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I went to Moscow to watch movies. Not!

Last summer I was employed by Mosfilm Studios to screen selected films from their vast library and to write a catalog for the international marketing of these films.

Who wouldn't be intrigued by a free trip to Moscow, a chance to learn about Russian films past and present, and an amazingly simple job? I was, until I arrived and learned that while much in Moscow is amazing, nothing is simple.

On my first day at the studio, I learned that I had no office. No one was quite sure where I would sit-or where I would watch films-but they were, they assured me, working on it.

The hotel they had arranged for me to live in-the Mosfilm Hotel-was located two blocks from the studio gate, but this was its only convenience. The lack of hot water was bearable-but the lack of a restaurant assumed great importance during my first weekend, when the studio and its cafeterias were closed. I gamely went out in search of groceries-to find that, as had been widely reported, there really is no food in the stores. It was MacDonald's or starve, and 15 years of vegetarianism were ended with the onset of a hunger that never completely left me until I left Moscow.

I was the only American employed by the studio. My innocent belief that I could live as a Muskovite was also, unfortunately, shared by my employers. Evenpost-Glasnost, it is common for most visitors to dine in their hotel. Dining in a restaurant outside of your hotel is often a complex, bribery-ridden affair, and it is, at best, unadvisable for a woman to dine out alone.

When I told Natasha, my interpreter, that I would be moving to the Intourist, a modern twenty-story hotel overlooking Red Square, she looked at me with wide-eyed shock.

"Oh no," she replied, "you don't want that. It's full of prostitutes and black marketeers."

Eventually, the studio found an office for me, but a system for screening films was long in coming. Some of the films were on video tape, and those I could view in my office-after tracking down the TV and VCR, kept under tight security upstairs. The screening room was a mystery all its own. In those first few weeks, I would often be summoned to one of the five screening rooms and find that there were cans of film stacked outside the door, but no projectionist ... or a projectionist, but no film and everyone in charge of my so-called screening schedule had disappeared. I would ask Natasha if there was someone we could phone and she would cross her arms, shrug, and say something in Russian that she translated for me as, "Maybe. But probably not."

I would insist that we make rounds of the studio offices, looking for someone, anyone, who might be able to show me a film on my ever-growing list. Natasha instinctively knew this was a fool's errand, and had little confidence that my task would ever be accomplished.

Slowly, I learned how to book time in the screening rooms-a complicated procedure of filling out forms, networking, and well-placed threats. I arranged for the TV, VCR and computer to be brought to my office every morning so that, in theory, I could get to work. But that is rarely what happened.

Instead: Someone arrives with faxes, missives of growing anxiety from people in Los Angeles, who want to know why they don't have answers to their urgent questions. Unfortunately, we have no way to tell them the fax has been on the blink for three days-which means our one international phone line is also out of commission. How do you tell someone the phone doesn't work?

At six p.m., there is a rapid exodus from the studio. Outside the gates, I haggle with the usual half-dozen cab drivers before I find one that will take me to the Intourist. At the hotel, I do my nightly ritual of dodging the taxi mafia, the hulking door-guards, a quick side step of the areas where the prostitutes ply their trade.

Then the ongoing argument with the maitre d' of the hotel restaurant, who stands before an empty room while declaring there is no place for me to sit. Once again, after the accomplishment of getting a table, I can order a meal without that trying necessity of reading a menu, since the list of available foodstuffs is invariably the same: "Red caviar, black caviar, beefsteak." Unless they've run out of beefsteak.

After two months in Moscow, I learn to expect the unexpected and dispense with my schedules, and simply extend my two-month stay to four. Before I left, I hoped I would watch some films. Maybe. But probably not.
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Author:Phillips, Christi
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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