This man sold everything he had just so he could make cheese

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Soon after finding out his beloved motherland Russia had banned the importation of Western cheese, Oleg Sirota sold all his belongings, took out a $100k loan, and started a cheese factory he lovingly calls ‘Russian Parmesan’.

He details his entrepreneurial journey in a short documentary by London-based director Ben Garfield. The film, called War and Cheese, shows the business Sirota has put up (and is still trying to grow), as well as his hopes and dreams.

The short provides plenty of lighthearted moments centered on Sirota’s perseverance and eccentricity. But what makes it stand out is how it gives a neutral look at ‘Russian Parmesan’, allowing the viewers themselves to judge Sirota’s inspiring yet questionable actions.

“On the one hand, people are drawn to root for him as an underdog who’s going all-in with a risky business venture,” Garfield told Lost At E Minor, “while on the other hand, he’s directly profiteering from the rising tensions between East and West.”

We talked to Garfield to know more about War and Cheese. Check it out:

How did you manage to find Oleg Sirota?

“The film idea was born out of a visit from my Russian friend Andrey Kurganov. Before returning home to Moscow, he stocked up on cheese from a local supermarket, and told me about the Russian cheese import ban – I laughed and mentioned it might have the potential to make an interesting doc.

“Then a week or so later he sent me an article about Oleg Sirota and his cheese farm – we got in touch and it was clear we were onto something!”

What made you so interested in his story?

“I’m from London and had a pretty limited understanding of Russian culture, and Oleg’s story seemed to be from another world. There was a lot I was interested in – for instance name of his factory, Russian Parmesan, seemed like an oxymoron to me, though to him it makes perfect sense. I wanted to understand this better, and get an insight into his worldview.”

With the sanctions imposed being such a sensitive topic, what was your approach to making the film?

“I was interested in the conflicting reactions Oleg’s story conjures up. On the one hand, people are drawn to root for him as an underdog who’s going all-in with a risky business venture, while on the other hand, he’s directly profiteering from the rising tensions between East and West.

“We didn’t want to lead the audience to an easy position to judge it all from – it’s one of the reasons there’s no music in the film. Instead, we wanted to show his story in the context of the environment in which he lives and works: Oleg’s proud viewpoint set against the backdrop of the snowy Russian wilderness.”

Please tell us more about the production process.

“My friend Andrey, who found Oleg’s story, is a professional actor, though he turned producer for the film. We gathered together info about Oleg through articles and videos (Oleg loves press!) and I developed an outline for how we could frame his story.

“It was clear we weren’t going to get under his skin during an interview – Oleg would say what he wanted to say to promote his business and it was up to us to create the tone through the cinematography and pacing of the editing.

“We were lucky to recruit cinematographer Danny Salkhov through an online call-out, and Danny and I started sharing references and ideas over email and Skype. Then Andrey and Danny visited Oleg’s cheese farm and sent me some test videos – I used all of this to build a working script.

“I tried to get funding together in the UK, and though we had some interest nothing concrete materialised – with the snow melting in Russia, I decided to self-fund the film, and flew out to Moscow with my Canon C100 camera in late March.

What was it like filming in such a harsh winter environment? How long did filming take?

“We shot for two days, and put up with the cold. Ok, it was actually the temperature inside the factory that caused us problems as the camera almost overheated on a few occasions! Oleg was in great form throughout the shoot – he had a lot he wanted to share with us.”

What picture does the film try to paint? Is there a message it’s trying to tell its viewers?

“A few months after finishing the film I watched Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and a line in the film stuck in my mind: ‘Passion is not an emotional energy, but just the friction between our souls and the outside world’.

“I decided to put the quote at the beginning of War and Cheese, because it revealed a lot about Oleg’s story to me. I think War and Cheese might be an exploration of the friction Tarkovsky is referring to here.

“When I made the film I didn’t have a message I wanted to convey, as I was really just following my curiosity – my aim was to capture something emotionally honest, that didn’t get sidetracked with a political message. I found Oleg’s story to be simultaneously comical, inspiring, concerning, and melancholic, so I wanted to try to give the film these qualities.”

Were you able to try the Russian Parmesan? How was it?

“I wasn’t – when I was there he wasn’t yet able to make Parmesan. He didn’t have the right equipment, and he couldn’t get the right milk – something he’s been working very hard on since! The cheese we did try was pretty mild.”

What’s next for you?

“I’ve just finished up a new short documentary, shot in Cuba earlier this year, called Spelliasmous. It’s about three young Harry Potter-obsessed friends from a small Cuban town: they share what Harry Potter means to them, and play-act scenes inspired by the story.

“The film was made under the mentorship of Werner Herzog, as part of an initiative he led out there – an amazing experience. I’ve just started submitting the film to festivals and am looking forward to getting it out there!

“I’ve also got two short films in development, one fiction and one documentary, so hoping those will spring to life soon!”

You can find out more about Ben Garfield and his work by heading over here.