Michael & Svetlana
When the former Soviet Union opened its borders in 1991, dozens of match-making agencies started exploring the new market of Russian brides. Michael and Svetlana is a documentary about a man who subscribed to such a service. He chose a young woman living in a small village in central Russia. Her name is Svetlana. She does not speak English, has never traveled outside of Russia and she has a six-year-old daughter. Their relationship begins via the mail. Michael has Svetlana's letters translated into English, while she, four thousand miles away, has his translated into Russian. The film is narrated by Slava, the translator of some of these letters and a person our camera follows during this fascinating transatlantic love affair journey.
In her initial letter, Svetlana expresses her fondness for ‘high heels’ while Michael understands it as a love of ‘high hills’. Before they meet, she tells of her dreams of big city life in America. Once she arrives in upstate New York she is confronted with the reality of Michael's small-town home. It is not clear what they have in common, and yet, after eight months of letters, they decide to get married. Michael travels to Russia to meet his bride. She is a smashing 30-year-old, blue-eyed blonde. He is 40, has a steady job, and owns his own home. And that's all they really know about each other.
The film opens in a town in central New York, where Michael lives with his fourteen-year-old son, Sean. Since the end of his first marriage Michael has had several friendships with women that ended when Michael's communication with Svetlana began . He tells us that he will be leaving for his first trip to Russia in a few weeks and is looking forward to meeting Svetlana. For the trip, he has bought two large dictionaries and a "teach-yourself-Russian" tape.
"We'll sit with the dictionaries and work it out," he says. Even though he has not yet met Svetlana, he is almost sure that he wants to marry her.
We then travel to a small Russian village, 300 miles south of Moscow, to meet Svetlana, her sister, her mother, and their neighbors. Svetlana's mother tells us with pride:
"Your homeland is the most precious thing there is... Look at how blue our sky is, how fluffy our clouds are. My dear homeland! I wouldn't go to America for any amount of money."
A week later, our camera records the first meeting of Michael, Svetlana and Kseniya, Svetlana's daughter. He has rented an apartment in Moscow for thirteen days. A single day of rent would cost Svetlana, a school teacher, two months salary. Their first day is spent sightseeing in the Russian capital and trying to communicate. Svetlana asks Michael if he likes cats. He thinks she has asked if he likes kids and points at her daughter. Eventually, with the help of a dictionary, they "work it out." He pays an $800 bribe to get his fiancé a passport, thinking they might get a visa for her right away and leave Russia together. But Svetlana is turned down for an immediate visa. Michael goes home alone and petitions the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a fiancÉ visa.
Because Svetlana has a daughter, the US State Department requires her former husband to sign a release so that the child can leave Russia for good. Her former husband asks for $5,000 in ransom. She won't - and can't - pay. Michael is ready to send the money from America but Svetlana does what she thinks is best. She finds some hoods who beat her former husband "half to death."
"I stood there and watched, and I felt sorry for him, because they were professional killers, and I thought, ‘They'll kill him!’" she explains in a video letter to Michael. After watching the video, Michael says, "Well, that's just the way they do business in Russia. I'm not shocked."
Svetlana is finally granted a US visa and arrives at JFK a few days before Christmas. Michael takes her to see Rockefeller Center where she touches the Christmas tree and says, "It's real!" At Michael's house, however, there is nothing but disappointment. Everything is wrong. The washing machine does not get clothes as clean as boiling them on the stove, but when she does boil them, Michael's son makes fun of her. The standard tub in the bathroom is not good enough "for a real wash." When Svetlana tries to sweep the floor in Michael's house, the broom falls apart: it looks just like a regular Russian broom, but turns out to be an antique acquired by Michael's first wife. The gorgeous exposed beams in the house are a matter of pride with Michael but an eyesore for Svetlana.
"We can't have a wedding until the house is fixed up and all those beams are papered over."
Their relationship is a meeting, head-on, of Eastern and Western culture. In this documentary we follow their international relationship, through all of its crises, complications, humor and passions.