Nadia Parfan (born in Ivano-Frankivsk in 1986) is a cultural scholar, civic activist, curator of independent cultural projects, and co-founder of the International Festival of Film and Urbanism “86” which is held in the city of Slavutych. She studied cultural theory at the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy (KMA) and social anthropology at the Central European University. In 2012-13, she studied in the US under the Fulbright Academic Exchange Program. Parfan’s articles and research contributions have appeared in magazines Korydor, Spilne, Politychna Krytyka, and Ukraina Moderna.
We became friends by correspondence when she turned to me for a review of her diploma work as she was preparing to graduate the KMA. One can say that her social growth occurred on my watch in a certain sense. Parfan is one of those passionate personalities who always care where most people do not, who are trying to change – and do change – the world around them. Therefore, the conversation with her is interesting by definition.
What made you join such a troublesome project as a film festival?
“It so happened that after studying in Kyiv, I had the opportunity to learn and to live in other countries for some time, and to get a very diverse cultural experience at the same time, both on the consumption and the production sides. After returning home, I did not have enough of an adequate cultural context. In particular, until recently, quality documentaries were almost absent in Ukraine, but they are almost like a daily bread for me. Fortunately, I was not alone. Together with like-minded people, we took a risk and decided to create an environment in which we would like to be spectators ourselves.”
How did you succeed in raising funds for the festival?
“I cannot say that I have succeeded. We start from scratch every year, and every time we go through a complicated and painful process. We spend several months of life every year to raise funds bit by bit. This is a colossal work, a great stress and the pinnacle of curatorial art. We receive most funds through grant competitions held by international foundations that support cultural projects or the development of local communities.”
How has the attitude of the local population changed regarding you over this time?
“At first, we were treated with caution. Over time, we have broken the ice: more and more people recognize ‘86’ and are eagerly awaiting the festival. When a queue made of young people of bohemian appearance forms at the ATB store in the central square, cashiers are no longer surprised and address them only as ‘urbanists.’ Following our arrival, a lot of educational, social, and cultural initiatives came to Slavutych, and the local community became significantly more active as well. A new hostel will open this year. Local teens have learned to make falafel and sell it during street events. We have a discreet long-lasting romance with the city.”
Now that some years have passed, are you satisfied with what you have made? Did you expect it to turn out like it has?
“The pace and magnitude of the change are very impressive, in my opinion. I thought that some things would take decades, but they happened a year or two. One day during this year’s festival, I went out and did not believe my eyes: there was no trace of the small, quiet Slavutych we had seen in 2014. This could well be West Berlin in the late 1980s. At the same time, new and more complex challenges appear every time. It was only in the process that I realized the systemic nature of many issues that are totally not solvable at our level.”
Do you think sometimes “Why did I get into it?” and how do you fight such thoughts?
“These thoughts visit me every time when we have funding suddenly cut, the transfer of funds delayed on the eve of the festival, when the hryvnia devalues, or when the tax service comes up with a new way to complicate the lives of non-governmental organizations. Then I am suffering, beating my head against the wall and consuming a lot of excess carbohydrates. And then everything is resolved somehow, and the laborious months of work finally bring results. I enter a crowded auditorium mid-show and see a few hundred eyes that are glued to the screen, and then I understand that we suffered for a good cause.”
What is urbanism? Is it some kind of philosophy, ideology, or just a lifestyle?
“In a broad sense, urbanism is the theory and practice of urban life. The city is thus defined as a specific phenomenon of human civilization, a stage of evolution, a kind of so-called built environment (man-made environment, as opposed to natural one). The city is a living organism, a special type of culture, and a way of interaction of citizens among themselves. Urbanism deals also with the historical and geographical diversity of urban forms: polis cities in antiquity, market cities in the Late Middle Ages, factory cities in the era of industrialization, and post-modern city hubs. The city arose at some point in human history and may well cease to exist at some point, although the recent history shows the opposite movement: the nation-states are declining, while the cities are gaining in importance.”
Tell us more about the “Rubizh” (“Frontier”) film workshop. What is its purpose?
“This is the third release of the MyStreetFilmsUkraine project. Its purpose is, firstly, to give each person the opportunity to shoot a film and, secondly, to put the focus on some non-trivial, often not well-known cities and places. This project has grown from the basic idea that every city has something to tell, we just need to listen carefully.
“The idea of MyStreetFilms-Frontier was to show the human face of eastern Ukrainian cities and deconstruct that monstrous image of the Donbas and Azov Coast which had been created by the media after 2014. It was important for us to emphasize that people who live in the east are basically the same, they also fall in love, preserve cucumbers for the winter, and get their teeth filled.”
How difficult was it to do the Third MyStreetFilms? After all, its locations are in the frontline zone.
“Most films were filmed on Ukrainian-controlled territory or used personal archives. One of our participants, Valerii Puzik, went to film a dental brigade at the front. He himself had been a volunteer soldier in the war and felt quite safe, although, of course, we were worried. Our youngest director is Rusia Ambrosimova. This 14-year-old girl comes from Marinka which is effectively a suburb of Donetsk. I am scared to turn on the news as they tell about another shelling of her hometown. At the same time, I am happy with her progress, because Ambrosimova is the most talented 14-year-old girl in Ukraine and a future film director.”
Is there a chance for the young people who took part in the film workshop to join the professional film industry?
“Getting established in the trade takes more time, as we completed the workshop as late as this May. Still, say, Puzik has already won the Open Night Film Festival, while Maria Stoianova went to screen her film at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna. We are waiting for the results of the selections of other film forums and hope for more victories and awards.”
What are the prospects for these films to be shown in the places where they were shot?
“Our festival will soon go east with the project ‘86: Afterword.’ During September, we will show our international hits and films of the Frontier project exactly where their characters live: in Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Kostiantynivka, Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Rubizhne.”
You yourself have made a few forays into filmmaking. Do you plan to pay more attention to it later?
“It is precisely now that I am filming a new film about the TeploKomunEnerho choir in Ivano-Frankivsk. We are investing a lot of dreams, hopes, short-sleep nights and all sorts of efforts in this project, as much as we can. In general, I see film art as a job, and a hobby, and an entertainment activity, and even as a religion. I cannot rationally explain how it is happening – I just look into the cracks that reality makes for me as it is trying to say something to me. Perhaps this is a purely evolutionary function of a certain type of people who are needed to listen and narrate stories, in this case with the help of the audiovisual medium.”
What film was hardest on you and why?
“All of them were hard on me! Still, Reve ta Stohne on Tour was especially hard to make, as it was my first ‘professional’ film. It was a kind of debut, and I was supposed to prove my competence and to withstand the pressure of producers, characters, and crew at the same time. My Polish producers cut off the funding in the middle of the filmmaking process and did not let me shoot in another country. They had their reasons for it, but it was a big blow for me, and I did not immediately recover... A film happens solely because there is a narrow circle of people who believe in you and can really support you. For instance, my new film is without exaggeration a joint effort of my whole family, including my husband, mother and even grandmother.”
TRAUMAS AND HOPES
What needs to be done in Ukraine for a genuine cultural decentralization to happen? What role does money play and where to obtain it?
“I do not have a ready-made recipe, only my own experience and intuition. Money plays an important role, but it does not work if it is not properly administered. I think we overestimate the western models and turn them into a cargo cult, but I would like to know more about the real stories of successful social change. For example, we know very little about the experience of Latin American countries, even though they have gone through many genetically similar processes. In general, we need to take more interest in the world and less in clinging to our own national traumas.”
By the way, about traumas. Does not it seem to you that the evil irony of history is that in our time, truly serious progress has happened only because of disasters, ranging from Chernobyl to the Maidan revolution and the war?
“I find it ridiculous, but it is so. We like crisis management too much: if there is no crisis, we need to create it.”
What, in your opinion, is Ukraine’s opportunity?
“Ukraine is a wonderland. Absolutely everything is possible here. There is something here that is not available in the safe and affluent West, like drive, air, dynamics. At the same time, even amid war and a permanent economic crisis, we have a much higher standard of living than many countries of the world. Look what happened to the poor Syrians after their Maidan. I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity we have.”