Art can help keep your head above water in times of war. The Ukrainian poet and filmmaker Iryna Tsilyk explores how war and art intersect in her first documentary feature The Earth is Blue as an Orange. In the region of Donbass, the armed conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government enters its seventh year of war. Anna and her four children use their confinement to the basement (and underground bomb shelter) to make home movies. Mortars and grenades might fall out of the sky, but the tension does not seem to dampen the family’s love for cinema. Anna teaches herself how to edit, her eldest daughter Myroslava gets accepted into film school, and the other children pick up their musical instruments.
Tsilyk’s lens zeroes in on the family’s quotidian tribulations while Myroslava wonders how pain, trauma, and war should be depicted in her own short film. After winning the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance, this gripping account of colliding worlds has now made its way to the screens of the Berlinale. We chatted with the director after the film’s world premiere in Sundance.
IC: Where did it all start? What was your original idea: Anna’s family or the war?
IT: Everything started when the producer, Anna Kapustina, invited me to take part in a project. I didn’t know much about it. She just said two words: Donbass and children. That was enough for me. It was a very quick decision. Initially, we considered other ideas. We have this very cool project in Ukraine, called Yellow Bus. Different professional filmmakers organize cinema camps for children in the war zone. I participated as a tutor. At the start, we were considering shooting a film about the project itself. But then I met these two participants Myroslava and Nastia. The girls invited me and my team to their hometown, Krasnohorivka, and to their family. When we arrived there and met their mother and saw the whole atmosphere of this house and the town, everything changed instantly. We decided to start over, with new characters and a new story. And at the end of the day, I think we made the right choice.
Yellow Bus is really an amazing project. In ten days, the kids go through all the stages of film production. They create a script, shoot a film and have the premiere in front of an audience, with people from their hometowns. It is really incredible to see because they’re so used to live in these war conditions. Cinema is a magic world to them but observing all of that in a war situation was weird for us. We had so many surreal situations. There was this moment, for instance, when the kids were watching clips of classic films. We heard shelling outside but they just didn’t pay any attention to it. They know from the sound whether it is dangerous or not. They know it all too well. That was surprising to me. When they chose the locations for their shooting, one of the locations was right on the border of a minefield. Can you imagine? They told us, adults, to be careful: “You can’t go there, but you can be here.” We had plenty of these situations.
IC: I think that these observations found their way to the documentary. This duality is in the smallest things and almost in every image. At their graduation, they’re just standing there taking the classic picture with their diploma in hand. It’s the kind of image that will hang above the fireplace for the rest of their lives. And then these military trucks cross the frame.
IT: There were so many different situations where I’ve had this surreal feeling. These parallel dimensions exist so close to each other and they intersect with one another. I mean the dimensions of war and peace, the dimensions of war and art. That’s why I was looking for a special title. I chose that quote from the poem of Paul Eluard (La terre est bleue comme une orange, 1929) because I was looking for a formula that could convey that sense of surreality. It’s about the combination of things that co-exist even though they shouldn’t. But they do. In everyday situations, war and peace coexist.
IC: It’s visible in your meta approach of a film in a film. While the family focuses on the depiction of war in their home movie, you are watching them and you focus on the little things. We actually have those two worlds colliding on screen, too.
IT: You know, I initially didn’t realize that this was the important thread of my film. But then many people started drawing my attention to it during several workshops: “Come on, you can’t see this? You really have something here.” [laughs] I realized I’d be able to show the war from a very special perspective. And then when I actually finished my film, I also realized the film isn’t only about them. It’s also about me. Because all of us, Ukrainian filmmakers and artists, have been trying to find ways to make ourselves useful in the context of war. Do our cameras even have power? So while I might have been observing them, I was actually asking myself questions as well: “What am I doing, here and now?”
IC: How hard was that process? Because you worked on the film for a while …
IT: The whole journey took about two years and a half. I was with the family for a whole year: spring, summer, autumn, winter and again spring. The documentary is something very new for me. I realized a few basic things during the process. First of all, if you want to shoot a good portrait, you have to spend as much time as possible with the characters. So we kept coming, again and again. We were living with them in the house. We actually became part of the family. It varied, of course. Sometimes, they were bored. Sometimes, they had enough of us. Initially, they were excited about the whole process. But then … you can imagine [how one reacts when] some people are around all the time. But we were lucky because they love cinema and they know the process. So they let us into their world.
I particularly admired that Anna taught herself how to edit to help her daughters with this film. She’s such a great and strong personality.
IC: There are definitely moments where it felt like this was her movie.
IT: She was, in fact, the director of it all. She directed her life, the lives of her children. And their films. I mean, she could be a very good director because she has such a … She knows how to structure a story, how to do all the kinds of things. You know, she’ll soon be a mother again. For the fifth time! I was actually excited to invite her to the festival because she has never been abroad. And I wanted so much to open these new doors for her. But maybe it’s her destiny to be a mother, I don’t know. But for me and Myroslava, the eldest girl, have this idea. Anna can’t come to the premiere in Kiev because she is in the very late stage of the pregnancy. So Myroslava suggested, and I love the idea, to organize the premiere in their town. Just for her and her friends.
IC: This idea of cinema as therapy is very much present in the documentary as well. Film as a tool for healing.
IT: They did not actually realize that this worked as some kind of therapy. When they got this idea to shoot a film about themselves during the war, I realized how special this was going to be. I felt like I won a lottery ticket. They decided to do the film and started recreating all these situations: it really looked and felt like therapy. But they didn’t think about it. I guess I did because I was observing them from a distance.
IC: There’s another layer: it might be therapeutic for the audience as well.
IT: I realized that I’m also traumatized. Everything that I have been doing in the last six years is connected to the topic of war. I just can’t focus on something else. This isn’t a new topic. Before this project, I did a few short documentary films about women at war. Also, my husband was a soldier during this Russian Ukrainian war. He served for a year and a half. But he’s a writer. He didn’t have any experience with any of this before. That was also a surreal experience for him and for my family. So I’m always, all the time, in this situation, and I’m too focused on it. But when you come out of that world of war in Ukraine, you realize that the country is actually split into different groups of people. And for some people, there’s no war at all.
In my city, the capital Kiev, it’s so peaceful. It’s such a contrast with the Donbass region. I might also be frustrated about that. I’m not saying everyone should constantly be focused on war. We need to survive somehow because this war has been going on for six years now. We’re almost in the seventh year. It’s not possible to be focused on war all the time. But, still, you can’t imagine how Ukraine lives now. It’s about those parallel dimensions again. Some people just don’t care at all.
IC: There have been talks of a new wave of Ukrainian cinema. More specifically, there has been some sort of awakening after the Maidan protests. Artists like Sergei Loznitsa started making films about the topic of war and resilience. Within that context, where do you see documentaries and yourself?
IT: To be honest, it’s difficult to answer your question because I experience my situation as if it were a close-up. I don’t have enough distance to see the wide shot. But as to Ukrainian cinema in general, it’s getting stronger year after year and especially during these years of war. That’s very obvious to me. We’ve made so many powerful documentaries these past years. Maybe that’s just because everything that’s happening around us is so intense. You do not have to look for topics to work with. You just look around and see very special people with very special stories. I would even say that Ukrainian documentaries are stronger than fiction right now.
I just realized how my film contrasts with Loznitsa’s Donbass. Because my Donbass is quite different. Many people told me, even in the audience here at Sundance, how they see Donbass as some dirty, dangerous, grey zone. While, in fact, there are so many nice people that live there. And it has such a beautiful nature. I discovered the region myself during this past year. I didn’t know much about it. The Earth is Blue as an Orange, perhaps, adds something to his Donbass. I really liked his film, but I think the title is wrong. Of course, I realize why he chose it. It catches people’s attention to the region. But his Donbas shows one perspective. The actual Donbass is very different. It was important to me to show that.
IC: I wondered about the two absences of the film: the men and the soundtrack.
IT: When we just arrived at the house, I realized all of the children were playing different musical instruments. When I heard one of them was playing Hello by Adèle on his saxophone, I thought: I don’t need other music for this film. If I’m showing the film they’re making, I figured it’d be cool to also use the music they’re making.
As to the presence of men, that was also strange to me. We only see these strong female characters. Their town also seems to be a town of women. Here, masculinity is represented by the few military soldiers we see in the film, but their husbands … I don’t know even know.
IC: They’re not there?
IT: They’re just somewhere in the background. They’re not really visible. In this family, the fathers of the children aren’t really home. I know many families in Ukraine that deal with a similar situation. It wasn’t my goal to focus on strong female characters but I’m surrounded by them. These women just have such great personalities. And then I met this family. We just have so many cool women in Ukraine!