New East Digital Archive

More connected and yet more lonely: a Russian director explores our lives, online and offline

13 October 2020

Based in New York, Russian film director Nadia Bedzhanova has long explored how global connections shape today’s culture — and by exposing just how many of us can be both together and alone, the Covid-19 pandemic has only made those ties more pronounced than ever before. This juxtaposition of empathy and alienation stand at the core of Bedzhanova’s solo exhibition, Offline Life, which opens at the IRL gallery in Brooklyn on 14 October.

2020 was an important year for Bedzhanova: in April, she released her debut feature Beware of Dog. The film premiered at Slamdance Festival, and later screened online for a limited time after showings were cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. Bedzhanova has taken the setback in her stride. “My movie reached a bigger audience instead of waiting for the full festival circle,” she says.

However dark it may sound, it’s hard to imagine a better time for Beware of Dog to meet the world than during a global crisis. Touching upon mental health, love and loneliness, the film is already incredibly relatable — but during the pandemic, it has struck a different chord. Beware of Dog follows three young people in three different cities as they experience parallel struggles with mental illness and identity. In Moscow, a woman grapples with severe OCD, while her cousin in Berlin tries to battle bipolar disorder while building a romantic relationship. Simultaneously, a heartbroken boxer in New York City faces addiction and struggles with a lack of self-worth while trying to get over a break-up. It is a world in which we are more interconnected than ever before, yet increasingly suffer from loneliness.

The director drew from her own experience of hypochondria, germophobia, and OCD, to bring her characters to life, a way of both coming to terms with the conditions, and raising awareness of the daily struggles they entail. In many ways, the global health crisis has made us more empathetic too. While it may be almost cathartic for current viewers to see how the film’s protagonist obsessively washes her hands — a pandemic ritual we have all had to get used to — the film instead exposes it not as an emergency one-off, but as someone’s invisible struggle for years. “We are all in the same boat,” as the director puts it. “In separate cabins, using the same WiFi”.

Bedzhanova became interested in photography at 17 when she got her first camera, and later moved to New York to study film. “The first stories I was interested in were coming-of-age stories: teens with their hidden adolescent desires, their need for attention, their curiosity to explore sexuality, and the ways to get high and push the borders of boredom, both IRL and online. I’ve always loved to juxtapose physical and digital spaces,” she remembers.

Being an introvert was also somewhat a foundation for her creativity. “Sometimes I have difficulties expressing my thoughts and feelings verbally, and this made me try to express myself through visual tools. Overthinking inspired me too, in a way. Sometimes I would think of situations I wanted to change and recreate them in my scripts. My insecurities found expression in visual storytelling. But I try to be open and honest with people these days, as much as I can — that was a priceless resolution during the pandemic and self-isolation”.

In her work, Bedzhanova has always had a gift for creating both stunning visuals and a strong feeling of empathy. From short films about girls sharing an intimate moment in a monumental Soviet-built swimming pool, to Russian emigrants sharing their dreams and aspirations in American laundrettes — these stories are personal, bold and precious.

Bedzhanova’s visual language is often hybrid, and includes video, digital and analogue imagery, animation, text messages, and notifications. Similarly, Offline Life combines multiple stories and visual techniques: from screenshots of messages from various platforms to analogue photography. One series consists of photographs of an iPhone displaying different places: from mountainous landscapes to distant rooms: all so close in our memories, yet so far away with our inability to travel. For Bedzhanova, nostalgia, grief, love, intimacy, joy, and tongue-in-cheek humour, are all mixed together.

“In my work, I really want to honour the places and experiences which moulded me into who I am,” Bedzhanova says. “There are infinite ways to look at anything in life and I always try to look at a subject from multiple perspectives.”

Offline Life is on at IRL Gallery 14-17 October. All the proceeds from the print sales will go to Armenian and BLM funds.