soviet Ice Hockey team member Alexander Sidelnikov.