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article image'Love Me' explores the male search for love, online and overseas Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Apr 24, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Internet dating is big business, particularly overseas, where Ukrainian and Russian women sign up in droves to meet American men.
Filmmaker Jonathon Narducci follows various men in search of romance as they journey to Eastern Europe in Love Me, screening at this year’s Hot Docs Festival.
The film focuses squarely on stories of men: self-conscious, insecure, frequently isolated, and fantasizing over the models they’ve seen online. We glimpse various aspects of their lives — playing video games, showing off a gun collection, driving down a country road, at a computer, standing awkwardly at one of the many loud “socials” the agencies organize — and we understand their keen loneliness, and their pursuit of an ideal that is more dream than reality. As Narducci so incisively asks one of them, “Are you sure you’re not just falling in love with a photograph?”
Narducci provides a sprinkling of interviews with the women and some of their parents, showing snippets of Ukrainian life, though there’s no mention of politics or economic realities. Though its narrative is driven by stories of men wanting to meet their ideal foreign mates, Love Me has an interesting subtext, which is, alas, only passingly touched on: the financial implications of using foreign dating services. As journalist Shaun Walker discovered in his own investigations, foreign-introduction agencies charge dearly for their services; the men are charged for every message and exchange, and, though not shown in the film, the women behind the scenes (who are usually not the ones in the online photos) make a career of it. The men who travel to the Ukraine seeking love and romance are frequently fleeced for their cash — by unscrupulous agencies, by women who need the work, by calculating Eastern Europeans who see the men’s neediness and exploit it.
Still, the film ends on a hopeful note, celebrating the exceptions to the rule, and embracing a "love conquers all" message. Narducci recently shared his thoughts on his film, and the online dating world, via email just before Love Me’s screening in Toronto this weekend.
Where did the idea come from to make Love Me?
About fourteen years ago, while I was in university, I received a spam email from A Foreign Affair, one of the largest international dating companies in the world. At the time, I was completely blown away by the idea that thousands of Eastern European women wanted to marry American men. I looked onto AFA’s website (www.loveme.com) and was completely engaged by the images they had. I kept clicking on photos of various women, trying to discover what they were interested in. Keep in mind, this was before Facebook and MySpace even existed, and the concept of internet dating was still very taboo. Also during this time, post-Soviet topics were discussed extensively in my university, which really drove me to decide that this would be the documentary I would make upon graduation from college. That didn’t happen.
I graduated and got a job, and then about ten years later I reached a point where I felt the need to do something new, something that would challenge me. Somehow this old idea bubbled up and I started to research the concept again. Then, I just went for it and made Love Me, which took about three years in total.
How did you choose the men, and how did you decide which stories to focus on? Also, how did you choose the online agencies?
While shooting Love Me, I wasn’t really casting characters, but rather, shooting as many different kinds of men as possible. I hoped that something interesting would unfold while our cameras were rolling. One character in the film, Inna, reached out to us and told us that we should include her and her fiancé Eric in the film, and we did! I never could predict what was going to happen with these individuals, even while I was filming (but afterwards), I had about one hundred different mens’ interviews in my footage database.
With regard to the agencies, I decided to look into the largest companies in the business. After searching, I felt that the largest agency (Anastasia) was a total scam operation, which I did not want to deal with. So when looking for other options, I decided I want to show both sides of the industry, which is why I chose one company run by American men and the other company run by a former, Russian mail-order bride. I think this helped us highlight the different approaches to this industry.
What do you think the experiences of these men say about online culture and the nature of modern relating?
I think this film highlights where our current dating culture stands: how it can be good for some and problematic for others. If a person is realistic, pragmatic and honest, then usually he or she will find success. However, online dating leaves so much to the mind, and it is our human nature to fill in blanks to fit each situation how we see fit. I would conclude that if you choose to online date, you must be careful to not create fantasies or become delusional about the situation.
From the Eastern European female perspective, I think their actions are so brave and this is really highlighted in film. I think Love Me really shows the hyper-reality of the expectation, and hope that women have in the modern dating world.
What do you make of Shaun Walker's investigations into the Ukrainian online dating world?
Elena Petrova of Elena's Models, another dating agency, actually sent me that article. I didn’t work with Anastasia, but I do think his findings are pretty accurate. The only thing that both his findings and my film don't touch on is prostitution, which is so prevalent in Ukraine, including on the tours arranged by marriage agencies. This whole situation is not just emotional, but also physical, and it makes it easy for a man who's never been outside of his small town to find, and that is very difficult to process. This is all stuff I experienced first hand, and unfortunately, it is part of the tourism of Ukraine.
What do you hope people take away from Love Me?
I hope this film entertains people and that they walk away with a different understanding of the world: it is a complex place that is not black and white, but rather, many shades of grey. Love is something you can only find if you’re honest with yourself and others.
More about Internet, Love, Romance, Ukraine, Jonathon Narducci
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