Q&A: Gabe Polsky on the Soviet Hockey Legends of ‘Red Army’

In an exhilarating story played out on Olympic ice, Red Army chronicles the rise and fall of the Red Army Hockey Team, the Soviet Union’s most powerful sports dynasty. Making his solo directorial debut, Gabe Polsky revisits the history of the Cold War using an incredible collection of archival material from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Featuring revealing commentary from the players themselves, including one of Russia’s greatest players, Slava Fetisov, Red Army skillfully balances the personal and political drama behind one hockey’s greatest stories, revealing the thin line between national hero and political enemy.


How do you describe Red Army in your own words?

Gabe Polsky: Red Army uses the story of the Soviet hockey dynasty as a window into a much larger story. It’s a film about Russia and Russians, and their dealings with America—during and after the Cold War. It helps us understand—in human terms—the achievements, the failures, and the repression that were part of life in the Soviet Union. And it brings to life the difficulties Russia and the Russian people have had finding their place in a post-Cold War world. Beyond politics and ideology, it’s an inspiring and deeply human story.

What inspired you to tell this particular story?

Gabe Polsky: When I saw the Soviets play hockey for the first time (on a VHS tape) as a kid, I was perplexed. It was almost a religious experience—a profound expression of human creativity. I wondered why North Americans comparatively play such boring hockey? And yet, why did one of the most brutally oppressive systems produce such free and creative hockey? Then I looked deeper into the story of Soviet hockey and found a fascinatingly rich and complex story. People who see the film are surprised to learn what they didn’t know.


It’s clear from the film that you had a unique relationship with the former hockey players. How did that access come about?

Gabe Polsky: I had a good connection to one of the Soviet hockey legends. Sure enough, one contact led to more, and so on. Slava Fetisov, who later became the main character of the film, was very hard and resistant, but eventually he agreed to meet for fifteen minutes. After a little shoving and tussling, the interview lasted for five hours. During the meeting, I realized the story would probably be anchored by him. He was quite an engaging and unique character, and his particular journey is incredible. Also, he’s maybe the most decorated athlete in Soviet history. He’s the kind of guy you have to see to believe.

Many who see this film remember the historic games, but most do not know about the political maneuverings happening in the background. Have you noticed any differences in the reactions to the film between American and Russian audiences?

Gabe Polsky: Last night at the New York Film Festival screening there was prolonged applause—by a mostly American audience—and there were a lot of laughter and tears. Then during the Q&A the Russian UN representative got so excited and passionate about the film that he interrupted the whole Q&A and took the microphone and had to say a few things.

We’ve screened it in Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Moscow, etc… the reactions have all been amazing. But each country has a slightly different experience with the story…


You’ve produced a number of films in the past, but this is your first time as a solo director. What do you like most about being behind the camera?

Gabe Polsky: Actually, before Red Army, I co-directed a feature, The Motel Life, with my brother and I’m proud of that. It’s a movie with meaning and soul.

Red Army is the first film and documentary that I directed alone. I like having the vision, making creative decisions, and collaborating with other talented people. Having produced many things, I place the highest value on a great, versatile producer, because it’s incredibly difficult on so many levels… but my heart bleeds to direct.

Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?  

Gabe Polsky: Nobody will help you until you don’t need them.

What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film? 

Gabe Polsky: I have no control over what they will take away from it. Isn’t that awesome?

We look forward to having you in attendance at HIFF 2014. What are you most looking forward to at the Festival?

Gabe Polsky: I’ve never been. Perhaps go for a swim and a run? Do they have places to rent bikes? What should I do?

Red Army will screen in the World Cinema section at HIFF 2014. Find tickets.

Gabe Polsky co-directed and produced the award-winning and critically acclaimed The Motel Life, starring Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning, and Stephen Dorff. Additional producing credits include Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans; His Way, an Emmy-nominated documentary released by HBO in 2011; and Little Birds. Polsky currently has several projects in production, amongst others adapting the novels “Butcher’s Crossing” (John Williams), “Going After Cacciato” (Tim O’Brien), “Flowers For Algernon” (Daniel Keyes), and “The Master and Margarita” (Mikhail Bulgakov). Polsky has also secured the life rights to Albert Einstein, as well as to surfing legend Dorian Doc Paskowitz.