NATALIA ANDRIEICHENKO: “IN THE 90-S, THE BORDERS BETWEEN VIOLENCE AND LOVE MERGED”
Film Shamara (1994) by Ukrainian film director Natalia Andrieichenko was shown at the 7th Odessa International Film Festival. The rare title was presented within the retrospective Margins of Freedom: Independence on Both Sides of the Screen, initiated by Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre to mark the 25th anniversary of Independence of Ukraine.
The film is set in the 1970-s. A wild love story between Zina Shamarina and Ustin unfolds against the background of an epidemic. Zina, nicknamed Shamara, lives in a factory dormitory. She is forcing her love on Ustin, prisoner at the “chemicals” (correctional chemical plant). The guy married Shamara once in order to avoid severe punishment, but has now met new love and wants to get rid of Zina.
- The film is very interesting from an aesthetic point of view, yet at the same time it addresses rather violent topics. How does beauty go along with violence in the film?
N. A.: An episode was made as a film of its own. I could write a text explaining what our thoughts were in each scene, about every costume and musical decisions. Everything had a meaning, and there were so many of these meanings that in the end the solution became oversaturated. I understand perfectly well that it is quite difficult to watch. It is hard to talk briefly about the film – each episode is worth a lengthy talk.
When I was entrusted to make my first film, I chose to base it on the novel by Andrii Bitov The Vanishing Monakhov (1990). I was interested in finding ways to interpret the topic of violence and power in a movie. Then, thanks to my husband and cinematographer Volodymyr Bass, who had been subscribed to a thousand of different magazines in the times of perestroika, in one of them I came across a novel by Svitlana Vasylenko. The novel interested me primarily because it had been commissioned by the workers of a factory. They asked to republish it because there had not been enough copies of the book for everyone to buy. I thought it would be better and easier to explore and get across these complicated subjects using such literary material, which is in demand and which many people can relate to. I felt that Svitlana Vasylenko’s text would be able to withstand such an interpretation, because this powerful work, which I personally consider belonging to magic realism, holds incredible potential for readers and for cinema.
- Thank you for the movie! This is the second time I have watched it, and I understood many things differently this time, some of the images I realized only now. It means that the film has depth. I have a few questions about several scenes. All the five films in the program of Margins of Freedom, within which this film was shown, address the subject of violence, war and peace. It is the early 90-s, with Leonid Kravchuk’s speeches, in which he said that “no foreign soldier will ever set foot on Ukrainian soil”. As we can see now, he got that wrong. What did you want to say with the image of tanks – their dance at the beginning of the film and the tracks of that dance at its end?
N. A.: In fact, the atmosphere of the 90-s was associated not only with the endless consensuses taking place in the policies and slogans of perestroika. Another important issue was the conversion of Soviet convictions and principles. Unfortunately, a complete conversion never happened. The cult of power replaced all other means of persuasion. Shamara can relate to tanks – she uses force, because that is what has been used on her. Like them, Shamara represents her time and transmits the idea of violence, which the film is trying to explore. The girl appears on the screen as a sweet, beautiful image, which could be called a dream or a mirage. In the 90-s, I often said in interviews that beauty, which is supposed to save the world, is often not beauty, but only lure, enticement. It can make one lose common sense and healthy criticism. Tanks, even though beautiful, like off a music box, and obedient, which can even dance – they are still tanks, weapons, death. The same is with a beautiful woman – her simply being a woman does not necessarily make her the epitome of love, purity and motherhood. I tried to give a different interpretation to clichés prescribed to this or that particular image.
- Before the film, you said that the dresses we see the leading character wearing belonged to your mother. This suggests that the film is very personal, not in the sense of it being an autobiographic story, but rather because it reflects your personal feelings. Why did you decide to use such a personal thing as your mother’s dress in the film?
N. A.: Of course it is a personal story because we always choose stories we can relate to. Thomas Mann taught us that we expose ourselves in whatever we say and whatever we do. I can really relate to this film because I grew up in a similar closed city, Mykolaiv, where the film was shot. That is where my mother lived. Through the characters and images, through the characters’ behavior and through the presence of the city itself in the film, I tried to express my feelings of that city. Choosing the dresses was not random, either – I have seen them since I was a girl. Those dresses came form my grandmother’s trunk; they were redesigned and improved by artist Natalia Ariefieva, now known as Moscow theater artist Nataliia Kirillova. Back then it was her first movie. My mother, who those incredible dresses belonged to, like the main character, is also a person of complex nature.
- I found the character of Lera very interesting. We are only just beginning to talk about gender, identity choice, when a person chooses who to be – a man or a woman. In this sense, your movie is way ahead of the post-Soviet realities of those times. Besides, your main character is not especially feminine. Were you influenced by feminism in any way and why did you make the character of Lera so complex?
N. A.: First of all, a hermaphrodite in the ancient tradition is the beginning of a conversation about love. Lera is love itself. It is a very important image that must not be over-simplified. Lera is the character that succeeds the heroine; his love for Shamara is so strong that he dissolves in it. At the end of the film, he changes into her clothes, thereby sort of replacing the main character, this important link, the leader who “had control” of the town. It is simply impossible for her to disappear. When Lera puts on Shamara’s dress, he does not take the best from her – he puts on the image of a non-victim, or rather of a victim that has turned into an aggressor. Even if he should become a girl, he will not be an ordinary “girl” – it will be the same power and will, freedom gained through rebellion, through violence, through blood, which today, unfortunately, is often interpreted as freedom. Lera in a dress is not at all harmless; he becomes Shamara’s peer that replaces her. If I were making a sequel, I would make it about Lera, because he is my favorite character in the film. This image is important for the interpretation of what happened afterwards, in the 90-s, when the borders between violence and love merged and when it became particularly difficult to identify yourself. The character of Lera is the most important one for me; it represents not only love, but also violence as a choice.
- Even today, more than 20 years after it was made, the film looks very bold. Its Artistic Director was Roman Balaian, who said that everyone had been very impressed when they had watched the film material to see that the director’s style could already be recognized. Yet, you did not make any more films. Why did it happen and how was this film received by the public and also by the State Film Agency, which was to accept the film when it was ready?
N. A.: I understand that this radicalism did not help either the film or my career. We had a lot of conflicts while making the movie. We did not get on with the State Film Agency at all. It was the 90-s, when ties between the countries were breaking up and things could be bought only through Moscow. For instance, we were buying film, sent the money to Moscow, but the film got lost along with the money. We shot the film on some film leftovers. The cinematographer was basically performing a feat every time he tried to make a picture, chancing it with unfamiliar film that was being brought to him in pieces straight to the steppe in the middle of the night, and then making “wedges”, test recordings right there, on location, in order to figure out how to process the material afterwards. And I must say that he did pull it off.
The State Film Agency did not really welcome us. However, there were a lot of “strange” movies in the 90-s. Today we get a lot of such “anonymous” films when it is difficult to recognize a person from their style. Back then, all the movies were like unkempt children, all of different size, age and developmental level ... wild kids, you know, but each of them had its own character. At the time, we got away with all of that. Today, no producer would even consider talking to us with such ideas. Back then, it was possible.
As a result, when we caught the attention of international critics, talented interpreters and viewers, a few years later the State Film Agency officially awarded Shamara a State Prize. It felt very good. I called it a fatherly smack upside the head to the whole generation, which from now on can confidently walk next to “adults” and make great movies and there will be no restrictions. I did not see the award as a personal prize, but I took it responsibly.
The most important thing I realized in connection with this prize was that I do not have to fulfill some sort of a nomenclature plan or become a nomenclature unit. Then I wrote scripts. And they all were connected with a sense of time. Unfortunately, scripts become outdated very quickly. The failures stopped me from moving ahead with filmmaking, which may have been a good thing, as I was able to think about important things. Thank you for your interest in the picture!
The interview was recorded by Masha Hryhorovych-Bass on July 20, 2016, and written out by Anna Onufriienko.
Natalia Andrieichenko is director of films Foxtrot (1989), Sunday Escape (1990), Night of Love (1991), Shamara (1994). Born in 1966. In 1991 graduated from the Directing Department of Kiev National Ivan Karpenko-Karyi University of Theater, Film and Television (class of Viktor Kisin). In 1996 was awarded Dovzhenko State Prize of Ukraine for her film Shamara
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