Director of Controversial Russian Ad Hits Back

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A newly released commercial for Credit Bank of Moscow has caused a storm in its native Russia after being accussed of being sexist and of promoting violence against women.

The spot, called Christmas Wishes, features a Russian version of Santa Claus, called Ded Moroz, kidnapping a mother who seems to be neglecting her daughter. The mother is then seen being dragged through the wilderness, tied to a rope before finding her true self and reigniting her relationship with her daughter.

The spot has been heavily criticised but below, Charley Stadler, the director of the film, responds to the criticism against the campaign, saying that it been hugely misinterpreted, and puts forward his argument of how the film should be seen.


Ded Moroz leads the mother, tied to him, across the wilderness.

Did you realise the campaign would cause the controversy it has?

CS: I knew I was telling a big, human story and that I put a lot of psychology in the film, but that it should split the entire Russian nation into two? I could have never imagined that. I have just done several TV interviews for Russian TV and the questions were as if from another planet because everyone in my environment, which is the film production world in Russia and also internationally, understood what we did in this film. I was speechless at the Russian mainstream media reaction. 


Charley Stadler on location with Sergey Studenkov, who plays Ded Moroz.


CS: Do you have any sympathy for the accusations thrown at it?

I was accused of making hard-working women look evil - but the mother is the story's antagonist. None of the feminists obviously looked at my protagonist girl, which basically means that some women agree on the mother's behaviour and what I was doing was reflecting how things are in the 21st century for so many women (and men) doing their best to make a living to support their families. All I showed was how hard that can be whilst keeping a family together. If you check anyone who has a care and love for children then they will have sympathy for the situation we highlighted.

I portrayed the essence of the antagonist so that it worked as well as it could within the short screen time to justify what Santa is doing to her. He is basically only making her feel how she makes her daughter feel. 

For me, the mother was a typical fairytale evil mother character, nothing more. I just decided to set the film in the now, although we already had a Tim Burton-style location.  


 Actress Nikolett Barabas plays the mother in the spot.


Another accusation is that the spot is supporting violence against women; how do you repond to that?

CS: That is simply not true. Let me respond to my accusers by letting them know I am the father of an 18-month old child and my wife, with her band project Von Seefeld, even wrote the music to the movie produced by Grammy-winner and London-based Adrian Bushby, who is also a father. I am basically a male feminist myself. 

Therefore, my sincere thanks to [client] MK Bank who has a charity foundation called Arithmetic of Kindness which supports orphanages in the whole of Russia. MKB had the vision to see what this film could be as it supports a return to the recognition of traditional family values. For that reason I cannot even understand what the accusations were all about.

How a film with such a socially realistic message can be interpreted to such a low level is bizarre… did none of them hear the dialogue of the child and her needs? Hence her Christmas letter, her heartfelt plea to Santa. 

Sometimes I think people suspend all rational thought and knee jerk react from their prejudice. And we all see what we want to see. They [critics of the film] wanted to see the film in a light that is simply not on the screen. I have never seen in my entire career so much anger and aggression. It is mind-blowing.

Quite frankly, the film shows where a section of society stands, as does the extreme reaction to it. On the other hand, many, many Russian women were excusing their nation to me via Facebook. But the feminists had all the sensationalist media behind them.

Of course, it seems better to say bad things as a headline as that is the easiest way to get reactions. Interestingly, it was the same section of the UK media that reacted in the same way. I think we need to take the discussion onto a higher level playing field where discussion is fuelled by intelligent though as well as emotion.


Stadler on location with Nikolett Barabas. 


CS: What’s your interpretation of the film and its story/meaning?

It's a modern day fairytale. The latter-day fairytale witch - the evil mother character - whose crime is that she is ignorant of the basic emotional needs of her daughter. The daughter is therefore an abandoned child and spends most of her time with cool, technical things. It’s nurture through money, not the love that everyone really needs. A nurture purchased via the apparent convenience of technology but the true result is actually not closeness but distance, the antipathy of what all our smartphones and social media promise.

The young daughter at Christmas time decides to write a letter to Santa (or as he is called in Russia, Ded Moroz.) The daughter has got everything from the material world, but nothing from the world she really craves. 

Santa decides to teach the mother a moral lesson. Where society ends, happiness begins and that is in nature. He makes her feel anger, fear, frustration, pain, loneliness. Exactly what she is making her daughter feel. He puts up a mirror to her ignorant, quite frankly, super-stupid bitch behaviour.

In my head Santa is not real. He was just a rhetorical device for me because the story of transformation is actually happening in her head and in her soul. When you watch the film closely, when the mother sees the picture of her daughter she has a little moment of reflection. That’s where her transition starts for me. And as we all know, any form of change comes with crisis. So when she finally shows signs of thankfulness (at the fireside) and empathy (when he fakes a heart attack) she is ready for the truth.

She would have not heard the crying of her daughter before. And whether Santa is giving her the letter, whether she is reading the letter somewhere [else] or whether she just found the way back to herself [on her own], I leave entirely up to the audience.

In the end, she is happy and with her daughter and they all are happy. The mother looks younger and better and doesn't need botox. Happy End. Merry Xmas! Spend time with your kids. Don't waste it on bullshit. You'll regret it one day. That’s all I wanted to tell. 


Nikolett Barabas being made up.


CS: And on a more craft-based note; what was the casting experience like?

Finding the actress was key to the whole film and we could not compromise if the film was going to work on the level we all were working for. I remembered Nikolett Barabas [who plays the mother] who's had some solid roles in big movies. I have had the privilege of working with some great actors like Gary Oldman and Robert Carlisle and I knew we had to bring that level of screen dynamic to the film. I knew Nikolett is a full-on drama actress and I suggested to fly her over and the client agreed after seeing her showreel. 

The daughter, Alice Tekucheva was easy. She came in and could play all emotions in total control of her face and her emotional access  to this character. I struggled a bit with Ded Moroz (Santa). We had three great choices but the first two were really more obvious as Father Christmas. More classic American Christmas-style. 

The agency producer and creative from 3SBA, Anton Kirillov and Kostya Tokarev, explained to me that Ded Moroz is more of a Tolstoy character in Russia. Not like a big fat cuddly Santa with a glued on white beard. From that moment on the actor you see (Sergey Studenkov) was clear. He seemed like a hard yet wise teacher. He had it in his face and he is one of the best theatre actors in Moscow. His subtle performance really is incredible as well as the mother who literally went through hell on this shoot in Georgia. 


Barabas' character of the mother is kidnapped in the film by Ded Moroz. 


CS: How long was the shoot?

Oh, we traveled for over two weeks in Georgia. We basically did a location tech recce and then shot the next day. Then drove 800km, sometimes overnight, to another location recce and shot again with full crew. And so on. The last two days (and long night shoots) were in Moscow. We were all really exhausted after this project I can tell you that much. 


CS: What was the hardest part of the project?

Trust me, it was all hard. I just remember after the first shoot day we were driving back to the hotel, it was a  pitch black night and I had to go to the toilet and fell into a deep, black hole on the side of the street from which I couldn't get out. Thank god my DP found me. Another reason why Santa has the mother on a rope. I should have worn one too. 


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