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SXSW 2021: Movie-loving Russian immigrant turns his story into 'Potato Dreams of America'

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Hersh Powers and Sera Barbieri play Potato and Lena in Russia in "Potato Dreams of America," based on filmmaker Wes Hurley's own life.

Finding humor in bleak times is a very Russian thing to do, filmmaker Wes Hurley says.

"It's such a somber culture, but there's also a lot of dark humor in Russian culture," he says. Being able to laugh at the hard stuff helps you to survive, a skill he learned from his mother, a doctor turned mail-order bride. The two immigrated from Russia to the U.S. in the '90s. Now, Hurley's autobiographical film, "Potato Dreams of America," makes its world premiere at SXSW Online on March 16. It's competing in the film festival's narrative feature competition.

Hurley says humor also disarms an audience, and "Potato Dreams of America" certainly does that. The heartfelt comedy has two distinct acts: the first in the collapsing Soviet Union, where the cinematic representation of Hurley's childhood self called Potato lives in a fantastical (but homophobic and anti-Semitic) version of his homeland, and the second in Seattle, a more straightforward dramatization of his years as a gay teen immigrant to America living with a hyper-religious stepfather. Along the way, Jonathan Bennett (Aaron Samuels from "Mean Girls") shows up as Jesus — or at least an imaginary friend who looks a lot like Jesus; "Orange Is the New Black" actress Lea DeLaria plays a formidable Russian grandmother; and Hurley makes the case for movies as the ultimate key to self-discovery.

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We caught up with Hurley ahead of SXSW via Zoom. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American-Statesman: One of the things that struck me about "Potato Dreams of America" was how different the scenes that take place in Russia feel from the scenes that take place in Seattle. I saw there were two different composers credited with the music in Russia and the U.S., too. Can you talk a little bit about your approach in differentiating those two worlds?

Wes Hurley: That was something that was really important to me from the beginning. Because when my mom and I talked about coming to America from Russia, it really feels like a whole different world, and another way of being. Part of it is just how different the cultures are, and part of it is how as an immigrant, it's almost like you're born again. You have to learn a new language, and you're kind of in a childlike state. I wanted to capture the sense of like, it's not just coming to a different place. It's like your whole reality changes. I really wanted Russia to feel surreal and whimsical and theatrical.

I was inspired by baroque paintings, things emerging from the dark or dissolving into darkness, for the Russian scenes. And the accent thing was something that was really important to me, again, because I wanted to creatively translate this idea of, you know, as an immigrant, it's so important to understand how that feels like to not speak language. I wanted to feel in Russia like you're with (the characters). They're in their world. They speak like everybody else. They're not aliens. ... Once they come to America, I wanted the accent to be a really big thing — because it is.

This movie is such a love letter to formative queer media. We see Gregg Araki's "The Living End," a "Sister Act" film, and I think we see Jean-Claude Van Damme. Did you draw from your own personal references?

The story of "The Living End" was definitely exactly like it happened. I kept coming back to my neighborhood video store, and I really wanted to rent it, because the cover looked so hot. But I was so embarrassed and afraid. I couldn't be out at the time. I was just drawn to it, and then I finally sneakily did rent it. I was obsessed. And then the movies that I reference (watching) in Russia — I mean, American movies were so important to us. It was like escape, and they really made an imprint on our memory and our idea of what America would be.

"Orange Is the New Black" actress Lea DeLaria plays a Russian grandmother with a steel backbone in "Potato Dreams of America."

How did you navigate the line between autobiography and making an adaptation of your life for film that is a little more exaggerated? You have to condense a lot of things for a movie, and you can't get into all the nuances of the way things happened.

I would say the film is 99.9% exactly as things happened. Like you mentioned, I think it was more about subtracting and omitting things, because when you take anything (from) real life, whether you're making a documentary or an adaptation, the challenge is to cut away and simplify. What I had to do is sometimes combine characters. I was raised by two grandmas, technically, but I made it onto one grandma. My mom had several boyfriends in Russia, but I made it one boyfriend.

But in terms of the events and conversations and all the twists, it was really important to me to keep it authentic and exactly as I remember it happening. Obviously, in (the scenes in) Russia, there is a magical realism element to it. I think people who are familiar with that style of telling a story, they will get what I'm trying to get at.

Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with religion growing up? In this film, Jesus was played by Jonathan Bennett, who is a face that people recognize, playing this imaginary friend version of Jesus. That struck a chord with me, as someone who was taught to talk to Jesus like he was sitting right next to you. 

At the time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, religion, and Christianity, was really associated with the West and freedom. Jesus and Madonna and Michael Jackson were kind of on the same (level). They all represented ... hope and a better life. We had some American missionaries that would have Sunday school-type things, but it was very friendly. They didn't talk about anything repressive or negative, because they were trying to lure you in. And so my perception of Jesus at the time was very friendly and positive. Being a lonely gay kid, he was sort of my best friend that I can talk to. I think a lot of kids sort of have that, because as a child, they believe in everything so deeply, whether it's Jesus or something else. ... Even though in the film, he's basically a reflection. It's not Jesus; it's a gay boy's idea of Jesus.

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How are you feeling going into SXSW?

I feel incredibly lucky that we got in and so honored that we're premiering there. I really felt so bad for filmmakers last year, because it just kind of crashed on them. ... 

I think (for) any filmmaker to tell you that they would rather have virtual premiere than a theatrical premiere would be a lie. We all realize that, but it's still very exciting. A lot of people do point out to me that it's going to be seen so much more widely because it's more affordable and more accessible that way. That's a that's a bright, bright side.

Do you hope that this can be a formative movie for a gay kid that comes across it in the way that you came across "The Living End" and other things?

I think that's my hope, that it resonates with people and affects people in a way that those other films affected me. I mean, that's the best I could hope for.

I think it's kind of interesting timing for us, because the movie is so hopeful. And I think right now, that's what people need. 

SXSW Online is here

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic canceled South by Southwest. This year, the festival has reimagined itself as SXSW Online, March 16-20. Austin360 will be covering all the big-name panels, emerging films and up-and-coming music acts. Find the latest news and our critics' picks at austin360.com.