Robin Hessman has literally travelled a long way since her time in a local youth acting group called Jellybeans. Since leaving Andover, the filmmaker's work has brought her to the Moscow set of the Russian version of Sesame Street, and then to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where her Russian documentary received rave reviews.
It's been a whirlwind of praise for Hessman ever since.
The filmmaker grew up on Rolling Ridge Road in Andover, where her parents, Erika and Lawrence Hessman, still live. Her brother, Mark, lives in Wisconsin.
This Pike School and Phillips Academy graduate's feature documentary, "My Perestroika," is what the buzz is all about. The documentary is an intimate portrait of the last generation of Soviet children brought up behind the Iron Curtain.
"Together, these five Muscovite classmates paint a complex picture of the hopes, dreams and disillusionment of those raised behind the Iron Curtain. Through candid first-person testimony, revealing verité© footage, and vintage home movies, Hessman, who spent many years living in Moscow, reveals a Russia rarely seen on film, where people speak frankly about their lives and country," is how the film is described on its website.
It opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline tomorrow, Friday, April 8.
"I never thought about it," is how Hessman responded when reminded of the praise. "It's been thrilling, exciting for me."
Since premiering at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, "My Perestroika" has screened at some of the world's top documentary festivals, including Full Frame, where it won the Filmmaker Award. At the Silverdocs festival, it won the Special Jury Award, and the New Directors/New Films award.
It's obviously an impressive resume for the Andover-bred Hessman who said she was always a curious type of kid, especially about Russia and its people.
"I subscribed to 'Soviet Life' (magazine) when I was 10," she said.
"I remember being in the second grade at Pike and we played a game, U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. The U.S. was all the girls, U.S.S.R. was all the boys. It was 1979 and there was a lot of fear. I remember thinking, 'What if I was born there?'" she said.
Her curiosity about Russia got serious at Phillips Academy as she was surrounded by faculty who were just as intellectually curious about the emerging new Russia.
"Phillips had the first high school exchange program with Siberia," she said proudly. "We had kids from there."
She was eager to see Russia for herself and eventually would.
Hessman graduated from Brown University with a dual degree in Russian and film. She earned her graduate degree in film directing from the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow (with a "red diploma" of honors).
During her eight years living in Russia, she worked for the Children's Television Workshop as the on-site producer of Ulitsa Sezam, the original Russian-language Sesame Street.
Closer to home, Hessman co-produced the documentary Tupperware!, which received the Peabody Award in 2005. She also co-produced the PBS biography of Julia Child, Julia! America's Favorite Chef.
In 2004, she founded Red Square Productions and was named Filmmaker in Residence at Boston's PBS affiliate, WGBH, to develop "My Perestroika."
The film was a labor of love as it took six years to make.
"I saw hope and excitement among the people, even when there was no food and there were coupons for rations," she said.
That hope kept her motivated.
Now 38, she is an associate of Harvard University's Davis Center for Russia and Eurasian Studies. Since 2006, she has served as the director of documentary programming for Amfest, the American Film Festival in Moscow.
The film promises to teach the history of a place from the people who lived it, "like attending a party in an unfamiliar city and discovering the place's secrets from the guests," as one film critic wrote.