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Real life is always stranger than fiction. Always. Evidence:

One of the twins admiringly touches my head. Before coming to wardrobe, I’d stopped in hair and makeup. My nape and temples are now shaved clean in an approximation of an old hairstyle called a half-box. All to help me blend in on the set. Only, from here on, I can no longer call it that. According to a glossary of forbidden terms posted right in front of me on the wall, the set is to be referred to as the Institute. Likewise, inside the Institute, there are no scenes, just experiments. No shooting, only documentation. And there is certainly no director. Instead, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the man responsible for this madness, is to be referred to as the Head of the Institute or simply the Boss.

That’s from a recent piece in GQ* called The Movie Set That Ate Itself, by Michael Idov. It’s about Mr. Idov’s trip to the city of Kharkov, Russia, where since 2006, one director has been making one film about one man. The film is Dau, and it’s about Nobel-winning physicist Lev Landau.

The film has over 400 extras. They live on the city-sized set, are paid in carefully-reproduced Soviet currency, and wear Soviet clothes — right down to the underwear. If cast members use words like “Google” or “CGI,” they are fined by constables who roam the set, which for the past five years has been referred to as “The Institute.”Cast and crew fired from “The Institute” exhibit symptoms endemic to former cult members. Depending on how much time they have spent on set, they sometimes require de-programming.

You can’t make this stuff up. Go read the article.

*No, I don’t ordinarily read GQ. I listened to an interview with Mr. Idov on CBC Radio, which I highly recommend as a way to start your morning. If you can track down the interview online, I also recommend the listen. In it, Mr. Idov discusses the psychological impact of the Institute on cast and crew.

3 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Ben

     /  November 9, 2011

    Perhaps you*can* make this stuff up, because this project sounds a lot like the plot of the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York. That came out in late 2008, so I suppose it’s just possible that Kaufman heard about the beginning of Khrzhanovsky’s project while he was writing the script, but I doubt it.

  2. Ricky

     /  December 2, 2011

    You shouldn’t discount GQ — they have surprisingly good long form in the back, in most issues.

    • Madeline

       /  December 2, 2011

      True! While I was there I got totally sucked in. It was a very pleasant surprise.

  • Madeline Ashby… a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity,, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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