It’s only natural this week to be thinking about love—and all the associated tropes of “romance” engineered by conventional media. Real-life romance, however, rarely progresses in the neat, homogenous way we’ve come to expect from our movies.
So what if, like Love Me director Jonathon Narducci, you set out to document a little-discussed sector of the modern dating scene—namely, mail-order brides in the Ukraine—without any idea if you’ll find a happy ending? Or if your subjects will open up about their private lives at all? Narducci explains how he pulled his film off here.
When I was in college many years ago, I received an email from a mail-order bride website called A Foreign Affair. At first, I though it was spam, but its subject matter piqued my curiosity. I spent hours clicking through the countless profiles of marriage-seeking Russian women. A Foreign Affair offered “love tours” to help American men find the “perfect” wife. Nearly a decade later, I decided to delve into the world of mail order brides more deeply.
Love Me: the Documentary began by following American men on a quest for mail order brides over the course of a 10-day Ukrainian “romance tour.” My co-producer, Jon Barlow, and I decided to experience the romance tour first hand, and attempt to document this bizarre phenomenon.
On our first day of shooting the project, our crew landed in the Ukraine and were thrust into an incredibly awkward situation. The American men were trying to find wives in a country that is colder—emotionally and socially—than anywhere I’d ever traveled. Devoid of small talk, politeness, and even smiles, the first few days were a complete culture shock for myself and, more importantly, the men seeking brides. When I smiled, people would ask, “Why you dry your teeth?”
“Fish out of water” only begins to describe these American men in the Ukraine. Most of the men were on this romance tour because they felt had had exhausted all of their dating options back home. By contrast, in the Ukraine, they were surrounded by women to “date,” with a male-to-female ratio of almost 10:1. Allegedly, these women seek out American men for marriage and the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. The dynamics of these two groups of people created some very strange social situations, to say the least.
Finding Our Protagonists and Gaining Their Trust
One of our largest concerns was getting these men to agree to be in the film in the first place. Since we had never met them, we had no idea what to expect. I imagined them being embarrassed to be on a Ukrainian romance tour and therefore unlikely to want to be filmed.
This was not the case. Fresh off the plane, our subjects were in a state of confusion, visibly in need of some help and guidance. Our team understood that in order to film these men, we needed to offer something in exchange. So we filled the gap by becoming friends, translators and advisors to them, providing a much-needed sense of community. Nadia Parfan, our translator and Ukrainian coordinating producer, acted as an interpreter and gave the men advice about Ukrainian culture and the female perspective. With blatant honesty, I gave them my impressions of the tour: my opinions on specific women; what to me seemed like sincere female interest, versus a potential scam.
In the bizarre environment of a Ukrainian love tour, introverted men could run the risk of becoming even more introverted. The presence of our crew helped pull some men out of their shells and even help them navigate the unpredictable world of international dating more keenly. The men genuinely appreciated the friendly advice and began feel more trusting toward our crew.
As we began to film our subjects, this trust became both a gift and burden. We had to find stories of men who had something interesting happen to them throughout the 10-day trip. Among some 40 men on the tour, it took some sifting through to find most intriguing characters for the film. As the tour continued to the next city, we learned that some great stories were actually hiding beneath the reserved exteriors of the most quiet and introverted men. The most timid characters tended to have the wildest love stories. For instance, Bobby, a husky 46-year-old, revealed that he had been chatting online with a very beautiful woman named Julia. He had been traveling with a gold-dipped Forever Rose to give to her and—hopefully—ask her to marry him. His virtual fixation with this woman was just the type of story we were looking for.
The “Spray and Pray” Approach to Shooting
Our approach to filming during this time was “spray and pray.” Basically, we shot as many characters as possible in the first five days and hoped that something would materialize. Jon Barlow, Nadia Parfan, and myself spent most of our time talking with the subjects to get more familiar with them and their stories. We checked in daily with their experiences on the tour.
It was impossible, of course, to shoot every aspect of the trip. The challenge was to create the narrative as the events were unfolding. The amount of interview footage that hit the cutting room floor was astounding. Even though we juggled about 12 different narrative arcs at the time, the film only features half of those stories, which is a testament to how nuanced and interesting those experiences truly were.
There were moments throughout filming where we were frustrated with the process. I wanted the ending of the film to actually show someone getting married. However, I couldn’t have expected how difficult this would be for the subjects to accomplish. In hindsight, I will never approach a film this way again; it may have been a naïve idea about making a film. On the other hand, the film couldn’t have been made any other way—it’s impossible to predict what will happen when it comes to matters of the heart. In the end, the ad hoc approach we were forced to take presented an accurate portrayal of the process of pursuing love and marriage.
An Objective Take on a Complex Industry
We were striving to capture a balance of perspectives in this film. The mail-order bride industry involves many roles: foreign women, American men, and the “matchmakers” that bring these two worlds together—the international dating sites like A Foreign Affair.
Love Me raises questions about “real love,” versus a show of love that masks ulterior motives. While we were filming, and the men were meeting and courting the women, I saw some clear “red flags” regarding the latter. The story also brings about questions of morality and Western entitlement. I had my doubts about the legitimacy of the dating agencies, and I shared my opinions openly with the subjects of the film.
Everyone I spoke with had different perspectives on love and marriage and exactly how to go about finding it. Because of such discrepancies and contradictions, we sought to capture the complexity of the topic as best we could, and leave the audience to make up their own opinions. If a documentary tells you explicitly how to feel about its topic, it borders on propaganda, and this was something I was very careful about avoiding.
Shooting Out of Sequence
Love Me was intentionally filmed out of sequence. This tactic was something I hadn’t considered until a friend explained the approach used in another documentary, Make Believe. The ending of Make Believe features a teen magic competition, but this competition was actually the first thing shot. The film starts instead with visits to the various characters in competition, shot after the competition took place, to build their introductions.
In Love Me, we opted to postpone shooting the introduction to each of our characters because we first needed to identify who was going to be in the film. The middle part of the film—the love tour—was the first part we shot. This allowed us the flexibility to choose the narrative we wanted to feature in the film. Towards the end of production, we revisited our characters to see how their relationships had progressed or, in some cases, hadn’t. After all, love doesn’t have a set schedule.
What we learned making Love Me is that people are actually really open to talking about themselves intimately, as long as they are approached with respect and genuine interest. Sometimes the act of pointing a camera at a subject invests a certain power in a filmmaker. A power dynamic like that can lead to a tendency to objectify or exploit a subject, and we have to do as much as we can to combat this. It is important to remain balanced so you can continue to have access to your subject.
Once you have established sincerity and trust, you can begin to ask the tougher questions that provide the basis for depth and reflection. This process takes a lot of time and respect, which hopefully then develops into the type of rapport that will garner organic conversational exchanges. MM
Director-producer of Love Me, Jonathon Narducci is an award-winning commercial and music video director and cinematographer. Jonathon attended school at University of Iowa, where he received his Bachelors in Film Studies with a focus in Documentary Filmmaking. Jonathon worked as a co-producer and director of photography on Carissa, a documentary that was aired on Current TV and won awards in numerous festivals. His previous work has been featured internationally at the International Film Festival at Rotterdam, the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film as well as on Pitchfork.com, Stereogum.com, and in Brief Magazine.