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

Anatolii Mateshko: one-man jazz band

A noted Ukrainian filmmaker on cinema, friends, and family
17 January, 2018 - 17:46

Let me dare challenge a classic. All unhappy families are alike, and each happy family is happy in its own way.

The characters of today’s story are: the husband – film actor and director Anatolii Mateshko who is handsome, talented, workaholic; the wife – actress, scriptwriter, and director Anastasia Mateshko who is stylish and confident in herself and her husband; Anatolii’s sister – actress Olha Mateshko, one of the top beauties of Ukrainian cinema, who lives in the US and often visits Ukraine; and children – Artem, Mykola, and Andrii. The genre is a family psychological melodrama (to be read on frosty wintertime evenings). The synopsis: a love story.


Anatolii, when your surname first appeared in the credits of Ihor Vetrov’s film The Earthly and Heavenly Adventures, it had already been very well known to audiences thanks to the dazzlingly beautiful actress Olha Mateshko. Did you decide to become an actor under your sister’s influence?

“I think so. Olia is six years my senior, and in childhood she was in fact bringing me up: seeing me off to school because parents were away at work, solving all kinds of conflicts… Her admission to VGIK [All-Union State Institute of Cinema. – Ed.] made an indelible impression on a sensitive infantile mind (laughs). When I was in the seventh grade or so, I was allowed to travel to Moscow to see my sister. I still remember that trip. It was a totally different world – a different kind of people and conversations. Olia was a friend of Sasha Itygilov [a film director and cameraman: Forgive Me If You Can, A Wedding Is to Blame, A Humble Graveyard.  – Author] who became her husband later. He would take me at 6 a.m. (!) to watch the films that were inaccessible to ordinary Soviet viewers, and I then heard would-be actors and directors discuss them. When I came back to Kyiv, I couldn’t come to my senses for perhaps a month – everything seemed drab and dull, none of those who surrounded me knew what was going on in the magic world of cinema. I used to recall for a long time the fantastic atmosphere of VGIK classrooms that ‘smelled Rome’ (laughs).

“It is perhaps at that time that I decided to apply to an actors’ institute after school. But father wanted me to build bridges and tunnels, so if I hadn’t flunked the written exam in mathematics, I might have become an engineer. But I got a bad mark, and, as I intended to apply to some place in any case, I learned a fable and went to try my luck at the theatrical institute. The first year turned out to be difficult, but then I found my ways. It was a classy, interesting time. It was a real pleasure to have such classmates as Hryhorii Hladii, Slava Havryliuk, and Oleh Prymohenov.”

You graduated from the theatrical institute in the mid-1970s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and its film industry was still far away. How did your career of an actor proceed?

“Yes, I was lucky enough to work with Leonid Bykov in the film Only Old Men Are Going  to Battle, with Vladimir Bortko in Canal, and with Pavel Liubimov in Faster than Your Shadow. I played one of the leading roles at the Lenfilm studios in the film Tough Manly Life directed by Anatoly Granik. If you remember, he made Maksim Perepelitsa. He was a very interesting person, and I learned very much from him.

“It was a nice time. We traveled very much across the country, gaining a lot of impressions. For example, I first saw Sergei Parajanov at a USSR film festival in Yerevan, where Tough Manly Life received the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Silver Medal. He had been released from prison just a few days before and immediately came from Tbilisi to Yerevan, where his friends gave him a welcome – a ‘secret supper’ of sorts. After midnight, when all the city’s fleshpots were closed, a select society of gurus with walking canes and signet rings gathered at Ani Hotel. Ivan Havryliuk brought me there. It was terrific!

“I can still picture Parajanov: a white beard, white hair, blue eyes, a gray jacket. He looked at everybody with sort of a childish naive glance. The guests toasted him one by one, and when my turn came, I pronounced some banal words (I don’t remember now what I was saying), sat down, and tears rolled down my cheeks. That evening was etched on my mind forever.

“Then I met Parajanov again, this time in Kyiv. It is Ivan again who brought me there.”

Were Havryliuk and you friends?

“Yes. He, Ivan Mykolaichuk, and I filmed in Bortko’s Canal. We stayed shoulder to shoulder in Chaplynka, a God-forsaken village in the Kherson steppe, and established a very warm relationship. I was the youngest in this company. The three of us had a hell of a good time. In the evenings, we drank a little and sometimes not so little (laughs) and talked as much as we could. Mykolaichuk was always inventing some games – an inventive soul indeed! Every evening turned into sort of a show, and Mykolaichuk was always a live wire. He would tell a host of stories from his own life – for example, about a meeting with Yuri Lyubimov after the triumph of the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, when the latter invited him to Taganka Theater. He was long tormented with doubts over whether or not to go (Taganka was an unachievable dream of all actors at the time), but finally he chose not to go. Had he accepted Lyubimov’s offer, this could have shaped his destiny quite differently.

“It was very interesting to me in their company. They were at first studying me and then admitted me to their team. I did not abuse the older friends’ disposition, but our friendship also continued outside the filming sites.”

You carved out a successful career of an actor. So why did you decide to become a director?

“You see, man and woman are different objects in the profession of actor. The actor is an instrument in the hands of a director – this is why he begins to form a special attitude to himself. What is the attitude of, say, an artist to his instrument, the paintbrush? He keeps caringly, cleans and cherishes it. Likewise, the actor begins (willy-nilly) to look at himself in the mirror more than necessary. This may be logical for this profession, but it becomes a habit that usually turns into egocentrism. Very few can overcome this. Those who manage to do so can achieve dizzy heights in this trade. But they are not many. Incidentally, I find it very difficult now to spend free time in the actors’ milieu. It is far more comfortable to mingle with people of other professions. The point is that you are both mum and dad for actors of any age on the filming site, and you spend 12 hours in a row there. For example, Yurii Yevsiukov, an excellent actor, took part in my latest film, but I was supposed to hug, praise, and scold him. And Tioma Miaus, also a top-class contemporary actor, says himself: ‘You must stir me up!’ They are really like children, they need to be watched all the time, so when you relax, you try not to think about this.”

You studied the art of direction in Russia, at the Higher Courses of Scriptwriters and Directors. Was it difficult to adapt, for it is no secret that all those who came from the non-Russian republics were treated as “kid brothers”?

“We did not in fact need to adapt because there was a multiethnic company in our year of study. Incidentally, it is only there that I learned to tell an Estonian from a Latvian or a Lithuanian (laughs).”

In what way?

“Latvians are rational and, at the same time, more pro-Soviet. Lithuanians are true men, the people you can rely on, while Estonians are daredevil guys who can easily fall into prostration. It seems to be the same region, but characters are different.

“We lived as fiends and got used to each other. At those courses, I mingled a lot with Sasha Kaydanovsky, a marvelous and talented person. Our chief mentor was Aleksandr Mitta [July Rain; Shine, Shine, My Star; Air Crew; The Border: a Taiga Romance. – Author]. He delivered general lectures and was, at the same time, writing the book Between Hell and Heaven, a manual on dramaturgy and direction, and was testing his ideas on us. It was interesting.”

You started as a director quite assertively: within a few years – a much-spoken-of brilliant debut, The Green Flame of a Goat, then Kha-Bi-Assy, and A Woman for All. Things were OK, but the USSR broke up, and no more films were made. Did you wish you had learned to build bridges and tunnels?

“Bridges and tunnels were not being built either at the time, it was all too lousy. Of course, now I would perhaps choose a different profession. Why not? The world is open today, and there are a lot of opportunities. But at that time, we felt lost at first – it was not clear what to do. I worked on TV, made programs and paid-for corporate films, taught at an institute. Then Oleksandr Rodniansky invited me to direct the serial Bourgeois’ Birthday. It drew a very wide response, and things began to improve.”

Before the Maidan and the war in the east, you worked very much and successfully in Russia. You made several TV serials based on Darya Dontsova’s book Dasha Vasilyeva, Lover of Private Investigation and Tatiana Ustinova’s A Special-Purpose Girlfriend and The Myth of an Ideal Man, as well as other films that still remain popular. Do you cooperate with your Russian colleagues today?

“No, I am not working with the Russians. Incidentally, it became uncomfortable for me to work there well before the Maidan. I don’t know how to explain this. I have even rejected a couple of interesting offers. I once even agreed to work with producer Denis Yevstigneyev but turned in the ticket in the last minute and didn’t go.

“Besides, cinema begins to revive in Ukraine at last. It is now possible to offer and defend your projects and make the films you want in your homeland. There have been monthly premieres of Ukrainian films of various genres in the last while, and some of these works are excellent. I have not yet seen Akhtem Seitablaiev’s Cyborgs, but I’ve heard rather emotional comments, which means that the movie has touched many on the raw. Maryna Stepanska had made a top-class art-house Headlong, a European-level film. It shows an excellent debut of the young actors Andrii Syletskyi and Dasha Plakhtii. Sebastian Taler is a superb director of photography! I liked his camerawork very much. It is the quality that some of my colleagues lack, for they still can’t get rid of poetical cinema cliches and ‘want very much to make a beautiful picture.’ Of course, I am also tempted sometimes to see an ideal footage, but it often runs counter to dramaturgy. And Headlong was shot absolutely right. What also impressed me is Arkadii Nepytaliuk’s film Pryputni. It is good that The Stronghold, the first attempt of a mainstream, was made. All these films are drawing audiences. This means that national cinema is in demand – a time has come when we want to watch films about ourselves.


“Our team has also made in the past few years the comical musical Trumpeter, the wartime drama Captum, and is now editing the children’s film Foxter and Max written by Anastasia Mateshko, while animators are creating a drawn robot dog, a friend of our hero. It is a long and painstaking process. So, we are not bored, and it is great.”


You and your wife Anastasia work together: she played in your films, was an assistant director, a creative producer, and wrote the script of Foxter and Max. How did you meet?

“In the last century (laughs), in the now distant 1993, the House of Cinema hosted the premiere of Oleksii Levchenko’s film Champs-Elysees, where I played the landlord Volodymyr Mykolaievych, and our mutual friends introduced us to each other. I felt awfully embarrassed because Nastia was always looking at me with so huge eyes. And then she said: ‘I want to have children by this man!’ (Laughs.)

“It seemed to me at first that I was seeing a nightmare: I had recently parted with my first wife and was absolutely unprepared for a new relationship, all the more so that Nastia and I have an age difference of 23 years. She seemed enormous to me. But then it turned out that this difference was not so essential.”

Was it easy to decide to get married for a second time?

“No, not so easy at all.”

What influenced this decision after all?

“Love is always a decisive factor.”

Did you fall in love at once, frankly speaking?

“I think, in the course of time. All the more so that Nastia’s attitude to me allayed many fears. I will say more: she changed me for the better.”

And what was bad in you, if it is no secret?

“(Laughs.) There was something. I won’t disclose my drawbacks. For example, I gave up smoking 15 years ago.”

You’ve been together for 20 years. Is it not difficult to be together all the time – at home and at work?

“It is perhaps important that we share the same cause and goals that we want to achieve. We always have things to discuss – unrealized concepts, concrete tasks. For example, Nastia is now producing a short on her own, without my participation. But we still discuss some details. Recently she made a 5-minute short based on Maksim Kurochkin’s play Orientalist. Let me say in all modesty: it’s a top-notch job!”

Is this the first work of Anastasia as a director?

“No, Nastia’s debut was the short film Tenant. It was even shown in 2015 at the Cannes Festival’s Short Film Corner.”

Do you criticize each other?

“(Laughs.) It happens, for there’s always a temptation to mock at each other.”

In spite of mocking (or thanks to an ironical attitude to each other), you look a happy and harmonic couple…


In any case, it seems to me so.

“Then you are right. (Smiles.) There are some unexplainable things: why can’t you stay with a certain individual in the same space for even a minute and you intuitively recoil from him and feel uncomfortable if he approaches you, but you forgive another one absolutely everything – his behavior and the misdeeds you are supposed to reject a priori? Nastia and I resent nothing in each other. For example, she didn’t wash the dishes and sits reading a book – I will stand up quietly and do this; I even like this process because I reflect, meditate, at this moment. This applies to any situation. Maybe, this is a true harmony?”

And how do you usually spend your vacations?

“We’ve bought a house near Kaharlyk and go there in the summer. The area is large and beautiful. There is a grove and even some impenetrable places there. You arrive at the village and seem to ‘dissolve’ in it. Nastia is always busy planting some shrubs. I grow melons and watermelons – very tasty indeed. Cucumbers, tomatoes… I mow the grass with an electric mower. Our younger son Andrii often travels with us. He keeps company with local boys; they invent and play all kinds of games.

“We don’t ski. We may try to begin doing so with Andrii. We used to travel to India some time ago. We spent a lot of time there. Nastia took interest in yoga and Indian mythology. Now, thank God, she’s cooled a little. She has ‘regained’ European values. (Laughs.) I like this more, for it is closer to me.”


You have three sons. Has anyone of them inherited your artistic genes?

“The eldest, Artem, deals with economics, finances, and stock market sales. He once worked in Kyiv quite successfully but then moved to Canada, where his mother is living and adapting. I am already a grandfather – I have a granddaughter. But I’ve only seen her on Skype so far.

“The middle one, Kolia, was at first inclined to be an actor. He even played in the French film Cherry. He went to the audition on his own (he was 14 then) and was cast to play one of the main roles – a friend of the heroine whose father works in Kyiv, while mother cannot cope with her teenage daughter and sends her from France to Ukraine. Here the girl (incidentally, a niece of and as beautiful as Isabelle Adjani) meets the boy Kolia played. The film was to have been shot in Kyiv, but the team was moved to Sofia owing to the Maidan. Nastia went with the son. They liked the city very much. They would walk past the pet shop that kept a little Jack Russell terrier on sale (you remember the film The Artist?). When the filming was over, Kolia bought her for the money he earned (they are very expensive) and named her Zoe in honor of the French girl. Now the dog responds to Zoia, and we have a court full of relatives. (Laughs) Zoia was very naughty when she was young, but now I think she can understand the human language. Whenever the youngest son, Andrii, plays the saxophone, she stands beside him and sings along with it.”

Do you like Kolia’s performance?

“I can’t be impartial. He is a very gifted guy, and, after the Paris premiere, the director berated us with a purely French zeal: ‘It’s a piece of genius! You underestimate your son! Set him free!’ But the main thing is that when Kolia and I once strolled on the streets of Kyiv, he told me the most important words: ‘Daddy, you know, I don’t want to be an actor.’ Yet he liked filming very much – the French group and the milieu were terrific. This confession of him was a big gift for me, a second birth of the child. Children should be left free to choose their way.”

Which way has Kolia chosen? He has already finished school, hasn’t he?

“He hesitated about where to study after school. I suggested an IT course. Kolia at first balked at this (‘It’s not my way’), but he came home after two lessons with his eyes sparkling – he liked very much the way the instructor conducted classes. He was an apt pupil and showered the teacher with questions about all kinds of details. As a result, the instructor invited Kolia to work in his company. And the son decided that it would be more interesting for him to work and do what he likes instead of wasting five years on some incomprehensible institute. Mom fell into hysterics at first, she nearly fainted – how can her son remain without higher education? But I backed him deep in my heart because I myself had taught at a college for two years, but I couldn’t take it anymore and quit – the teachers themselves needed to study, and, for students, it was a waste of time for their own money.’’

“Now Kolia is ‘making himself’: he soaks up several huge English-language specialist books in a month because, in this field, you should keep an eye on novelties every day. As a result, he, at the age of 18 only, interviews people who have graduated from the Kyiv Polytechnic and other technological institutes. Kolia is invited to work in Portugal, but he doubts whether he will manage to do the job. It will be his choice: on the one hand, it is terrific, and, on the other, he is only 18.

“Kolia likes what he is doing, but he gets tired. To relax a little, he recently bought a tour to Sri Lanka for his own money – he asked me nothing.

“Andrii, the youngest one, resembles nobody. He is free, independent, and easy-going. And, in my view, he is the smartest one. To begin with, he already knows how to cook, and he’s doing it very well. He is an avid reader. He has ‘swallowed’ the whole Harry Potter, juggles with the names of stations, cities, and names of heroes. He knows the entire Harry Potter bible – I think his vocabulary is richer than mine.

“Andrii is an actor. He invents something, changes clothes, and plays all the time. He has a good ear for music, and we wanted him to learn to play the guitar, but he chose a wind instrument. He first played the flute, but then his teacher (an interesting guy: he and Andrii speak on equal terms without observing age subordination) advised him to take up the saxophone. He says it is a manlier instrument. My first wife brought a saxophone from Canada with problems – she nearly left it at the airport. So Andrii thumps up tunes on it. He likes it very much. He reasons as follows (imitates the son): ‘Whenever I play I can see everybody in the hall, and I play to each spectator concretely, I want to say something to each!’”

Sergey Chonishvili, a talented actor and an uncommon personality who took part in some of your films, divides people into “one-man jazz bands” and “no one-man jazz bands.” I think the meaning of this characterization is clear. When I asked Chonishvili which of the Kyivites he knows can be called “one-man jazz band,” he said: “Anatolii Mateshko and cameraman Serhii Bordeniuk – by all means! They are always in a jam session.”

“It’s a pleasure.”

And what pieces performed by the saxophonist son does the “one-man jazz band” like the most?

“It is perhaps Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade and Pink Panther.”

The long New Year vacations are drawing to a close. Did you travel somewhere to celebrate the holiday?

“We traditionally ring in the New Year at home with the children and Nastia’s parents. If Olia is in Kyiv, she also comes to us. When mom was alive, we also used to invite her.”

Was it a feast with gifts under the Christmas tree, as it should be?

“Of course! Moreover, a few years ago, when we оtalked about miracles and wishes to St. Nicholas, Andrii suddenly said: ‘Let me dress up as Santa Claus, you will all put gifts into a bag, and I will be handing them out!’ We accepted this suggestion, and it is for three years now that Andrii has been donning the costume of Santa Claus, walking out of doors, ringing, and making all kinds of speeches. It’s fun!”

By Iryna HORDIICHUK, special to The Day. Photos from Anatolii MATESHKO’s personal archive