Behind the belt of this actor and director, there are many years of experience and stories of real success in Ukraine and not only within its borders. It seems that the last year, his name has become inseparable from the Cyborgs movie, and finally has become a brand. The borderline between healthy patriotism and propaganda, heroism in Ukrainian cinema, the imposed complex of inferiority and Cyborgs’ completed mission – in a conversation of Akhtem Seitablaev with Opinion.
Akhtem, the premiere of Cyborgs, took place exactly one year ago. The movie completed the ultimate mission you had given it. Are you satisfied with the results?
Perhaps, I need to divide the question into two parts here. At first, every director wants as many viewers as possible to see his film. At that time, a year ago, Cyborgs set a record for the first-weekend box office in Ukraine and for the box office in general. It was unexpected for me; after all, it’s neither a comedy nor a fantasy. This is a contemporary military drama. The fact that we arouse such an interest of the viewer makes me very happy. I am also content that our crew together with Come Back Alive Foundation and the Ministry of Information Policy have launched the initiative I’m not indifferent. Its essence was that 5 hryvnias from each sold ticket were allocated to Come Back Alive Foundation. Then the money should be distributed among one hundred families of the deceased cyborgs. We’ve already handed over the money, but an official confirmation will take place on the anniversary of the Cyborgs release (the premiere of the film took place on the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, December 6, 2017 – author’s note). We’ve gathered more than 1 million 600 thousand hryvnias. It comes from our production only, it’s not the state money – it is the share that we, as producers, give on our behalf.
However, it’s clear that without the state’s support, without the support of the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff of the Armed Forces, we wouldn’t be able to make this film. And this is an evidence of a great step that has been made by such collaboration between the state and cinema producers. The budget of about one billion hryvnias allocated this year and the next one for the support and development of Ukrainian cinema – is proof of the state’s support. All these are evidence that the state has come to an understanding that cinema is a very powerful tool for uniting the country and telling our own story. To tell it on the territory of various genres: not only historical or military drama but also in the field of comedies, etc. And this is great because the cinema must be diverse.
Have we completed our ultimate mission? Apparently, it’s not me who has to talk about it. It should be the feedback we’ve received from the viewer… There are different thoughts, different perception of our film, you understand. But I’m glad that in the overwhelming majority they are positive, and above all, they are positive among those who were there. And this is very important because it’s them, who are the markers of whether we’ve managed to make an honest movie. In this context, it seems to me that we’ve accomplished our mission.
Cyborgs were often mentioned in the context of the response to Russian propaganda, as it is some kind of anti-propaganda. But still, how do you determine that boundary, when your picture risks to become propaganda or, for example, to convey a blind patriotic idea? How to distinguish between healthy patriotism and flag-waving?
In fact, this is a sense of taste. I find it difficult to say where this boundary is. Probably, it lies within each of us and depends on the books you read and how you express yourself. At least I think so. But, if we talk about propaganda in general, then there are such concepts as “propaganda of common sense”, or “propaganda of a healthy way of life”. And in this context, I am for propaganda. (smiles – author’s note).
Your next premiere is Zakhar Berkut. Somehow it turns out that recently in the focus of your work are heroes: historical, literary, modern. Not canonized, but simple, freedom-loving people, those who are ready to sacrifice themselves: Saide, Cyborgs, Zakhar Berkut. Is it coincidence or it is a pattern? Can Ukrainian cinema exist without such heroes?
Of course, the existence of cinema is possible without such characters. But, it seems to me, that the picture will be incomplete then. It is necessary to tell, let’s say legendary, not confirmed by some historical fact stories. It’s necessary because these are stories of victory. These are stories of the human spirit’s height. Stories about what’s important at any time of our existence.
A person keeps the fundamental values – freedom, dignity, love for the family, for the place where you live. The same happens with stories, even if they’ve existed for many years, they still help us to understand ourselves to some extent. And we, all each of us who shoots films, writes books, paints pictures, journalists – together, in such a symbiosis, in such a polyphony of our statements, we shape future to some extent. No matter how posh it may sound, it really happens this way. Therefore we have such stories, about such heroes, the ones who are really worth telling about.
Once you’ve said that one of the features that unite Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars is that complex of inferiority, some kind of imposed “you’ve never existed”. Is cinema able to join the eradication of this complex?
Yes, of course. We’re trying to do this, the films Haytarma, A prayer of strangers, Cyborgs. You’re quite right that this is an imposed complex. We need to get rid of it as soon as possible, because we are complete people, with our own history, with our own culture and tradition. Even if you look at the show business of a neighboring country – more than 60% of people who’re working there and are recognized stars – they came from Ukraine. What does it mean? (smiles – author’s note) About how talented (if we speak about a talent in general) our country is.
You understand that any empire, any authoritarian dictatorship is characterized by the oppression of everything that can destroy the imperial system of coordinates. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union tried to do it. And nowadays, Putin-led Russia is trying to do the same. They say we are “incomprehensible people” that speaks in some kind of “obscure language”, “proxy-Russian language”, some kind of “ignorant”, “narrow-minded people”. It’s them who shape such a context as if we’re worthy neither of our state nor of our traditions or culture. And it is done intentionally. That’s why, cinema is one these tools if you talk about the propaganda that you mentioned (laughs – author’s note).
But at the same time, A prayer of strangers, as it seemed to me, didn’t get such a wide acceptance comparing, for example, to Cyborgs. So, it turns out that despite the mutual support and unity of our peoples, Ukrainians still choose to watch a movie about themselves, rather than a film, where the main character is a Crimean Tatar girl?
It seems that it is. But this is not a catastrophe, because, perhaps, if A prayer of strangers was released now, after Cyborgs, then we would have another box office. However, you know, Cyborgs is a modern story, and the viewer was more involved in it, starting with the name and subject matter. Therefore, it is quite natural that everything happened exactly the way it is.
For those people who came to watch A prayer of strangers and I’m grateful to each of them, it was a conscious choice of a person who has two free hours a week and knowingly goes to a movie that is not entertaining. This person doesn’t go for a comedy; he or she goes to a movie, which you hardly can rejoice. That’s why I’m grateful to anyone who has made such a choice. Compared with the other films of similar subjects, we had a good run with A prayer of strangers (smiles – author’s note).
In any case, the film is about both Ukrainians and the Crimean Tatar people, all these films are ours and about us. But what can be done to make people go to the movies, and in particular, make profitable ones that are financed by the state?
Here we have a whole set of such issues. It is an increase of cinemas’ numbers, screens, and movie quality, their promotion. A year or six months ago, I said that no Ukrainian film, the budget of which exceeds 10 million hryvnias, is able to pay off in the Ukrainian box office. Now, we see that Crazy wedding has already reached this threshold. Therefore, it is possible. If you talk about the system, in order to make films profitable, you need another number of cinemas. Much bigger, at least three times. And, again, good promotion and high-quality cinema.
And, perhaps, educating the audience. After all, to watch Crazy wedding and watch…
No doubt. It should begin from the very childhood, starting with cartoons made by Ukrainian animators, films for family or children’s films. You need to be accustomed to this. After all, it is a future audience, and then the tradition of going to Ukrainian cinemas will be formed.
Interview by Dmytro Zhuravel