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The Institute

On the outskirts of Kharkiv, a drab industrial city in eastern Ukraine, a vast wooden box spilling out of a three-storey brick building houses The Institute, a life-size film set that is a perfect replica of an imaginary 1950s Soviet community.

The Institute is the brainchild of director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, an anarchic, imperious scion of an artistic Muscovite family who has managed to convince enough investors to sustain his movie project cum human experiment since 2006.

This is no ordinary film set with actors who retire at night and return to their normal lives. Khrzhanosvky requires his entire cast and all staff to remain on set at all times and anyone found as much as balking at the strict regime runs the ever present risk of being fired without notice or explanation. The daily routines in the Institute are meant to replicate the stifling, oppressive atmosphere of the final years of Stalin's reign in the early 1950s with all the shortages, ill fitting clothes, faux luxury goods, constant surveillance and impulsive snitching that defined the era.

Anyone wishing to access the set, including Sergey Maximishin, the Panos photographer who went to photograph this dystopian dreamscape, is required to leave all modern accoutrements including mobile phones at the door and conform to a strict code of conduct. Mention of modern phenomena like the internet are strictly prohibited and carry and maximum fine of 1,000 hryvnas (approximately USD 125).

The film, with the working title Dau, is loosely based on the life and amorous exploits of the real life Soviet physicist and Nobel prize laureate Lev Landau who worked in field of quantum mechanics in the 1950s and 60s.

Landau had lived an unconventional life for his time, calling his marriage to his wife Kora Drobantseva a 'spousal non-agression pact'. His life and prolific scientific productivity went into decline when he crashed into an oncoming lorry in Moscow in 1962 and died of complications from the accident 6 years later.

Critics who have had even the narrowest insights into what Khrzhanosvsky is conjuring up in his cinematic laboratory are divided over what he is trying to achieve and the ultimate wisdom of sailing to close to the thin line between method and madness. Khrzhanovsky himself in no way detracts from the air of frantic mania surrounding the project. A prolific womaniser, he interviews potential female cast members with questions like 'Can you come up to a guy in a club and sleep with him without finding out as much as his name?' or 'Are any of your friends whores?'

Khrzhanovsky is not alone in the tradition of director turned oppressor and guru. Francis Ford Coppola drove his cast to distraction during the 238-day shoot to make Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick required Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to take 15 months out of their busy lives to get into the right mood for Eyes Wide Shut. Yet what will come of this - the longest recorded movie making project - remains a closely guarded secret.

This story was commissioned by US edition of GQ Magazine (click here to view the full article) and republished in the Russian edition of the magazine.
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