"Chernobyl should have been preserved as a cultural object"

A conversation with Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi

21 April 2016
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Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi is probably the biggest star among Ukrainian directors. At the Cannes film festival in 2014, his film The Tribe won three Critics' Week prizes and was nominated for the Caméra d'Or, and the magazine Rolling Stone called it the most intense film of 2015. Slaboshpytskyi's next project is Luxembourg, an art film about life in today's Chernobyl zone. Screening rights to the film have already been acquired in a number of European countries. Myroslav talks about his plans for the future, his early works, the problems of Ukrainian culture and the Chernobyl zone.

Markian Kamysh: I’ve seen your films The Diagnosis, Deafness, Nuclear Waste, and The Tribe, and I understand why you’re called the “Titanic” of Ukrainian cinema. Which of these films is dearest to you, and which one’s filming do you think of with the greatest nostalgia?

Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi: They are all small films, and clearly the most important of them is The Tribe. It changed my circumstances the most, although in a certain sense it grew out of Deafness. And, of course, the making of short films is a unique kind of activity.

To make a short film, you don’t need state support or some sort of huge opportunity. In principle, you could grab a camera and your friends and manage with these alone, although the budget of The Diagnosis was 35,000 dollars. We filmed it with a Kodak, on film. It was 2008, and I got the money from my dad and the pharmaceutical company Darnytsia.

This is what all Americans go through too, though not Europeans: the investors in your first film are friends and family.

And as far as Deafness goes, in a certain sense it gave rise to The Tribe, which was shot in the same region. So Deafness was an attempt at working out the concept of The Tribe

Nuclear Waste will also have a certain influence on Luxembourg. We showed it as a “pilot” for Luxembourg, because it’s obviously time to speak from the heart on this matter. But I think I’ve put the topic of Deafness behind me.

MK: Film critics have called The Tribe a “film about love”. If you were asked to give a phrase to characterize Luxembourg, what would you say? Besides the fact that it is going to be a film about the Zone as it exists today and the people who work in this unique “country within a country”, almost nothing is known about it. Are there any details that have now been worked out that you’d be willing to share?

Ukrainian film director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi at the 6th Odessa International Film Festival. Photo: Andriy Makukha (Amakuha). Source: Wikimedia

MS: I learned how to explain what The Tribe is about when I was giving my first couple dozen interviews. When you’re filming, you really don’t think what the film is about. It is an irrational process. You think up the story and dream up the style, and these are the two most important things. The story has to cross over into the style, and the style has to cross over into the story. They operate as one.

But to go the route where you think “I’m making a film about this or that” seems somewhat misguided to me, because people have been watching movies for a long time now … the cinema has existed for 120 years. And a director can underscore an idea, but when he does so, he loses an emotional connection with the viewer, because the viewer immediately understands what is being “fed” to him rather than being emotionally engaged. And the most important thing that can happen in cinema is emotional engagement.

Thinking up something new is extremely complicated, and when I watch films I am less interested in their stories. I’m tired of films that tell stories … there should be a story, but there should also be a chemistry of sorts, some emotional action.

So that brings us to Luxembourg, and the main problem here is finding an emotional context. To put it bluntly, does it work, or doesn’t it? The truth, or how engaging the story is, or the dramaturgy – these don’t matter in the bigger picture … All these things are important, but they are not sufficient. It’s always enough to look at a single shot, and from that one shot you’ll be able to tell: “It’s working.” And if it’s working, it has to be put into the film.

How can you tell if something’s working? It’s like pornography: everyone knows it when they see it, but no one can explain it. But it’s working! Great! And if it works, it works. So right now we’re doing a lot of test shots. I planned some things out on paper and then there are a lot more things that I haven’t thought up yet, but thinking things up is what I’m paid for; it’s my job.

And now we’re traveling around, hiring extras and filming preliminary versions of scenes that will be in the film, but will be re-shot with actors who were in The Tribe. And we’re watching, trying to figure out whether it works or not. Whether we’re on the right track or not. We still have time – we’re just rehearsing.

MK: You, in essence, “belong” to the Zone. Talk about your experience working there in the 1990s. About your visits there, about your acquaintance with that place. What has changed? What struck you then, and what does now? And – a question that’s particularly important when we talk about Luxembourg – what potential backdrops did you notice then, and what now?

MS: The 1990s were a golden age. It was much more dangerous, I think, in the sense of radioactivity, than it is now. The system was crueler. We were disguised several times. The ’90s were a time of flourishing. That was the first time I went there and was absolutely stunned. I saw the Zone as a staggering, fantastical art object, as a huge theatre set.

Back then I went everywhere, not just to the town of Pripyat. I was working for an agency called Chernobyl Inter Inform, an organization that dealt not only with tourism, but also with escorting delegations, scholars and the press. My desire to make a film about the Chernobyl zone, and the cognitive dissonance I feel today in connection with working on Luxembourg, are connected to the notion that my inspiration and enchantment are based on the Zone of the ’90s, on something that no longer exists.

I don’t want to fib: it was sometime around 1996 or 1997. Back then the trees hadn’t grown as much and it was a sort of slightly overgrown city. And a more or less preserved city. Now Pripyat looks not just like it has been looted, but like something out of the series Life after People.

In the summer you can’t see anything there. That is, you go into the city of Pripyat, and you see Prospekt Lenina, which looks like a forest. And in that forest you can scarcely make out buildings of some sort or another. This means it is utterly unsuitable for filming, which is somewhat depressing, because it was an absolutely fantastic object.

Rassokha, for example, where there was a huge field full of various amazing Soviet machinery, might have been a bit muddy, but it was there. And there were helicopters standing there, in that field. It was a sort of fantastical museum, a cultural object, an improbable place, and now it’s totally gone, it’s been “cut down”.

Last August we went to that machine cemetery in Rassokha, and it’s littered with various pieces of metal. Everything has been reduced to scrap.

Now it’s too late. But maybe it would have made sense to preserve it as a cultural object? Delegations travel there, and after all it’s the site of a significant man-made catastrophe. It’s been talked up by a PR machine, and people visit it constantly.

And as painful as it might be to hear it, all everyone knows about us is “Klitschko, Dynamo Kyiv, Chernobyl”. And that’s it. Well, and I guess you can add Maidan now. It was a brand.

Although, I recently explained to people in New York that Chernobyl isn’t Russia, and they were sincerely amazed. Somehow or other, Ukraine managed to privatize Chernobyl, even though it hit Belarus too, and it affected Russia.

But Chernobyl and Pripyat are Ukrainian cities, and this is our “inheritance”. It might be a dubious inheritance, but, naturally, just as with any other of our achievements and memorials, we’ve spectacularly wasted it. That’s a national character trait of ours. Because no one bothered to save Chernobyl.

I don’t think it was so important and profitable to dismantle Rassokha. I don’t think that it was so very crucial in the financial sense, all the more because international organizations offer support, and there were donors. People even joke that the Chernobyl power plant is sometimes the only thing that prevented us from being forgotten entirely in the international arena.

It’s a modern reserve, of the sort that no longer exists anywhere in the world, or at least it seems that way to me. It would have made sense, but unfortunately it didn’t happen, and now I think it’s too late. And I think eventually it will all fade away. There are different theories: people will be allowed into a certain portion of the Zone, for example, but the city of Pripyat will vanish.

Chernobyl. Photo: Stefan Krasowski. Source: Flickr.com

MK: You’re thinking about the risk that Luxembourg won’t be a success after the staggering triumph of The Tribe. Do you feel pressure? Fear, maybe?

MS: Of course. Yesterday I read one of the countless American ratings for the “most anticipated film of 2016”, and Luxembourg was in the eighth spot.

But I take comfort in the fact that somehow or other I have already made The Tribe. It exists. And I could make another forty bad films, I could not make another film, and I would still be the creator of The Tribe, so there’s not really anything to lose here.

The Tribe did everything it could, and if it weren’t for the villains, crooks and miscreants on the Ukrainian Oscar committee, then it might have done even more.

See, no one has ever set out to make a bad film. Well, with maybe a handful of exceptions, no one does that. Everyone makes what they understand to be good films, and that’s why they want to make them. What takes over then is whether or not you do a good job of it.

In all my films I try never to take it easy on anyone, to be as honest as possible, to create the highest quality and most correct picture I can. From there, its fate is in the hands, well, of God, first of all, because there are good films that fail, and secondly of the publicists, agents, and all those sorts.

MK: Will we see Sergei Gavrilyuk again in Luxembourg? You call him your talisman and he appeared in Deafness and Nuclear Waste?

MS: So far we don’t have agreements with any actors; the cast is not yet finalized. I adore Sergei, but I don’t know yet.

MK: The characters in Deafness, you could say, are silent, like the main characters in Nuclear Waste. There isn’t a single word uttered in The Tribe. At the press conference announcing your new film, it was confirmed that in Luxembourg the characters talk. Are they going to be chatterboxes?

MS: Not really chatterboxes. But they do speak.

It’s a huge problem. I have a friend who lives in Ostend in Flanders, Belgium. He says that they have something like 200 dialects. (Don’t sue me over this, because I can’t check or contradict this). And he says that the Flemish used in Belgian films is a very artificial language, a sort of composite. In reality it’s a language that no one speaks. And in a certain sense the same is true for us.

MK: So they’ll speak the typical Dnipro surzhyk?

MS: It’s not so crucial to me what sort of surzhyk it is. What’s important to me is that they don’t speak the elevated language used in some theatres. Of course, we also work a lot with native speakers, and that’s very important. And very difficult.

Someone wrote a great review of The Tribe (unfortunately I don’t remember who), in which it said “Good for Slaboshpytsky – he took everything that is irritating in contemporary Ukrainian film and got rid of it”. And that includes artificial language. And it’s artificial not because it’s a language, but because A, the actors speak horribly, and B – in American film, there’s the term “linguistic features of the character” and endless jokes about accents, as well as a whole industry of accent and dialect coaches. And so if a person speaks with a New York accent, that characterizes them as a concrete personality type; if a person speaks with a Southern or a Texas accent, that also characterizes them as a certain type. But if they speak like they do on the main Ukrainian radio channel, that doesn’t say anything about them and immediately ruins any emotional connection to the film. And that’s not a good thing.

The same is true with Russian. It’s not important whether it’s Ukrainian or Russian. Do you see? It’s a very big problem.

It’s not important whether it’s people from Galicia, or the Dnipro region or Sumy or Kyiv. Pronunciation doesn’t equal knowledge of the language. There’s also the matter of how the muscles in your mouth are built – or at least how they move when you speak. And they move differently than for the actors in dramatic theatres, and there’s a huge problem with this.

MK: The idea exists that good Ukrainian cinema has to represent Ukrainian distinctiveness and a sort of unbuttoned authenticity, somewhat strange and somewhat wild. Critics have said that one reason The Tribe is so effective is that it is a film about the lower strata of society in a country on the edge of the civilized world. And now you’ve chosen Chernobyl, which could also be called a distinctive feature of Ukraine …

MS: I’m actually an exception, and this is important, but do you know how the cinema works? There’s an “area” – American cinema, British, Australian, New Zealand. In principle this is one and the same area. It’s the English-language territory. There is a great joke that the British Empire survived; it just crossed the ocean.

And before the war we were also an “area.” There were many Russian-language pictures made in Ukraine with Russian actors, just like how American stars are invited to Britain or British stars are invited to the United States. Everything is very simple: there’s a market to be had – 144 million in Russia, 40-odd million in Ukraine, a few million more in Belarus. And together that’s quite a big audience.

Alexander Yefimovych Rodnyansky, who is better at turning a phrase than I am, said: “out of this territory, what interests viewers are the films of the great masters.” Period.

We are really the European underground. We are the underclass of Europe. This is the truth. According to all of the UN and WHO ratings and all the rest: GDP per capita, income, social security, life expectancy …

MK: So, we’re selling the depths?

MS: No, we are the depths. We are selling art.

Relatively speaking, we are striving to be in the European Union. Compared to the other European countries, we’re the “poorest village in the district.” This doesn’t do away with our heroism, it doesn’t do away with our national renaissance. Within ten years we might have outstripped everyone, maybe, but also maybe not.

But we are still a bunch of serfs – a country without foreign passports. Accordingly, we have a high level of Ukrainocentrism, while really the world is enormous.

When it comes to The Tribe, lots of films are made that take a critical look at social issues (including in Ukraine), but they aren’t all received the same way as The Tribe. So that’s not the issue.

MK: What are you planning after Luxembourg?

MS: I have a manager and agent in the United States – I’m represented by CAA (Creative Artists Agency). I asked for a break while working on Luxembourg, so for now I’m not being sent scripts. I last spoke with my manager and agent over Orthodox Christmas. Maybe, if everything goes well, I’ll make an English-language film.

MK: You’re a unique director. A person who has long been in the Zone and who knows it from within. And you are also different from the other directors who are now using Chernobyl for material. In light of the approaching 30-year anniversary and the popularity of this subject, what advice would you give to people who want to make a film about Chernobyl?

MS: It’s wrong to give advice. I wouldn’t listen to anyone myself. And I wouldn’t want to give anyone any advice. But in my case, my partial “insiderdom” rather hinders me. You have to treat the material more unceremoniously, because you are trying to cram something into one film that is physically impossible to cram in.

Published 21 April 2016

Original in Ukrainian
Translation by Kate Younger
First published in Ukrainska Pravda, 21 January 2016 (Ukrainian version); Eurozine (English version)

© Markian Kamysh / Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi / Ukrainska Pravda / Eurozine

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