Wes Hurley wanted to turn the story of his journey from Russia to the United States into a movie, but he wasn’t thinking of a short documentary.
Instead, Hurley wrote a feature script about growing up gay in the repressive and homophobic Russian society, about his and his mother’s move to the United States and about a bizarre twist that followed after she became the mail-order bride to an intensely religious man in Seattle.
But somewhere along the line, Hurley got a small grant and decided to make a short documentary and a complementary virtual-reality short as a way to build momentum for his feature. The resulting film, “Little Potato,” he said, “took off in its own right,” and is now one of the 12 finalists in TheWrap’s 2018 ShortList Film Festival.
“During the Sochi Olympics [in 2014], I wrote an article for the Huffington Post about being gay in Russia,” he said. “That was the first time I shared my story, and I got such overwhelming response that I realized there are no gay voices coming from Russia. It’s always in the news, we hear about human rights violations, but we don’t really hear the stories of gay people.”
But his story also had a big twist — because the strict but karaoke-loving man whom Hurley’s mother married also turned out to be transgender.
“I’ve always been a Pedro Almodovar fan,” Hurley said. “And when that happened, I thought, ‘My God, my life is like a Pedro Almódovar movie.'”
The biggest challenge of making the short, he said, was the fact that he didn’t have any footage of himself growing up. He and cinematographer Nathan M. Miller hit on a novel approach that gave the film a striking look.
“We didn’t just want normal talking heads, so we had to figure out how to spruce it up,” he said. “One of the ideas was to have double projections in the back, so we would have two simultaneous visuals going behind me and my mom, kind of overlapping. I wanted it to be evocative but not literal, with a little bit of the visual popping through.”
Making the short caused Hurley to rewrite his feature script, which he’s now trying to get off the ground at a time when his native country is constantly in the news.
“When I wrote the feature screenplay and got the grant, Russia was mildly in the news because of the Olympics and all the horrible stuff that Putin is doing all over the world,” he said.
“But now it’s really exploded, which makes us in a weird way more timely. In the film I talk about how corrupt and scary Russia is, and now it’s gotten its tentacles in all of the world affairs. It’s really disturbing to me.”
Watch the film above. Viewers can also watch all of the ShortList finalists at any time during the festival at shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote from Aug. 8-22. The ShortList Film Festival is supported by Topic and AMC Theatres.