Interview with Iryna Tsilyk filmmaker of The Earth is Blue as an Orange presented in the section Surviving Violence, available from November 26th to December 2nd.
How did you come to make a film about this family and the Donbas war? What was the starting point of the project?
You know, I'm a beginner in documentary filmmaking. I used to shoot short fiction films, and then I stepped into another river. It was a big challenge for me to film real people. I like to control everything. But then I realized that my film is a living thing, and I should feel and follow it very carefully. At first, I made two short pieces for a documentary anthology film called “Invisible Battalion,” about women at war. It was a very special experience for me. And then Harry met Sally, so to speak: I “met” my debut full-length documentary film, The Earth Is Blue as an Orange and that was an even more special experience for me as a filmmaker.
It was a long journey – we spent two and a half years making this film. Everything started from an idea by Ukrainian producer Anna Kapustina: to make a group portrait of teens who live in the war zone and try to make films. There's a very cool project in Ukraine called “Yellow Bus”: different professional filmmakers arrange cinema camps for children in the front-line zone. So, we considered making a film about these children. But this concept didn't really work... Apparently, I was inexperienced and I didn't really know how to make a strong story using many different parallel lines. Or, maybe, the choice of characters was wrong. I felt confused. But then two sisters, Myroslava and Anastasia Trofymchuk, who were participants in the cinema camps, invited me and my crew to their home in a small town, Krasnohorivka, in the Donetsk region. We came there, we met their siblings and their mother Hanna, and we immediately felt a very special atmosphere in their home. I decided that we could observe the life of this family and make a much more intimate film.
It is a very intimate film about the family. What was your relationship like, as well as your collaboration during the creative process?
From the very beginning, our characters were really open. Apparently, that was because they knew something about the process of filming and they loved cinema. Me and my crew were also open and friendly, because I believe that some special things can be born only in love. But, of course, we had some challenges and even little quarrels. I think that is normal, and every relationship is impossible without some emotional swings. My team and I returned again and again to Krasnohorivka for a year. We lived with our characters in their house, and it was something like a commune: we cooked together, we talked about everything, and filming was just part of our communication. I guess Hanna and her children felt bored and tired sometimes. But we became friends. And I really hope they did not regret letting us into their lives.
How did the film the family is making about their life during the war take such an important place in your own film? What are your thoughts on the symbolism that this film-within-a-film has taken on for you, and its effects on your own approach?
The most difficult question for every filmmaker is “What is your film about?”, especially when you are in the middle of the process. I remember my doubts – I had so many roads ahead of me and I could choose any of them. For example, I had a chance to focus on the everyday life of my characters, because I think it is really interesting to observe how civilians live in a war zone. Or I had a chance to focus on Hanna, the mother, and tell a story about a strong woman who carries everything on her shoulders and not only survives with her children, but teaches them to enjoy life. I had an opportunity to tell many different stories about these people. But their passion for cinema was something really special. I remember my conversation with the director Aliona van der Horst, who was one of the tutors at the IDFA Summer School, where we participated with our project. She was the first person to help me realize that I should probably go this way. “There are so many films about war in Ukraine. But I haven't seen the one about people living in a war zone and making films about themselves. That’s something unique,” Aliona told me. And I realized that she was right.
Cinema or creation can be a way to exorcise reality, and even to heal. Was the family doing this intuitively? And what did the making of this film bring you?
We’ve changed a lot during the six and a half years since the Russian-Ukrainian war started. And I’ve been observing lots of metamorphoses around me. Does art have any strength in times of war? I guess, literature or cinema are not really helpful in the confrontation with bullets. But art has another kind of power. For example, I’ve seen how poetry breaks the ice between people, when I took part in some literary readings in a front-line zone: local people were crying and laughing, and they were as open to dialogue as we were. Or I’ve seen how my husband, who is the writer, became a soldier and how writing helped him to avoid PTSD. I’ve seen many other soldiers and civilians who were looking for something to rely on, and I believe that all the people around the globe need some basic things – family, friends, love, art, etc.
At the moment, the whole world is fighting the pandemic. Many people have to be imprisoned in their own apartments again and again. How can we survive? We can ask the characters of The Earth Is Blue as an Orange. They have been sleeping in the cellar of their house every night throughout the year, they have to be very careful and they must always remember – the danger is really close. But these people laugh, play music, watch films, make films and try to fight for normalcy in their lives. So, I wish for you, and me, and all of us to have this super power – to enjoy life despite all the circumstances.
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