Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“The film is war-themed, but watching it makes one want to live...”

Akhtem Seitablaiev, director of the film Cyborgs, spoke to us about the idea behind its creation, the difficulties he encountered during production, and the first impressions after watching it
14 December, 2017 - 11:05
Photo courtesy of the author

Four years ago, Seitablaiev shot his debut full-length feature film with the mysterious title Haytarma, and people started talking about him. At first it was because the film turned out to be a success, then – after the annexation of Crimea – the discussion moved to the clearly expressed civic position of the Crimean Tatar actor and director, who is now barred from visiting his relatives on the peninsula which has been the ancestral land of his people. Then came Her Heart, which was, in a sense, a continuation of Haytarma’s theme; it impressed the audience with the WWII-era story it told, and somewhat disappointed when it came to presenting that story on the screen. Therefore, when news broke that Seitablaiev was filming the war drama Cyborgs about the recent events of the ongoing war, which are still causing us phantom pain, I was frankly upset. It seemed that nothing good could come out of this venture.

Fortunately, my fears have turned out to be unfounded. Better yet, Seitablaiev and his creative team have produced a wonderful, pathos-free, honest film that makes one cry and laugh, but most importantly, believe in life, in love, in one’s country. Be sure to go and watch The Cyborgs, and you will understand that it is difficult to convey emotions caused by it in mere words. Those who do not believe in the revival of Ukrainian cinema should be the first to watch it.


Who came up with the idea of the film, and were you not afraid to shoot this story now, when the war is still going on and it is hard to take a detached look at the events that are happening right now?

“Do you remember when I was hosting a TV show called Brave Hearts for a time? One of the project’s installments was devoted to people who are now called the ‘cyborgs.’ After it aired, producer Ivanna Diadiura said that a good film could come out of this story. We decided to try it. And although I do not really like the word ‘cyborgs,’ it has become a well-known trend, and the installment was so entitled, and we decided to name the film so as well. Of course, I was afraid when taking on such a major job, and I still fear the audience disapproving of the film. However, we already have some feedback, since we have toured seven Ukrainian cities with The Cyborgs, and all screenings were sold out. For example, just one auditorium was reserved for the film’s screening in Mariupol, but people filled two, and both were packed full! We planned to show the film in two auditoriums in Dnipro, but eventually occupied the entire cinema, with six auditoriums! In Lviv, The Cyborgs were screened in four auditoriums instead of one, in Ternopil it was three instead of one! The interest in the film is there, and I pray that The Cyborgs will not let us down under normal conditions (in the wide release) either.

“As for taking a detached look, one from a temporal distance, I know that such a view exists. But speaking for myself, I do not need that distance to realize that Muscovy began a war against Ukraine. I do not need it to understand: we are witnesses, and sometimes also participants in a process called the birth of a Ukrainian political nation. Today we all are Ukrainians! Well, at least everyone who wants to identify oneself with the Ukrainian people is. I am a Ukrainian of Muslim origin, which does not prevent me from being a Kirimli (the correct name of the Crimean Tatars) and respecting the traditions of my ancestors. While making The Cyborgs, I got to know many young people who went through the war. They are not burdened with the Soviet past, a lot of them have received excellent education, speak foreign languages, have a clear understanding why they went to the front, what country they defend, what state they want to build. Of course, they often are maximalists in their thoughts, which is characteristic of youths anywhere. But these lads are sincere in their impulses, they analyze examples of other countries that have gone through similar stages of development. To understand that the future was theirs, I did not need a temporal distance when we started working on the film either.”

One of the actors involved in The Cyborgs, Roman Semysal, served in the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) area. Recently, he said in an interview that one regressed at war, and he was no exception. And what about your opinion, what is the worst thing in war?

“Only soldiers can answer this question. They will do it differently, I think. For one, it is a three-legged running dog, for another, it is a horror-stricken child’s eyes. Of course, the war is not a parade, but rather blood, sweat, tears, tragedy, and pain. But judging by what the lads tell us, it also involves brotherhood and a clear understanding of what is really important. They often say that at war, they felt to be in a fairer and clearer situation than in peaceful life. So to speak, the enemy is there, the friendly forces are here. And when we started filming, we knew perfectly well that we were working on the living matter, and this understanding strengthened our sense of responsibility. First and foremost, I mean responsibility to those who defended the Donetsk Airport, who have come back from the front. Praise be to God Most High that many of them are alive and will come to watch our film.

“We tried to make an honest product, and I always stress that The Cyborgs is based on the story of the defense of the Donetsk Airport, but in principle, this film is dedicated to every civil volunteer, doctor, soldier, and every family affected by the war. In the latter category, we classify everyone who cares about the country in which their children will live. Therefore, our team, with the support of the Ministry of Investment Policy and the Come Back Alive Foundation, decided to hold the event “I Care.” It involves donating five hryvnias out of the price of each ticket purchased at the box office to the families of those killed in eastern Ukraine. Thus, the audience will not only support Ukrainian cinema, but also participate in reintegrating the country, in building a new state. Yes, in this way! Through cinema. And cinema generally offers a good toolkit in this regard, I believe.”

You are no longer a beginner in film directing, so what turned out to be the most complicated task, professionally speaking, during the filming of The Cyborgs?

“From the very beginning, it was clear that filming tank battles would be hard. I had never done it. As you can see, we have managed it. But as hard as it is to believe it, filming dialogs turned out to be even more difficult. We have a scene where the dialog lasts 10 minutes of the screen time! And it was necessary to make sure that the audience would not lose interest when they listen to it. Of course, we had a wonderful, just excellent scenario by Natalia Vorozhbyt. Actors were great too. I hope that The Cyborgs will be another step in their professional career. I would like to think that the film will be for them a landmark event in the personal development as well. Actors have said, by the way, that they feel as if they have changed as persons since the filming... And still, we had to rack our brains. It was a challenge for our entire team.

“One more thing that seems important to me. With all respect due to adults, our film targets young people first and foremost. The protagonist is a young lad, and it is his peers who will, after a certain time, become statesmen, through whose efforts we will either live in our ‘promised land’ or not.

“I do not harbor any illusions that watching our (or any other) film will fundamentally change anyone’s consciousness, that the viewer will magically change forever, but there is hope that the emotional power we tried to put into the film will not leave people indifferent. It starts with the stories included in the script. All of them are based on the memories of real people who went through hell at the Donetsk Airport. And we gave them the script for revision. They are Oleksandr Trepak (nom de guerre Redut), Andrii Sharaskin (nom de guerre Bohema), Yevhen Zhukov (nom de guerre Marshal), Yevhen Mezhevykin (nom de guerre Adam), and Kyrylo Nedria (nom de guerre Dotsent). Moreover, there are several real people who each of our cinematic characters is based on. You know, it is just impossible to put the 242-day-long history of the defense of the Donetsk Airport into a two-hour film. Therefore, we (of course, with the permission of the prototypes) allowed ourselves to combine some events, features of the soldiers’ characters, etc. But, in principle, all the plotlines in our film are real, and the lads have confirmed this. Also, we all care about the issues which The Cyborgs’ characters discuss, and sometimes even quarrel about them. They are the same as in peaceful life, only the emotional tension is higher…”


Probably, the vocabulary used is different as well?

“[Smiles.] Sometimes they use a different vocabulary, of course. It happens.”

I do not even mean profanities. Special slang, jargon words which emerge in various professional communities...

“You see, what the lads talk about while they are at war, it may seem like dialogs we have on Facebook every day. But precisely because these people are in a borderline situation, precisely because every minute can become their last, these conversations acquire a totally new relevance, as people need to dot all the i’s here and now. They do not like to talk about the war as such. And this too was a revelation for me. The soldiers prefer talking about peace. Which they defend, in which they want to live, and the future of which they see differently. After all, our heroes differ from each other, both in social status and in age, as well as in language they speak. Moreover, the fairer sex is not actually present in our all-male film, but the lyrical line is, nonetheless. Viewers even say sometimes: ‘Amazingly, there are no girls in the film, but it feels like the lads are in love.’ This feeling emerges because the soldiers constantly recall their daughters, sweethearts, wives. After all, in principle (and I am absolutely convinced of this), a man does everything throughout his life ‘for,’ ‘for the sake,’ and sometimes ‘because of’ his woman.”

What post-screening sayings by viewers have made the strongest impression on you?

“Talking about soldiers, they are generally short-spoken. For example, the commander of the Marines’ battalion which is stationed in Mariupol said only one word: ‘Well-done!’, saluted us, and left. Meanwhile, Zhukov (nom de guerre Marshal; now he is the commander of the patrol police of Ukraine, and during the defense of the Donetsk Airport served as a captain with the 79th Separate Airmobile Brigade; he was one of the consultants of our film, and can be seen as its co-creator) watched The Cyborgs in Ivano-Frankivsk and posted his reaction on Facebook: ‘I was there. I saw it. I cried. Thank you guys!’ It is just an incredibly high mark from such a person who has seen a lot. And what is important is that despite our film being a war drama, we still heard in every city we visited (in Mariupol, Zaporizhia, Dnipro, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Chernihiv): ‘Amazingly, the film is war-themed, but watching it makes one want to live.’”


The Cyborgs had its theatrical release just yesterday, but you are already choosing locations for a new film. This time, you will do a historical drama, am I right?

“Yes, it is called Zakhar Berkut. This time, I am an invited director. My colleague, Ivan Sautkin, who was supposed to film Zakhar Berkut, has not yet completed his previous work, and, with his consent, the film company began to look for a replacement director. The choice has fallen on me. I have read the script, re-read the original story by Ivan Franko, and agreed. This story (when it comes to the plot) echoes The Cyborgs in a way. A small community smashes to pieces a 10,000-strong corps of the Mongol army, the world’s best at the time. Yes, this will also be an action film. But I do not want to focus on it. The main thing which has got me especially interested in this plot is ideological (excuse me!), conceptual confrontation between the boyar Tuhar Vovk, who was appointed as the lord of that land by Prince Daniel of Galicia, and a prototypical democratic society which is embodied by the inhabitants of Tukhlia and headed by Berkut. According to historical evidence, Vovk was held in Mongolian captivity, but they did not kill him for some reason. One can assume that his life was spared because it offered an advantage: the empire was expanding, and such a ‘sleeper agent,’ as it is now fashionable to say, could have been of use in the future. In the captivity, Vovk saw from within how firmly the alien empire was held together, and he liked it. He decided that this was the way a state had to develop if it wanted to be strong, powerful, to conquer foreign territories, to conquer new peoples. Or at least to be invincible. To do so, it needed a clear power hierarchy, where only one person’s word matters – that of the Supreme Ruler. Where everything is focused not on some kind of ‘incomprehensible’ pluralism of opinions, ‘senseless’ power of the people, but on a well-developed military machine, military democracy that works very clearly along the following lines: ‘We are a power and we will build a powerful statist nation without sentiment.’ With such an inner desire, he returned to his native land, and constantly conflicted with another ideology, another way of life, which was the lifeblood of this land. The inhabitants of Tukhlia had for years built the relationship between people, between man and nature, determined what was invaluable, and what of secondary importance. And they came to the conclusion that the greatest value should be ascribed to an individual, not a state. So to speak, a society working for an individual rather than an individual for a society.”

It has been an unrealizable dream.

“Sorry! This is my toolkit. I, of course, do not compare myself with anyone and have a sober assessment of my place in the creative industry. But great American producers have over decades captivated the world with the American model of life, its values. Is it not so? They have done it with the help of cinema. Why should not we, not repeat their experience, but use the same tool to tell people: every person is valuable in and of themselves, and something depends on them in this life! Each of us – Akhtem, Ivan, Taras – is an individual, not a trembling creature!”

You listed only men.

“Yes, yes, it is sexism! [Laughs.] After all, Zakhar Berkut is also a story of self-destruction of a person, who, to paraphrase the generally known thesis, decided to ‘do as the Romans do when at home’ and was therefore doomed to self-destruction.”

Have you watched Leonid Osyka’s film of the same name?

“Of course! There are also quite clearly marked accents there that I have just spoken about. Vovk as played by the genius Kost Stepankov utters the following phrase: ‘Let it be the Mongolian order, let it be even so...’ I will not contest the truth, it is banal: the world drama, which I consider the work of Franko to be a part of, is, unfortunately, still relevant today from the perspective of knowing one’s fellow humans. You can take any of William Shakespeare’s plays and find in it a reflection of today’s events.”


You play in the Left-Bank Theater of Kyiv, star in films, have been working without a break as film director for a few years, regularly visit the ATO area with concerts, and on top of it all, have lately started to participate in the TV show Dancing with the Stars. Can you tell me frankly, what do you need it for? Only for self-promotion, or are there other reasons involved?

“It all started very prosaically. I had been turning down their offers for a long time, as my workload was high enough already, and besides, I had certain health issues after making the film. And then, my youngest daughter Safiye overheard a conversation and looked at me so-o-o [laughs] demandingly: ‘Oh, how strongly I want you to dance...’ Then I realized that it was very important for her, and it would be a special experience for me, so I agreed. In addition, as you correctly noted, for an artist, involvements in such projects are ambivalent things that affect each other. For example, you talk with someone who has never seen you in cinema or in theater, but they do watch Dancing with the Stars or the TV series Central Hospital... Nothing goes without a trace, and media presence not only hinders, but sometimes helps in one’s work.”

How did Safiye respond to the show’s end result?

“First of all, I am very grateful for her support, she liked everything! She said that I was the world’s best dancer!”

Did she try to repeat your dances?

“Yes! But Safiye has choreography as her hobby as well, in addition to English, solfege, vocal training, and some other activities. I am so sorry for her, truth be told. She works a lot, I did not have such a workload when I was a child.”

You have forgotten to say that Safiye played a role in her father’s previous film Her Heart. Given that she is still a little child, did she understand that when on the film set, you were not her dad but the director?

“She did. There were very funny cases when she told other children who seemed to her to be not very focused: ‘Do not spoil me a good movie!’” [Laughs.]