A 31-year-old Marysia Nikitiuk has released many successful projects. She wrote screenplays for 7 short films, shot 3 short films “In Trees”, “Mandrake” and “Rabies: Skaz” and is working now on the “Seraphyma” film. Her screenplays were awarded several times at different international festivals. We met at the Odesa International Film Festival before the Ukrainian premiere of her film “When the Trees Fall”. The screenplay of the film was awarded the Krzysztof Kieślowski Award and the Cannes 2016 ScripTeast Award. Her first book “The Abyth (Stories of the Doom)” won the Oles Ulianenko International Literature Award.
“When the Trees Fall” is the first full-length film by Marysia Nikitiuk. Last year, the film was chosen for the Panorama Berlinale, where in February, the premiere took place. Ukrainian premiere took place on 19 and 21 July, 2018 at the Odesa International Film Festival. It will officially come out on 13 September, 2018.
Marysia, you are so young but you have already tried yourself in different professions. Tell us please who you are today: a journalist, a scriptwriter, a theatre expert, a critic, a founder of theatrical portal or a director?
Marysia Nikitiuk is Marysia Nikitiuk (laughs). She is, I mean me, into directing, scriptwriting and writing of, well, books sound a bit posh – of prose. I guess that all these activities are of the same nature. Each of them just requires a particular tool. All these activities are about utterance, searching of stories, points and showing these stories in one of three kinds.
You said that Vitka, the heroine of your film, reflects you at some point. That’s why a viewer having watched the film can imagine how it was. Tell please about your childhood, where did you grow up?
I spent my childhood in different places. It was hard for my parents in the 90-s. This summer story happened at my grandmother’s, my mother’s mother, it was the suburb of Pavlohrad, Kharkiv region. It was a town of miners, and there was a suburb with detached houses. My grandma was living in a house, there were pastures, Roma people lived nearby. This place was very poetic with picturesque landscapes. It was kind of Bela Tarr or Marquez. Firstly, I think I took that welcoming natural wattage for film from that place. Secondly, it was the first time for me as well as for my heroine Vitka to meet nature, people, nature of people, to get confused for the first time, “Why I can’t do it?” That’s why I appreciate a lot these memories and that reality which remained in my memory. Because we visited that place and nothing of what I remember remained. Cottages which look the same are built in a pasture like in a scary anti-utopia. Like Brazil. But this place remained, as a childhood, in my memory. It is the place which I remember. Of course, I remember it not as it used to be. But I tried to convey the atmosphere of a little girl Vitka’s village, what I remember about my childhood. The setting and emotions.
I have just understood one more meaning of the film title. Usually, people say remembering their childhood, “When trees were big” and there was such a film… So, your trees appear to have fallen?
Yes, yes. Nothing remained there. It used to be a little paradise. My grandma had a garden, she was growing a lot of plants…
There was one street with buildings, some streets with detached houses. Among those houses, big Roma families lived. They were bright, very beautiful. There were a pasture, forests, swamps opposite the houses. It was very picturesque. Civilization came to that place at some point, I remember my grandmother having problems with water, there were some pumps. Perhaps, it wasn’t very comfortable for people then, it is more comfortable now, but my childhood is gone. Everything remained in my head and now in the film.
The film reveals that you were kind of a rebel in the childhood. Was it so when you were a teenager?
I guess I was even more rebellious at that age, but I don’t get what to compare it with…
And what if to compare it with your another heroine who was at that age – with Larisa or other actors?
Definitely! Well, I chose such actors. They turned out to be rebels either. Nastia [Anastasia Pustovit, the actress who played the main character – ED.] was afraid often. She didn’t like to lie in a cold water. There is a swamp in the film, it looked nice, but who knew that there were cold springs under it. And she was lying there for half an hour. Nastia was very cross at me then. She was cross at me many times, actually, but we had to do it. There were things which we just couldn’t fail to do because otherwise everything was in vain.
As for me being a rebel, I guess I have always been a rebel and will be forever. When I was younger, it was all about my appearance, flashy clothes, eccentric deeds. And now I am more concerned about not how I look in the reality but rather how to show this reality, and what I try to bring into it. If it is nothing, then I just don’t have to touch it. Life is beautiful, and we should be honest, sincere and try to bring something interesting (I mean films, stories). Because what you have called “a rebel”, it used to be it, but now it is shifting to a creative deepness, I hope. Or I’m just on my way to it.
Marysia, how did you chose your future profession? How have you become a director?
Actually, I’ve dreamt to be a writer since I was 13. And I am gradually moving towards that… I had a plan to write 3 ingenious novels until I am 20, and then I planned to quit this profession. Such a dream of a child. When I was around 20, I realized that I had nowhere to study for a writer (then I didn’t know about the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute where Andruhovych and Natasha Vorozhbit had studied (Ukrainian famous writers). My generation didn’t think about studying in Moscow for some reason. We just didn’t get the information. If I had known, I would have gone there, perhaps. I craved to be a writer so I was ready.
I had to study for a journalist because my parents were worrying a lot. They said that I had to gain some profession, something close to what I was fond of, and then I could do what I wanted. In their opinion, if I failed, I could earn some money anyway. Or I wouldn’t be a freeloader. I realized that journalism wasn’t for me… When I was studying, journalism was political, now there is an art one. And in 2003, there was nothing but hatchet men and gag orders, so-called temniki (political orders on what news to cover and how), I didn’t pay attention to that at all. I delved into the theatre, fell in love with Nekrošius’s plays. I chose a profession of a theatre critic and became a film expert-critic.
So I began to write plays. Everything was happening so fast, however, I was still dreaming to become a writer. I was invited, as I was writing plays, to write a screenplay, for “Ukraine, Goodbye!” [Ukrainian film compiled of short films about migration abroad – ED.] Screenplays looked good. Many people got involved, I delved into it fully and left my theatrical activity. Having written 5-6 short screenplays, I finally wrote my first book “Abyss”. I had also directed short films.
It was hard for me, I wanted to control utterance when I was a scriptwriter. So I was dreaming to become a writer. A director and a writer seem very similar to me. The only difference is a director works with people, and a writer works with own follies. A director also works with them, but he or she also has to communicate with a 70-people team, find a common ground with them and manage everything: in team and aesthetic regards. That’s why I didn’t feel comfortable to be only a scriptwriter, I wanted to control utterance. Volodia Voitenko [a film critic – ED.]said that I really got to him and advised me to try to shoot a short film with Ihor Savychenko. I had already written the screenplay of “When the Trees Fall” then, and I realised that I couldn’t give it to anybody because it was very close to me. So we decided: if my first film succeeded, then I would continue to get educated in this field, shoot films, attend workshops, go to Europe to get practice and all that which I am lack of. To do it stridently.
It was very risky as, in fact, Ukraine does not have a transpicuous film market with strict rules. It is hard to get money. What did you count on when decided to film your screenplay?
I didn’t count on anything. I was doing it because I had to do it.
Did you become more confident when the screenplay was awarded in the Cannes?
No, actually. I was pleased to get a prize. Everybody loves when he or she is loved. As for confidence, I don’t think so. It is an inner work, it doesn’t depend on outer factors. We were already at the preliminary stage. So when we were awarded we got excited: it was awesome, just like a benefit. It was a benefit for PR and marketing, distribution and festivals. It is just a pleasant benefit. However, it didn’t influence shooting and funding, getting resources. This award is not that significant to have a big impact. The work was at the final stage: we won at the end of May, and in September, our arrangements with Ukraine, Poland, Macedonia were confirmed, so we started to shoot the film in September. So people knew about us – yes, we were pleased – yes. Special super benefits during production – no. But the award couldn’t have such a significant impact as it was given for the screenplay.
Marysia, tell us why all Ukrainians should watch your film?
All Ukrainians? (laughs)
If not all, then who exactly should watch it?
Frankly speaking, I don’t know. I do want as many people as possible to come and watch it. I tried to say to myself something very important, and I failed in many things. For many reasons, you can’t see them – but I see. I watch and say to myself, well, yeah, here I could do it another way. But when you watch it to the final scene, I am satisfied that there is an articulated utterance about the need of inner freedom, about the need of insisting on your point and searching of your way, finding your way, not being afraid of it and not getting stuck in it as in a swamp. Because swamp isn’t in a particular place, it is where there are no moves. And without any moves even springwater will become a swamp. About our mental traumas which are inside of us, Ukrainians. Not understanding what freedom is. I don’t mean “I do what I want”, I mean responsibility. The lack of it leads to grave consequences already today, in Ukraine. We don’t want to become politically responsible. Choose, search and build future for Ukraine and for ourselves.
I would like it to be not only somewhere in a beautiful Europe, but here for many people. For everybody, it would be utopia, perhaps… I wanted to tell about all these. I guess the film articulates, shows it. I do want the audience to laugh, cry, worry and get many emotions, which I’ve put there. I really wanted to share it with them.
Due to the film, it is clear that you don’t care much about what others say. But whose opinion on your film is important for you?
My mother and father haven’t watched the film yet.
Have you not shown them?
No. Firstly, there has been no screening in Ukraine yet. The premiere is on 19 and 21 July. Secondly, we don’t live together. They and I wanted to watch it on a big screen. They said they would wait until it would be in cinemas from 13 September. But they managed to come for the weekend [to the festival – ED.]. It is very important to me. I am even turning into a little girl who wants to be said that everything’s all right.
The opinion of my parents is important to me, as well as of my friends-critics. There are some of them we have an open dialogue with. For example, Volodia Voitenko. The opinion of my friends-directors is also important. The point is we can’t be always honest with each other. You know how hard it was for your colleague, what kidney he has lost, what spleen he has sold. What spleen that film has been built on. And you don’t feel a moral right to be 100% honest if you liked or not. Actually, it is a real happiness when you like everything and you can sincerely say that you are amazed.
Marysia, don’t you think that Roma people are too romanticized in your film? The problem is extremely disturbing today, but some people are starting a dangerous fire. Did you feel this problem in the society while writing the screenplay or is it just an image, as it has just turned out from your childhood?
On the one hand, it is the image from my childhood, on the other, it is a feeling… Roma people represent one of the components in my film, as well as the main characters, or something different. Can they be considered friends? Not suitable for somebody but remaining themselves? And how it is important to be oneself in a not tolerant enough society, which can bully for that. They appeared there for some reason, they are like a supporting line, which takes part in a dramaturge as well, but has a certain half-tone if it is not tolerated. This conflict is real. Of course, I romanticized Roma people because it is the image from my childhood. They were like from a book of Marquez. Horses, many children, gypsies who were sitting and smoking pipes. However, they were more of Bela Tarr. It was really very beautiful.
Did you communicate with Roma children in your childhood and were not afraid as Vitka? Did adults scare you that they would kidnap you?
I am afraid of almost nobody. Adults warned me, as well as Vitka, not to come close to a horse because it is dangerous. But they never warned me of Roma people. I just think that any taboo topic isn’t 100% convenient, all these topics become… You know, a chain fails at its weakest link. They become a subject for special political manipulations. We have one big country called Earth. We are destroying it brutally, destroying each other. The goal of the current century is to make us find a way to peacefully live together, have wider views, otherwise we will have grave consequences: ecological, totalitarian. We should be scared of all these manipulations. We need an informational hygiene now. Because there are so many methods and ways of manipulations today that no other epoch has had so many. That’s why you always have to think: whether you react to the information rightly.
Interview by Svitlana Bondar
Photo by Maryna Bandeliuk