In her feature-length debut The Earth is Blue as an Orange, Ukrainian filmmaker and poet Iryna Tsilyk follows the lives of a family in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Having lived under armed conflict for five years, single mother Anna and her four children have become accustomed to the violence, uncertainty and strangeness of life in a war zone where bombings and military tanks have a familiar presence in daily life. When Anna’s daughter Myroslava brings her passion for cinema into their home, the family embark upon a creative project together, recording their lives and reflecting upon their experiences to create a film of their own. Under Tsilyk’s gentle gaze, fact and fiction dovetail and merge to form both an intimate portrait and powerful testimony to the power of art as a means to heal. The director tells Anjana Janardhan about her journey to becoming a director, why she loves storytelling and what she learnt from this unique collaboration.
AJ: What was the starting point for the film and how did you first meet Myroslava and her family?
IT: We have a really interesting project in Ukraine called Yellow Bus run by professional filmmakers who set up cinema camps for young people in war zones. Our producer Anna Kapustina decided to make a full length film about the project and invited me to collaborate. I did a lot of research and explored possible themes but was confused about how to bring it all together. I had originally wanted to focus on the camp itself and show how it helped young people during wartime but it’s difficult to create a strong group portrait unless you really delve deeply into the subjects’ lives. So it was a real turning point when I met Myroslava and Anastasiia at one of the camps in Avdiivka. They invited me and my team to their hometown Krasnohorivka and when we met Anna, their mother and all the cats we immediately decided to shift the focus to just this one family.
It was a challenge in some ways because I never studied documentary filmmaking so I’m a beginner and made a lot of mistakes! For one, I realised too late that the mother is the most interesting character in the family. In my mind, I was shooting a film about children in war zones but as we began editing, I realised she had such a strong personality, directing everything that went on within her home. Initially, my plan was to simply capture their everyday lives but over time, I found the concept of a ‘film within a film’ more interesting and brought with it a new perspective. There are so many films about people living in war zones who fight for a normal life but to me, there was something special about the fact that this family attempts to shoot a film about themselves. Anna had never studied filmmaking before; her daughter Myroslava brought her passion for cinema into their home so she began to teach herself through videos and online courses. It was interesting to me that she found time to help her children and became so involved in what they were doing; I think she could become a great director herself one day!
What is your relationship to the Donbas region and could you tell us more about this area of Ukraine?
I only really fell in love with the region during the war. I’d been there a few times before but once the war began I had more opportunities to visit, or perhaps I was looking for chances to go there. On my first visit, I took part in literary readings as a poet, many of which took place in the frontline zone and the people we met welcomed that dialogue with us. We read our poems in front of hundreds of people who were crying and laughing; it was really something. My husband is a writer but also served as a soldier in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. At the time, I remember thinking it was surreal to find myself a woman in the 21st century waiting for her husband to return home! I went on to make two documentary shorts for the cinema-almanac Invisible Battalion about women at war. The women we met were strong and worked as snipers, medics and storm troopers but it was evident they were traumatised and it was challenging for them to open up to us. As Ukranians, we’ve all gotten used to the war but it’s still difficult to grasp. We are always moving between these parallel dimensions of war and peace and it is evident when you visit the Donbas region. It’s beautiful, but it’s a specific kind of beauty as it is quite gloomy. The cities are full of slag heaps and there are things sitting next to each other that shouldn’t make sense and our film has that strange poetry too. We see the girls in beautiful dresses at their prom taking photographs in front of their shelled school. That’s what’s most surreal; people have gotten so used to the war that to them, this seems normal.
Much of the film takes place indoors within the confines of the family home in intimate scenes of daily life but there are a handful of scenes that take place outside. Why did you decide to take this approach?
At first, I thought it would be great to spend all our time within their home. The house is a haven for them: a world that protects them and I wanted to build a story around this metaphor. But later, it seemed a pity not to show the world they live in as the town is also interesting. Krasnohorivka is divided into different zones and the center of the town is quite quiet. You see shelled houses and it’s rather empty but still dangerous as it sits right on the line of separation. It felt important to show viewers that with the beautiful scenery and fields with poppies (that are in fact minefields), it is really nice there. These people are patriots and proud of their small town and that touches me. I understand them and it explains why Anna decided to stay there. Some people don’t understand her decision but it isn’t easy to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Anna’s two sons were quite young while you were shooting the film. What was their response to your crew and did you feel they were sheltered in any way from what was happening?
Unfortunately, not at all; the boys understand a lot about the war. I find it impressive that these children (and others who grew up in the war zone) have gotten so used to it over time. They understand everything, even down to the specific meaning of sounds i.e what’s dangerous and what’s not. But at the same time, they just want to enjoy their lives and do what children do all over the world. It makes sense; we can’t put our lives on standby even during the war. Anna does everything to fill her children’s lives with normality; they play musical instruments and shoot films together. The boys were very open to us and so interested in the process. The older one was very fond of my cinematographer and the boys became little helpers, not just to their own crew, but ours as well!
There’s an excerpt in the film from Man with the Movie Camera which is known for its innovative editing techniques and effects. In your film, your hand as a director is far more subtle. What does the film mean to you?
I didn’t have any references as such but I am a big fan of Dziga Vertov, and this film; they experimented with everything and it looks so modern to me, even now. With my own film, the decision to shoot everything statically with such a ‘quiet camera’ happened by accident. At first we shot everything handheld, but my cinematographer began experimenting with static shots and it turned out to be such a good decision. It’s difficult to explain why, but it felt right to become silent observers of their lives from a distance. There’s always the risk that the camera could become one of the characters because of its proximity to the subjects but we did everything we could to help the family forget our presence. They were open to us from the very beginning and luckily they got used to the camera really quickly, perhaps because by then they had learnt more about the filmmaking process. It was a small crew: just myself, a cinematographer and a sound engineer. And when we first arrived we stayed in a school dormitory as there are no hotels in that town, but Anna soon said, ‘Come on, you should live with us!’ We lived with them, cooked together and talked about everything. It wasn’t just about filmmaking; it was something more.
There’s a beautiful complexity at play in that there’s another film being shot within your own. Were there cross-currents between the two and how did you navigate this?
When you enter someone’s life with a camera, there’s always a possibility that you might change it in some way, in a butterfly effect. I found it difficult as the shoot went on, as a director, to distance myself from Anna and her family. I was sometimes tempted to advise them or manipulate the situation somehow but it’s important to be that silent observer. I was so happy when they decided to record interviews because I wasn’t using ‘talking heads’ in my own film and learnt so many interesting stories about them. I could observe them during the interviews and these scenes became some of the strongest in the film. It was as if they had removed their masks; before that they would laugh when they spoke about the terrible things that had happened to them. It was self-protection and we sensed that this was the first time they had opened up like this. Anna asked them about things they’d never discussed before and was moved by their responses. She was crying and we were crying silently too from behind the camera; it was a special moment for everyone. I sometimes have doubts about the way I used their film within my own, but hope that in the end we helped them in some way. Myroslava was inspired to finish her film and submitted it to festivals so I’m so happy and I heard that recently, she won a prize for the first time in her life!
How did the editing process shape the film from what you perhaps first envisaged while shooting the film?
It’s difficult to say. We were lucky in that we were able to visit the family multiple times and were editing and shooting simultaneously so that helped a lot. But my editor and I then spent nine months working on it (with breaks in between) and it definitely evolved further during that process. We took part in workshops and the feedback we received also shifted my view of the film once again. When we presented the first rough cut, we realised that many people hadn’t understood that the war is still ongoing in Ukraine. The film needed context so we inserted a scene showing the bomb falling onto Anna’s neighbours house. It was shot by our colleagues who had visited the year before and I wasn’t planning to use it as it was in a different style but when several people said that they didn’t realise that it is still dangerous there, I had to do something. It’s always difficult to build the skeleton of a story and find that sense of balance. I remember at one point being absolutely sure of my final cut but after returning from the incubator, only to change the opening scene once again! After a recent screening, I wanted to edit it further but luckily, it wasn’t possible. You have to put the pen down at some point and it’s useful to have a deadline.
There’s a lot of female energy in the film; there’s your presence as a filmmaker and three generations of women on screen. What is it like for women living in this region?
I wasn’t consciously planning to make another film about women after Invisible Battalion. Perhaps it has roots in our past, but I remember growing up surrounded by many strong women. There were major changes taking place in Ukraine at the time; the Soviet Union was gone and everything felt so shaky. Men were confused and didn’t know what to do and it was often the women who took the burden upon their shoulders. I don’t know…there’s something about Ukrainian women because even now, during wartime, I see so many strong female characters around me. The war has revealed everyone’s hidden powers so it’s not just a matter of gender. But when you visit the warzone in the Donbas region, it’s true that you see so many women and children and the men you see are all in the military. Anna is divorced, as is her sister and their father died and I met so many families like this in the region. Sadly, the grandmother (Anna’s mother) you see in our film passed away recently; she contracted Covid and within just a week she was gone. Anna and her sister are now the oldest living members of their family.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker and what were your earliest memories of cinema growing up in Ukraine?
I’m the first in my family to have an artistic profession and it happened almost by accident; one of my relatives was an interpreter on television and I was so impressed that I wanted to do something similar. But at university I started learning about all the different professions and that I could be a director. That sounded far more interesting! I went on to graduate from film school in Kyiv but at the time there was a real sense of stagnation in Ukranian cinema and not many opportunities so I started working on commercials at a production house. I later made some short films and it’s only now —I’m 38— that I’ve made a feature and more recently, my first fiction film! It was scary entering a different world, especially as I’d waited so many years to take that first step but I’m happy I decided to do it. The film is based on a novel written by my husband, who is an Ukranian writer. It’s a coming-of-age story about a boy growing up in the 1990s and is based on the life of my husband’s grandfather’s boyfriend who was a veteran of the Afghan war. Growing up, I watched lots of Soviet films because I didn’t know anything else and it was only around the age of 17 that I discovered more directors from around the world. I remember attending my first festival and watching films for ten hours a day; I wanted to fill myself with as much as possible. It’s so different with my son; he’s only ten but is already such a cinephile! He watches everything with us and even plays a role in my new film so it is now something of a family business.
The title of your film is inspired by a poem by Paul Éluard and in addition to being a filmmaker you are an accomplished poet yourself. What do you think poetry brings to your filmmaking practice?
I’ve gotten used to moving between these two sides of my life and I’m sure my filmmaking is influenced by my writing. Critics often say that my prose and poems are very visual and it’s true; when I write something I always imagine how I would shoot it! I always feel that I’m sitting at the crossroads of writing and filmmaking and when I make a film, it is important to me that I feel the strength of the words. With the fiction film, it was easy to change the dialogue on set and it was great to not need a scriptwriter by my side. I adapted the script myself which was a new experience for me and I’m still trying to understand how it all works.
What would you like viewers to take away from the experience of watching your film?
I hope our film offers some light and hope and poses the question: what does it mean, not only to live in such a closed world, but to fight for the right to a normal life? Anna and her family are interesting to me because they are not just survivors. They seem to have a kind of superpower that allows them to enjoy life, even during the war. I think that all of us need this power, especially now and this year has reminded me that it’s important to find joy in the small things. They inspired me personally and I hope that they inspire others around the world. In the end, we all have the same problems and need the same basic things to live: family, friends, love and art.
Please note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Earth is Blue as an Orange screened at the Sundance Film Festival 2020 where it won the Directing Award in the ‘World Cinema Documentary’ category and had its UK premiere at FRAMES of REPRESENTATION 2020.
by Anjana Janardhan