Oksana Voitenko, a director, is making her second costume historical film about Ukrainian Insurgent Army (existed during the Second World War). The first film is called Everlast based on the tale of Volodymyr Vynnychenko. The film has participated in many Ukrainian film festivals as well as at the Cannes Film Festival in the Short Film Corner 2017. The second film My Son is being shot now. The premiere will take place in summer 2019. Opinion asked Oksana about her film career, first directing experience, music video Hey, Plyve Kacha, her short films. Oksana also told us about her plans to film Ivan Bahriannyi’s novel Garden of Gethsemane.
Tell about your directing career. What did it begin from? What was your first director’s experience like?
My career started quite a long time ago. I am heading very slowly to my goal but very persistently. After school, I tried to enter the Kyiv Karpenko-Kary Theatre, TV and Cinema University but I failed. I entered the Directing Feature Film Department I wanted only on the third try. Before I succeeded, I tried to film different videos, reports, learnt how to edit videos and worked as a picture editor on different channels. My first serious work was a 2010 music video for Pekkardiiska Tertsia band’s song Hey, Plyve Kacha. In four years, the song and the music video became symbols of the Euromaidan. It has now more than 2 million views. It pushed me to make a final, successful try to enter the University I always wanted to enter and become a professional.
What has TV and commercials given to you? What does this experience mean to you now?
First, I learnt how to edit videos and create computer graphics. I believe editing is my biggest advantage in the directing work. For me, everything in films is editing. This also gave me love to a dynamic march of history. A high tempo of narration is very important on TV, if you haven’t caught a viewer’s attention in 5 seconds, they will just change the channel. Any experience is important for a director, it shapes their style, peculiarities of their worldview.
I have recently seen your short film The Dinner for Two. It is awesome and funny. Tell a bit about this film. Are you going to shoot some more comedies?
Yes, I really am. However, I have some problems with my sense of humour now. I take everything too seriously. But I am working on that. Who can joke well – runs the world. I am now negotiating with a great scriptwriter Maryna Ostrovska. I met her at the Terrarium pitching – classes for scriptwriters organized by Dmytro Sukholytky-Sobachuk. She has a beautiful comedy story. I believe we will make a nice short film.
The film Everlast was based on the tale “Moment” of Volodymyr Vynnychuk. Why did you choose that story? What challenges did you have during shooting? Are you satisfied with the result?
I liked the story because it is dynamic and engaging which is very rare for the classical Ukrainian literature. Although the tale is written in a very lyrical way, it had the potential to become an amusing adventure film. I don’t consider Everlast a film version of the tale, I’d say it is just based on the book. The film heroine is a girl, new heroes – Commissar and his associates appeared, the story is set at the beginning of spring, not in 1911 but in 1922. As for scenes presented in the tale, only some were preserved in the film – when heroes meet, cross the border and take leave.
I believe that when you want to make a film from a literature story, the best way is to base a film on a story if we want to get a good film as the result.
The script was written in 6 months, there were up to 20 drafts. We had a great team that’s why the process of shooting was easy and inspiring. It was hard to find the locations we needed as Anton Borysiuk, a cameraman, and I set high goals. It isn’t that easy to find good locations in the Kyiv region, especially when you have no access to professional ones. We were trying to find something by chance, looking for them on the Internet, asking friends. Finally, we found the one we needed. Nature in a shot is a very powerful director’s tool. We became the first to shoot a film in a cave in the Kyiv region. But we are the proudest of the final scene in the field we shot at “golden hour”. We came to this field three times because the time we could shoot lasted really less than an hour.
The Hutsul Girl Ksenia musical by Olena Demianenko. What is your impression of working on this project?
I love this film because it was my first cinema project. I was a casting assistant and manager. I am proud of a casting process of the heroine – the Hutsul girl Ksenia.
Olena Demianenko is one of the best Ukrainian directors. She relates to actors, works with interesting stories. She is an artist in its ultimate meaning. However, she is demanding towards herself and actors as well. When you see how much she is obsessed with a film, you want to be the same to get the result. I guess that a director should be hard-working so others could follow their example. When you let yourself relax and give a damn to everything, you fail. It works for commercial projects as well.
You are now shooting your short film My Son. As far as I understand, it is not a student film. It is connected to Everlast. What stage is the film on now?
My Son is a student film, actually. I mean I am still a student. Well, I guess that student films have only smaller budgets and fewer team members. Some team members from Everlast are working in this film, other members are new. We are always lucky with the team, only due to a great team we reach our high goals. We have shot one-third of the material. We are shooting the second third in January, and the rest in March. The budget is limited so we shoot very slowly even though it is a short film. But I am sure that My Son will be dramatic and innovative because it shows a new look in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA).
The film is based on a true story which took place in October 1946 in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. A pointman of the Carpathian region, his pregnant woman and associates were hiding in a shelter. The pointman’s name is Yaroslav Melnyk – “Robert”. The NKVD found out that “Robert’s” shelter was situated somewhere in the Yavoryna mountain area near the village of Lypa which was hard to access. The NKVD regiment was looking for the insurgent shelter. It was found on October 31 and the fight began. It ended at night on November 1, 1946. Yaroslav Melnyk, his wife, their baby and associates died. The pointman’s wife managed to give another child – a girl – to her friends in the village. The script was written basing on memories of the UIA soldiers. A co-author of the script and a military advisor is Anatoliy Sobolevsky, a soldier of a volunteer battalion of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. He is now in Donbas where Anti-Terroristic Operation takes place. We combine contemporary and past times in the film to create a real image of war, which can destroy a person physically and mentally.
In the story, Orest, a commander of the insurgent squad, his pregnant wife Eva and some associates are hiding in the forest. Insurgents are surrounded by the NKVD squad headed by captain Zmiev. During the battle, Eva gives birth to a child. Trying to rescue her husband and his associates, Eva reveals her secret: the father of the child is Zmiev. Orest has to choose: wreak vengeance upon his enemy or to extend mercy.
A short film My Son is a story about the option between hatred and love, it tells how to win but remain a human.
Despite the fact that there are enough Ukrainian films dedicated to this topic, little has been told about this historic period. There is no such a film yet which would cover the territory. All the previous films about the UIA were coated with a huge portion of patriotism. It is very hard to watch them and take seriously. Heroes, there are not people but functions. There are two films which stand out with their psychologism and considerations of the insurgents’ vs. Soviet Union issue. These are Cherry Nights by Arkadii Mykulsky and The Last Bunker by Vadym Illenko. Interestingly that The Last Bunker is a film version of the tale Pered Sudom (On the Stand) of a Russian-Soviet writer Leonid Borodin.
Please tell about the team which is working on the film?
Someone worked with us on the Everlast film – Anton Borysiuk, a camera director, Oleksii Smahly, a fireworker, Andrii Maslov-Lisichkin, a stunt coordinator. But there are also new talented team members, among them are such professionals as Victoria Yanchuk, an artistic director and Kateryna Banakh, an executive director. It turned out to be easy to find people, you are just doing your business and people come getting obsessed with it. It means you do something good.
Featured actors are Orest – Denys Shevchenko, Eva – Veronika Shostak and the NKVD squad captain Zmiev – Roman Matsiuta. They are great professional actors, extremely character and charismatic. We were looking for Orest for a long time. Denys Shevchenko is a discovery for the Ukrainian cinema. It is lack of such character actors: manful, 30-35 years old. There are few such Ukrainian actors. About 700 people came to the casting. We were looking for the actors on Facebook and Acmodasi – the biggest Internet data of actors in Ukraine, casting-directors also helped us. Actors are OK to be in a film of a young director, I’d say, they are not afraid of that. Some actors are very happy to screen in student films as students and amateurs are more responsible, they prepare better, have more rehearsals with actors. We have a great team of 7 featured actors. Each rehearsal inspires to continue shooting the film.
Are historical films important to combat myths, in particular, about the UIA?
I would say: it is not to combat myths but to create positive beliefs in our society. I can’t speak about the past but what I have seen during my life is a shift from “Ukrainians are victims” to “Ukrainians are winners”. As there is the war in Ukraine, this shift is especially notable. As we need new soldiers to participate in this war. The government tries to achieve this with the help of cinema as well. This is why the Ministry of Culture arranged a competition of “patriotic films” while the State Film Agency has the Heroism of Ukraine’s Defenders section. But in my opinion, nothing can justify glorification of killing one person by another. A film about war can exist only to condemn war. The best such a film is Come and See by Elem Klimov.
Our film says that the biggest value is a human’s life and it doesn’t matter what side you support. If you are mentally strong, respect your life and lives of others, appreciate your and other’s cultures – nobody will attack you and you won’t have to kill even to protect yourself.
What obstacles do young Ukrainian directors face? How should they motivate themselves to go on?
The only obstacle is the lack of desire to shoot. If you have an idea and you consider it very important at least for yourself – you will find ways to make it. If you shoot a historical or fantastic film – yes, it will be a bit more challenging financially and in organizational regard, it will take a bit more time to solve this problem. But limits are a great chance to find interesting ideas. A big battle between insurgents and the NKVD squad was supposed to be in our film. But it is extremely expensive. I found the solution which even enhanced the film and its idea – we showed only the fight between Orest and Zmiev.
We have shot 40% of the film, about 10 minutes. There are 15 minutes more to shoot.
Why have you chosen to crowdfund partially the film (on razomgo.com the project got about 500 $ out of 2 100)?
I guess the idea of the film will relate to many Ukrainians. Our cinema is developing a bit against the image of war which is being shaped by the government that’s why we can’t count on the authorities’ support.
If conditions are favorable, we will shoot our small but very complex film in February, in July we will finish the post-production. We want to dedicate the premiere to the Independence Day of Ukraine (August 24).
Almost half of the film has been shot on the money by two charity givers. I have put my money as well. Funding your own films is very popular especially among students or amateurs. The University doesn’t fund work of its students, the only thing they can give you is some appliances or costumes, or you can be allowed to shoot at some state locations for free. This is the big problem of the film and TV industry. If nobody knows you, you have to shoot a nice film which will interest producers. It is the most popular way to enter the profession if we are speaking about working as a director in the film industry.
It can sound crazy but I believe I can foresee the future. My friends and I made a music video for Pikkardiiska Tertsia’s song Hey, Plyve Kacha. In four years, this song and video became symbols of the Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity. The video has a story: a son goes to war and dies there, a mother goes mad from grief. When the war brought out, I couldn’t but felt that I made it come with the video. I want to make a video where the war finishes, at least, for the hero. I believe that Ukraine will win and the war will finish. But the victory will be estimated not in arms, in the number of victims but in the victory of fortitude and respect to life.
What is your idea of Ukrainian films and industry development?
I can hardly speak about the industry yet. As a viewer, I miss the purity of genres in our films and a direct age differentiating. Most films are made not professionally. Neither this nor that. Creators seem to be afraid to make others think they are “primitive”, “simple”, they want to make a film complicated. As the result, they lose a viewer. When a film is a bit drama, a bit action, and a bit comedy, and wants to be awarded, then you can’t get emotionally impressed, and this is why you go to the cinema. Directors should be more concentrated, they should realize what key emotion a viewer will experience during a film. It works when the main genre is combined with the one which is emotionally contrary (for example, thriller and erotic, action and comedy). But not more, more is complicated and doesn’t work in Ukraine yet. Only comedy creators managed to overcome the fear of being “primitive”. This idea I use for myself. I wonder what result I will get.
What are your plans?
The main goal now is to finish My Son. I want also to shoot a short comedy film I have mentioned. As for big goals, I have already started to get all the necessary documents to create a feature film based on Ivan Bahriannyi’s book The Garden of Gethsemane. At the beginning of the 1990s, a film version was created. But creators made everything very close to the book, so the film failed. I believe this film is important not only for Ukraine but for the world in general.
Interview by Valerii Puzik
Photos from Oksana Voitenko’s personal archive