The end of May. Molodist Film Festival. Ihor Zaitsev makes his debut as a screenwriter with two films at once in the competition programs of the festival. Man With A Photo Camera and Beasts don’t receive awards but the audience and film critics are amazed. “These pieces give a rather expressive look of the younger generation at the distant and recent past, which they see attuned to our time,” film critic Ihor Hrabovych said. And he is right: the films aptly unfold their story in the scenery of the Soviet Union and after its collapse. These films are powerful in style and form, and Ihor Zaitsev boldly entrenched in the status of the main opening of 2019. Now there are several more projects at different stages of development: feature-length Being and a short film Kegelbahn. We talked to Ihor Zaitsev about his art, studies at Karpenko-Kary University, relationship with the USSR, and a “younger brother’s” consciousness.
I think it is worth starting with history, correct me if I am wrong: in 2014 you entered feature film direction faculty at Karpenko-Kary University, studied film criticism, and now you are actively writing screenplays. The first question is probably obvious: what is cinema for you? And when did you realize that you want to make a movie?
Yes, that’s true, but a small correction needs to be made. I planned to get into Karpenko-Kary with a clear goal – to find people to make films with. That is, education was in the background, the first thing was like-minded people. Before that, I had not a very pleasant experience of studying in one of the arts universities of Ukraine, so I looked at Karpenko as a chance to get to the circle of people who are really ready to work productively. I wanted to take up the drama, but in 2014 there was only distance learning department, so I purposefully went to get to the faculty of film studies and applied for film directing on the last day, without admission, without knowing the master and so on. I decided to give it a try but I was admitted to the film directing department on the self-funded basis and to the faculty of film studies on a scholarship, my choice was obvious. But I knew I would try to write or shoot something. It turned out that at the end of the second university year I met Roman Volosevych (Beasts) and we started working together. Later I met other interesting people – Vitalii Kikot (Man With A Photo Camera), Ahmedi-Ernes Sarykhalil (Kegelbahn).
About the meaning of the cinema for me… it is complicated. I give it a very anthropomorphic meaning. I don’t want it sound pathetic but cinema is my best friend. I can cry with it, laugh, talk, bear grudge against it. It is the most frantic thing in the world. That’s why I don’t like when the cinema is “hurt” but I am clearly aware that I am doing it myself and I will still do it. Maybe, it is a serious relationship.
I came to the cinema (if I can say like these) due to other arts. In childhood, I used to be engaged in rock-n-roll due to my elder brother. Since 10-11 (more or less) I have played drums and guitars in the garage punk and metal groups. When I grew a bit older I realized that rock is not just a romp but a whole philosophy, that’s why I started reading books. Literature drew me into a school drama club, but after that, I realized that this is all a movie: a combination of all the arts that give something peerless at the outset. There was a clear realization that I wanted to be a part of this in my 20s, but there was still a lot of hesitation that I have until now. I hope it would be so till the end, otherwise, it is not interesting.
You have two screenplays implemented right now. Both films participated in the national program of the Molodist festival in 2019, and they tell about young people representing Soviet law enforcement agencies: Beasts – Stalin’s NKVD and Man With A Photo Camera – 1990 Soviet militia. How did you choose the topics for these two films? What was the hardest thing? Are you satisfied with the onscreen versions of your stories?
Man With A Photo Camera also took part in the Molodist International Competition among film schools.
This is a challenging question for me which needs a pre-story, so I will start from the end. I am satisfied with the result at more than 100 per cent. Of course, there are moments that I saw differently, but this is already at the level of personal vision. For me, the most difficult thing is always one! This is running time. Running time of a short film – robust dance on a small piece of land. This is pretty hard. At this moment my difficulties, knock on wood, end.
And now back to the screenplays, topics, characters… The thing is that I was born in the southernmost town of mainland Ukraine – in the town of Izmail in 1991. Now I want to say that I love my hometown but there are certain buts. I guess there is no need to explain what moods dominated the south of Ukraine in the 90s. My friends and I grew up in a society that first celebrated New Year of the Russian Federation, and an hour later ours. At first, everyone watched the greetings of the President of Russia and then our President. With a bit of luck, the Ukrainian language could be heard only in schools on Ukrainian language and literature lessons.
And there were always talks of delicious ice-cream, sausage, nuclear power, and that we, that is, my generation, had lost something so incredible that now we only have to regret and sometimes be told about another utopian life. No mention about television and TV channels that had the highest rating in our region. I think it is pretty self-explanatory. I believe it is worth emphasizing that there was no separatism, no. It looked more like a pale shadow of pride for the fact that we, so to say, are the “younger fellow brothers” of Russia. I want to underline that it is not an accusation or sort of. It is just a fact. And I immediately want to stress that now, thank God, this has become much less. But until the Revolution of Dignity, I had the conscious of a “younger brother”.
In 2014, I entered a university in Kyiv, moved in a dormitory where I finally saw those “terrible” people from the western part of Ukraine, whom I had repeatedly heard about in the south. Basically, I met the population of the country where I am honoured to live. After that, I began to read a lot and look at the USSR from another angle. Here where all have started.
That’s it, Beasts and Man With A Photo Camera is a reflection on what I had found out during those years. I am sure that I haven’t finished my relationship with USSR in the sense of dramaturgy. If everything is fine, I will write more than one screenplay on the topic related to the empire of evil. I am convinced that cinematographic Ukraine should do this. Let me one example. In my opinion, a film like The Life of Others is a more powerful tool in the fight against propaganda than television, articles, and more. Of course, such a film must be shot.
As for the characters of my shorts, everything is simple. I like losers, I feel something in common with them. And only recently did I realize that Aristarchus probably appeared in Man With A Photo Camera because, during that time, I read a lot of information about the relations between the state and the artist in the USSR. Therefore, probably subconsciously, this character was born. Artist is a very important figure in shaping the identity of a nation. I reckon more important than any politician. It is worth noting that another spur for the Man With A Photo Camera was a certain rhyme with the 90s that prevailed in the country after the Revolution of Dignity. Some economic issues, increased crime, in the 1990s there was the first Maidan… Accordingly, this moment of rhyme became interesting for me and Vitalii Kikot.
Feature film Being by Roman Volosevych is based on your screenplay. Please, tell something about the project, a team that is working on its implementation… What is the film about?
Here is one inaccuracy. I have written the screenplay together with Roman. Actually, I don’t write screenplays separately from directors. That is, the first message, the idea and all of that kind can go from me, but then I introduce them to the director and we start to fruitfully communicate, think, write and then it is framed into a story. Entire Being was written together: from the first word till the last. Speaking of the creative team, apart from me and Roman, I can only name a camerawoman right now. This is young and awesome Albina Vinar who worked with Roman on all his short films. And of course, the production team – this is Yurii and Dmytro Minzianovs and their company Kristi Films. The creative team will be formed as soon as we enter the preparatory period. Now there are a lot of thoughts about this, but so far these are all just thoughts. Speaking of the concept, for me, this story is about the notion of power. Roman and I are the fans of the antiquity literature… We have always been interested in and attracted to the power mechanism of the ancient gods, so we were inspired by ancient Greek sources, but tailored them to the modern system. But I can’t say that Being is an ancient tragedy, no. Classical antiquity is a source of inspiration.
What are your impressions of the State Film Agency pitching?
Honestly, I can’t really share my impressions, I didn’t defend the project. I was scenery on stage. Roman took full credit himself, I only made approving nods to show I am into the subject. I spent the night before on the bus because I was in my hometown and came exactly for pitching. Of course, prior to it, we discussed what should be said and what not but we agreed that the main creative message would go from him and I would join if the experts had a question for me. But Roman was cool, in my opinion, thus the creative part wasn’t questioned at all. The impression is one – excitement but it seems to me because it was the first time. By and large, the atmosphere was pleasant.
After a negative assessment of experts, what is its fate? Heard that the filming will still take place but the budget is minimized, how will it affect the quality of the movie?
I don’t think we received a negative assessment. We received a cut-off score, but that was not enough to fund the film. It seems to me that it will only benefit because we got a good charge of energy to make the film even better than initially planned. Also, we still have time and thoughts to make the script stronger and more viewable in the correct sense of the word. Given the budget, I am convinced that minimization won’t affect filming by no means. First, Roman got used to making movies with the piggybank that he breaks down before each filming, and in my mind, this is very cool. Second, Being will have enough funding. I am certain that Yurii Minzianov and Kristi Films will do their best to make the film qualitative and striking.
Recently, the filming of the short film Kegelbahn has started. According to the story, a young man from Crimea tries to confront the new government. One day he is blackmailed. Read that the genre is a thriller. Please, tell a little about the film.
It seems to me that this question would be best put to the director, but I will try to answer it for my part. First, about genre cinema. I already mentioned the dance on a piece of land. When Ernes offered collaboration, he immediately warned that he wanted a running time up to 15 minutes. That’s it, this piece of land has shrunk even more. So I suggested more action, less text, although of course there are dialogues, the core of the story is that the person is stuck in a deadlock and the whole environment is gradually beginning to resemble hell. It is also important that this film will be dedicated to the memory of the Hero of Ukraine Reşat Ametov. His figure was central when we thought about this film. Regarding the screenplay, I was always interested in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers design. When the enemy is close, maybe he is standing in front of you right now but you are unaware of it. I want to say that it is very difficult to do in 15 minutes, so this mechanism was the keynote, not the basis. It also seems to me that this is far more a visual story. In the sense of frame construction, scene disengagement… I’m sure Ernes vanquished it because his previous short The Nails was built on a solid visual row, I guess. I don’t want to tell more because it won’t be interesting to watch.
When is Kegelbahn expected on the big screen?
This question is for producers of the film. If I am not mistaken, it is necessary to submit a film to the Ukrainian Cultural Fund, which financed the film by November. That is, by this time it will be on post-production, and after that, it will already go to festivals, and by then the date of the premiere will be known.
Please, be honest, are you planning to retrain as a director?
Yes, I have such plans but yet I fail to find in my mind my own story. More precisely, there is one idea that I have been bearing in my mind for a long time, but it doesn’t line up in a visual row so far. I hope it will soon come out from the shell and wave at me. But now I am very comfortable in the skin of a screenwriter. Now I have several ideas for short films which, knock on wood, will be implemented soon. Meantime, we are saving up money for them.
And finally: the top 5 movies that affected you…
The scariest question for me. The roots of the film expert immediately sprout everywhere in my body. With your permission, I will give a more detailed answer to this question than expected.
Charlie Chaplin, namely his silent period since the birth of the Tramp character. It is simple here. Although he did not develop a movie language like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, or Griffith, he made a huge contribution to dramaturgy. His films of the silent period are a kind of sacred scripture in dramaturgy.
Michael Haneke. I can’t name a greater master who explores the nature of violence with such a distinctive and artistic power. As for me, Haneke gracefully developed two tenets of Alfred Hitchcock – the film should start with an earthquake, and then – more, and that the viewer shouldn’t be shown everything, you must turn their imagination on. I fail to recollect more vigorous opening scenes than Haneke’s. And more properly built scenes of violence without onscreen violence. He may have a murder scene built on the killer’s closeup, but it’s much scarier than all the guts on planet Earth tied to a knot. I would draw apart Funny Games – 1997 and The White Ribbon.
Andrzej Żuławski’s body of work. I have a close idea that love is a metaphysical feeling that sometimes leads to very bloody consequences. Most of his films are about the opposite side of this great feeling. And this is a very rational artistic expression in scope, despite its irrational form. I would specifically outline That Most Important Thing: Love and Possession.
Bong Joon-ho’s Memories Of Murder. There is nothing to say here, you have to watch. Stronger film in all respects is hard to imagine, but the main thing is a poly-genre. I would compare Bong Joon-ho to Johann Bach because of his superimposed dramatic tunes, which ultimately create an undivided muscular sound.
François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. It is a great film. Best film debut in the world of cinema. In 28, Truffaut made one of the coolest films in the world. I will never get tired of watching this film. It seems to me that after this movie, Truffaut could have ended his career and would still be Truffaut.
I can’t limit myself to five films, really. Therefore, I will add a couple more, and then at your choice.
Paris, Texas. I am absolutely not a fan of Wim Wenders, but this film is an exception. For me personally, this film is one of the best final acts in cinema history. Wenders builds the story so that the viewer imagines the character in every possible way, but when she finally appears in the final part, the viewer is doomed to tremble. Wenders makes the character much more juicy (in a cinematic sense only) than the viewer could have imagined.
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. I am not a Scorsese’s fan, but this picture is the best example of the right symbiosis of a creative team that produces chemistry. Everything happened: director, screenwriter, composer, actors, cameraman and so on.
Rocco and His Brothers is simply the best picture of the great Luchino Visconti and one of the best films in the world. It is some magic.
Elem Klimov’s Come and See. In my opinion, no one told stories about the war in such a language before Klimov. And after him, it seems to me, there was no such original picture of the war from the artistic viewpoint.
The Graduate by Mike Nichols. This is an incredibly funny and incredibly serious movie at the same time. One of the best acting duets I can think of. Incredibly cool directing and music. In short – a classic.
Well, frankly speaking, 99% of cinema workers are influenced by Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch. They are too famous and cool for this to be wrong. In one way or another, they have seeped into the mass culture so that a person is perforce influenced by their might. And me too.
Interview by Valerii Puzik