November 14, 2012

Yuri Shevchuk in Conversation with Mykhailo Illienko

This year, after almost a decade of hiatus, Ukraine offered a feature narrative film for the Oscar consideration in the best foreign language film category. The film is "The Fire-Crosser" (ToiKhtoProishovKrizVohon), directed by Mykhailo Illienko. Mr. Illienko is one of the best-known Ukrainian filmmakers today. He was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1947. He graduated from the All-Union State Institute for Cinema (VGIK), atelier of Mikhail Romm and since 1973 has worked as film director for the Oleksander Dovzhenko Film Studio, Kyiv, Ukraine. Since 2000, Mr. Illienko has been Dean of the Film School of the Kyiv Ivan Karpenko-Kary National University for Theater, Film, and TV. His previous feature narrative film Fudzhou, 1993, is now unavailable for international and Ukrainian viewers.

Lead Actor Dmytro Linartovych.

Mykhailo Illienko has been instrumental in promoting a Ukrainian national cinema, that would address nationally specific issues, employ Ukrainian talent, be made in the Ukrainian language, and with the Ukrainian viewer in mind. Since 1997 he has organized the Open Night Film Festival to showcase the most talented young Ukrainian filmmakers. As professor, public figure, and founding director of the Open Night FF Mykhailo Illienko has consistently promoted the idea that Ukraine needs it own national cinema, something that has gotten a rather cold reception from the Ukrainian government and the oligarch-dominated TV corporations in Ukraine. "The Fire-Crosser" is perhaps the first chance since 1993 Illienko got to translate his vision of Ukrainian national cinema art onto the silver screen. The film has had an enthusiastic viewers' reception and unprecedented box-office despite its rather limited national distribution.
The Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia University has counted Mykailo Illienko among its most devoted supporters and valuable friends. Below is the interview, Yuri Shevchuk conducted with Mr. Mykhailo in late September of 2012 over the phone from Ukraine. The translation from Ukrainian was done by Ali Kinsella, Sarah Diaz and  Emily Channell, Advanced Ukrainian students at Columbia University.


YS: Where does the underlying story for the film come from?
MI: It was 1967 after the exhibition in Montreal. Tymofiy Levchuk and Natalya Naum, the actress who plays my mother in the film White Bird with a Black Mark,probably took it back with them to Kyiv. They heard this story at the 1967 Expo in Canada. At the request of Makhmud Esembayev, who was also in the Soviet delegation, they were taken to see how Indians lived. Esembayev, himself a world-renowned dancer, simply wanted to see their dances. It was then that the chief of the local Indian tribe upon hearing Ukrainian responded back in Ukrainian. This chief was the prototype for the main character in the movie.

YS: So they talked to him about this in detail, and he told them all of this?
MI: Well, in those times he couldn't speak candidly with all of the delegation about what had happened to him. After all, he still had relatives in Ukraine. In those times it was dangerous to have a relative who had been in German captivity, all the more since he didn't return. He knew what awaited him in the Soviet Union—concentration camps. Therefore he was afraid that something might happen to his family and he couldn't tell everything. But he found a moment and indeed shared his story with Esembayev. Only after the collapse of the USSR, did Esembayev tell this story in one of his interviews.

YS: What happened to the actual chief, to the real person, later? Where did he end up?
MI: There are lots of gaps in this story; it was, after all, 1967. Some journalistic research was begun in those times, for aside from his Indian name, he also mentioned his given name, Ivan Datsenko, and Ivan Datsenko was a hero of the Soviet Union. Journalists began digging. As it turned out, the chief had relatives. I know that his niece lives in Poltava. Besides that, I know a person, a woman who's already a little old, who saw him just after the war in a camp. He was given the opportunity to choose: return to the Soviet Union to concentration camps, or find himself another way, that is, to escape across the border. Alas he chose the alternative path and it's from that moment that his biography becomes generally spotty. It's changed in the film. In the film, we only generalized the facts of his biography that would have formed the consciousness of a Soviet individual. For example, Stalin gave an order not to be taken prisoner. In actuality this was an order for suicide. According to this law, anyone who had been taken prisoner of war—never mind that they were heroes of the Soviet Union—was threatened with long, hard investigation. And for ordinary people there was a direct road to the camps somewhere beyond the Urals. This is a typical story. So we took everything from his biography except for his crossing the border, well and what happened to him later. And by the way, he really did have a wife and sons. Journalists have researched this.

YS: Was his wife in Canada or the one in Ukraine shown in the film?

Filming Fire-Crosser on location.

MI: No, in Canada. The entire romantic storyline is of course invented for the viewers, for we explicitly made a movie for the audience, a genre film, a melodrama, a romantic ballad about love, betrayal, and fidelity, about a duel with destiny. That's why we changed his name in the film. In the movie he's not Ivan Datsenko but Ivan Dodoka.

YS: Would it be correct to say that what happened to this person in his real life, with Ivan Datsenko, is essentially unknown?
MI: Yes. I don't know what happened to him later. If I were in Canada and making a documentary, then I'd study that as much as possible. But here in Ukraine I can only thread broken facts together so that they resemble beads on a necklace, facts interwoven with fiction.

YS: Did Esembayev publish this story somewhere or has it just been passed down orally?
MI: Esembayev told this story in an interview. During the [Russian-Chechen] war, his house in Chechnya burned down along with his archives. Nothing of his remains. If it hadn't burned, then probably there would be some kind of evidence. At the start of perestroika he recounted this story in a completely different way from how he had been forced to tell it earlier. Esembayev himself, by the way, could speak a little Ukrainian. Therefore the chief realized that this was a world-renowned dancer. In addition, Esembayev and his parents lived with Ukrainians in Kazakhstan during the war. I've been told that he could therefore speak Ukrainian.

YS: Mykhaylo, as a director what attracted you to this story?
MI: Well in the first place, the heroic story. I'd say that I'm already tired of stories that are coming out in Ukraine. We don't film that many movies and the majority of those filmed are depressing, destructive, boring tear-jerkers. May my colleagues forgive me. Among them are films that have won prizes, there are very good films. I'm not saying that they're all bad, but we've sort of gotten hung up on the fashion of the depressing movie in which we're told about yet another person for whom once again nothing works out. I wanted to tell a fantastic story. I wrote about a hero who's been renounced by the kingdom and doesn't have the right to choose a new king, but himself becomes the king in a hopeless situation, when he was doomed to succumb and so on.

YS: That's very interesting. What cities was the movie filmed in?
MI: It was filmed in Ukraine. The only exception was the first shot, which was filmed on the border of Argentina and Chile. Filming was yet again stalled—it was put on hold five or six times—and this was the longest stop lasting the whole year because of the presidential elections. We were told, "That's it. Forget it. You won't work on this for at least a year. Go where you want, do what you want. So my friends from the yacht club in Kyiv invited me on a trip around the world. I said to them, "Guys, I can't go around the world with you because that would be too long. I have until next summer. That's our last chance to finish the movie. I have until next summer." They said, "Well let's go. We're planning on going to the Ukrainian station on Antarctica. And I thought, "What if I film Alaska there?"
I grabbed an overcoat. I got my equipment and we set out in the Black Sea in December, but we left late. We passed through the Mediterranean and then crossed the Atlantic. By then it was clear that we'd be late for Antarctica because it's only open for yachts two months out of the year. We were going to be late. So then the guys said to me, "You're not going to be able to film this scene." We studied the situation, rented a car in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and went to the Andes on the border with Chile. The [Ukrainian] diaspora suggested just where to go to find desert-like the surface of the moon. So they helped us and we had three days for that, no four because we had return tickets to Ukraine with fixed dates. And there were tickets from Ukraine because we were partially changing our crew. Two of us, I and my buddy, flew back to Ukraine and another two came out in our places. The tickets were set. We had to meet them, we had to… So we had four days which ended up being enough time to film. We planned on a whole scene, but there wasn't time for that, so we just got one shot. And that's the only shot which was filmed abroad. The Andes there are playing the part of Alaska.

YS: Where in Ukraine was the film shot?
MI: In Kam'ianets-Podilsky and not far from Kyiv in the Rzhyshchev district.

YS: How were the actors chosen?
MI: I just know them; they're my friends. The only thing anyone suggested was to look for movie stars for this film. But, we don't have any movie stars because we don't make any movies. In order to have stars, you have to make movies. So they said to me, "We don't have stars. Let's get them from Moscow, from Leningrad, er from St. Petersburg." And I said, "No. Let's rely on our own resources because this is our story, this is our language." Language, by the way, is a very serious theme in the movie. The hero underwent a series of challenges in several languages and didn't forget his own, further, he could address everyone in her native language. Had he not spoken to the Indians in their own language, he wouldn't have become a chief.

YS: So why is there so little Ukrainian in the film?
MI: We were obligated to show the path he traveled during a very serious Soviet period. I didn't want to make a movie like they used to earlier in the Soviet films where the German soldiers and the Soviets all spoke Russian, but the Germans spoke in high, obnoxious voices. That's nonsense. He made it. He passed all the tests. He understood with his heart that the shortest route to a person is his native language, even if just a few words are sounded. To his own Tatar lover, to the chief, and so on. This is a very important topic and right now it's very twisted. This is a calamity in Ukraine. The language question is being transformed into a (military) frontline now. The map of Ukraine is flagged to show the latest region [of the country] which has betrayed the Ukrainian language. It's war. Those scoundrels (the ruling Party of Regions) have lit a fuse and they don't even know what's on the other end of it. Let them watch the film and see how you need to treat languages. What's a language (anyway)? It's for us to love each other. This is a very timely topic. I purposely explored it, in spite of what people say, "This isn't a Ukrainian film. You don't have enough Ukrainian." They should watch it again. This is a language, which the film's protagonist not only didn't forget, but also taught others, like the children who sang that popular folk song Byla Mene Maty (My Mother Would Beat Me). So this is a very serious topic, very timely. I deliberately approached it this way. In order to show the language war, many languages had to be heard. It couldn't have been done like (Kubrick's) Spartacus.

YS: What was the film's budget?
MI: The budget was two million dollars.

YS: What were the biggest problems with the shooting of the film?
MI: Interruptions in financing. We had five or six standstills. The longest, as I told, actually wasn't a year but a year and a half. That means it was two years which is fatal for a film. Each time we had to gather the group all over again. For this reason, the film credits roll for some seven minutes. We had multiple make-up artists, multiple costume designers. Except for the most basic ones like DOP, art designer, producer, and director, the jobs are all repeated many times. So, it wasn't simple, unsettling in fact when they said the film would be put on hold for a year. In a year actors can change physically and visually and God forbid some of them did. Life is life and each time there was a stoppage, you'd think, "And who are we going to get after this?" That was the hardest. The filming is a magical process.

YS: How much money did it earn at the box-office?
MI: It didn't. It didn't return any money but among [Ukrainian] films it set box-office records. This is a paradox, but our films can't return investments because we have very few movie screens, very few movie theaters. And they're reserved a year in advance for American films. We can't enter freely into our own market. The film has the highest viewer ratings of the last twenty-one years. It was in theatrical disribution for three months, and now it's returning. It was shown on television and has been at a few festivals already. It had a limited distribution in Russia. Now there are negotiations about greater showings. It's come out on DVD. These are all record indices. Yet it returned (having cost 16 million hryvnias) two million hryvnias unfortunately, because there are very few copies. The money ran out and there was none left for copies. Presently film production and distribution in Ukraine is a zone of a high-risk agriculture so to say.

YS: Obviously as you were making this film you had a certain conception of this thing called "Ukrainian national cinema." Can you say a few words about how you see this? What should a Ukrainian national film be like?
MI: First of all, [there should be] a Ukrainian hero and, say, the dominance of the Ukrainian language. It's like in music; there's a term "tonality." There are lots of sounds and notes, but the tonality in each musical work is fixed. And that tonality determines the structure of the piece of music. The tonality of "TheFire-Crosser", if we're talking about language, is Ukrainian no matter what languages may be heard. The film has to resound; the tonality in a Ukrainian film must be Ukrainian by all means. I consciously set a goal that the hero had to be able to overcome everything and then some. And there necessarily must be harmony with the contemporary context. For example, just as much as the language question, this film in the end is about how to become a leader, how to become a chief or president. The movie is about how, when you're doomed to succumb, to not simply survive, but how to defeat fate. It's very important for us today to reject our pathetic position. Our tearful whining that we're fools because we're poor and poor because we're fools. I believe this is just an artificially imposed theme.

YS: What is your next project?
MI: An adaptation of Taras Shevchenko, a small romantic ballad called "Kateryna Had a House on a Platform" (U tiyi Kateryny khata na pomosti). There have been previous screen adaptations but rather wanting. This particular story has a direct relevance to our modernity. I can add that none of Shevchenko's dramas has been adapted to the screen for the last fifty years, including the whole period of independence. We have forgotten about Shevchenko. Educational and journalistic films, good in their own right have been made, but his protagonists haven't been allowed to speak for fifty years now.

YS: Has the funding for this film been secured yet?
MI: The project has already gone through the state competition and been approved. This means that the Ukrainian State Film Agency is willing to provide 50% of the funding. Now we're negotiating for the 50% of non-state funding. Theoretically prospects are good but the problem is that money is given reluctantly to filmmaking. We're negotiating and we welcome prospective investors.

YS: If everything goes like you plan, when will this film be ready?
MI: The premier is designated for the two-hundred year anniversary of Taras Shevchenko in 2014.

YS: Do you already have some ideas about which actors will be in it?
MI: Ukrainian.

YS: There's a ton of them.
MI: Theoretically I'm not opposed to some kind of unexpected conjunction of actors. This is a Ukrainian story, it's going to be in Ukrainian, and in any event this needs to be taken into account.

YS: Is there anything you'd like to say to American viewers of "TheFire-Crosser"?
MI: Firstly, this isn't a documentary. It's a version made from journalistic versions. Not one of my other films has been received like this, and I'm very glad, of course. As you know, it's dangerous to show [America to] Americans or Canada to Canadians. We didn't have the opportunity to go to Canada and film there. We filmed the whole movie ourselves. If an investor wants to join our production inspired by the writings of Taras Shevchenko, we're open to discussion. We're looking for partnerships with people who can offer investments, and we'll of course gladly make sure those investments are credited. After a 50-year moratorium, I really want Taras Shevchenko's words to be heard and his characters to be seen.


New York, NY - Kyiv, Ukraine.



Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia University© 2015. For more information please contact Yuri Shevchuk