Documentary filmmaker Oleksandr Techynskyi (born in Dnipropetrovsk in 1979) debuted in 2013 with a witty short called Sirs and Seniors, which was filmed in Uman during a Hasidic pilgrimage.
In 2014, the director, together with Oleksii Solodunov and Dmytro Stoikov, co-produced the full-length feature film All Things Ablaze, dealing with the Maidan events (it won an MDR Film Prize for the best East European film in Leipzig). The stylistics of the film goes beyond the strictly documentary limits. All Things Ablaze shows the menacing beauty of revolution, growing from fire, blood, and continuous movement. One can say that Techynskyi, Solodunov, and Stoikov depict the Maidan as a classic canvas, on which apportioning blame is less important than the very picture of a big collision, a great tragedy that all of us have had to contend with.
The premiere of Techynskyi’s new work, entitled Delta and already honored with a special mention of the jury at the DOK Leipzig festival (Germany), was held in Kyiv within the framework of the Docudays UA Festival. The principal photography was done in the town of Vylkove in the Danube delta. Its characters live, work, and die on the water. There is some kind of hypnotic persuasiveness in the way that Techynskyi’s camera hovers over the river or through the fog, as it follows the Vylkove men as they go about their everyday concerns. The narration proceeds at once on three levels: colorful, somewhat rough characters; picturesque plastics of the image, sometimes turning the film into a true heir to Pieter Bruegel’s art; and also metaphysical, religious motives. The combination of visual perfection with semantic richness allows one to call Delta an extraordinary event for the Ukrainian cinema.
Our conversation with Techynskyi took place the day after the Kyiv premiere.
“I COUNTED ON MY EXPERIENCE AND INSTINCTS”
As far as I remember, you started as a photographer...
“Not quite so. My father was a miner, I grew up in Yakutia, then I returned to Dnipro, where I graduated from high school and medical college, as well as worked as a night attendant at a gas station before joining that latter school. For six months, I worked as an anesthetist in a hospital, and spent a year and a half with a psychiatric ambulance service. Since 2001, I have been working as photojournalist.”
Where did you get the desire to look at the world through the lens?
“I always wanted to film things. I imagined photoreporting as a job which would be full of adventures, travels, and meeting various people at a crazy pace. That is how it has actually turned out.”
Are you in a sense an adventurer by nature?
“It is quite possible to say so.”
A filmmaker’s required skills are totally unlike those of a photographer. How well did you succeed in making this transition?
“It seems to me there is the energy that drives you. You go from one point to another. If you have exhausted all the most interesting things here, then you go further. I worked for the Kommersant newspaper and came into conflict with myself and with that company. I thought I could not even work as a photojournalist. My crisis was so intense. Then I watched the film Workingman’s Death by Michael Glawogger [filmed in 2005 by a prominent Austrian documentary filmmaker. – Author] and realized that this was something I wanted to do. It was about then that I, as a reporter, found myself in Uman during a Hasidic pilgrimage and decided that I would shoot a film next year. The team got organized, we got to work, and it turned out well.”
You just got to work, and it turned out well?
“You just go and do it. It cannot be done otherwise.”
Do you have any professional cinema education?
It gives rise to another question: did you encounter in Sirs and Seniors some fundamentally new problems?
“Rather so: I got the most knowledge from this work. I looked over the footage and realized that I lacked RAM to handle everything I saw. So film editing was postponed. I was able to compose the film in a year. I lacked professional skills, so invented my own methodology, counted on my experience and instincts. The next project was easier.”
By the way, what about your life experience as an ambulance medic or gas station attendant, has it been of use in your directing work?
“I still rely on those stories. Of course, various things happened, but if you see different scenes that happen there and develop them in your head, you can use it throughout your life.”
“FOLLOWING ONE CHARACTER IS NOT VERY INTERESTING”
What do you want to achieve as you make a film?
“To make what is happening clear for both the viewer and myself. It may be unclear where everything moves in general, but complete clarity about who does what is obligatory. I also have my photographic requirements: the film should be comfortable for perception. Of course, one wants to get as much information as possible into it, but do not overload it. One way or another, I think about my personal standards, not about the standards of other people, the audience in particular.”
This could lead to a conflict with the audience.
“This is not my responsibility anymore. First of all, I am filming for myself, but maybe I still have my own audience.”
You do not have a cross-story protagonist, your scenes are often crowded, many stories intertwine. Where does this polyphony come from?
“Following one character is not very interesting. Maybe I have not found one yet. Life is so many-sided, I want to capture every bit, every small story of it. And if it comes to look like one big puzzle, it brings tremendous satisfaction.”
“THIS IS LIKE A CAPTIVATING GAME”
How did you get the idea about Vylkove?
“I first got there in January 2007, while doing a photo story for the Fokus magazine. I met local people, mowed rushes with them, and went to wetlands. Periodically, I went back there. Then the revolution and the war happened, I had to travel a lot, worked in the Donbas, but the idea that I had to make this film had stayed with me. I spent the 2015-16 winter there, it was a real reconnaissance mission. In the end, we received funding from the State Film Agency. I cannot recall the very moment of the idea coming to be. At first, I was probably thinking of the locality, because it defines people. Based on the locality, you can imagine what its people are. In addition, I proceed from some image for which I have my own requirements. In a word, you come, look, and eventually everything comes through.”
Did you film it mostly in winter? I read that you almost fell through the ice...
“There were such moments. But if you have a plan and follow it, then the rest does not really matter. Yes, it was difficult, the terrain was rugged, I used a hand-held camera and needed to look at the scene itself, and where I went, and where people were. It is very exciting when many tasks arise at the same time. I feel well in such situations, it mobilizes me. Of course, there is always a certain risk, you accept it, while trying to minimize the consequences. One just needs to watch out: look where you go, dress properly, eat properly, do not overindulge in alcohol, and everything will be fine.”
And what about building trust with people?
“Probably, I got them trusting me from the very beginning, when I asked to be let into a boat and went to wetlands for two days in January as I was. They still remember it with a certain shock: a dude came there in his shoes, which was ridiculous for them, went with them, helped, mowed rushes, and so on. Also, most people want to tell their story. It is nice when you tell it, and others are genuinely listening. I wanted to hear their stories, they felt my interest and allowed me to look deeper. I, for my part, tried to be useful and did not go where I shouldn’t have. That is the whole secret.”
What are the locals like?
“They are wonderful. Under other circumstances, they could be launching rockets into outer space. They are talented, open, kind – all in their own way. They have fears of their own. Almost everyone is of my age. All have various flaws. Sometimes it was very difficult to work with some of them. But they are interesting precisely because of it.”
Do they prioritize survival?
“They usually do. It seems like all of us do. The society that I have filmed parallels any other society. It is just its form that is special, and the essence is by and large universal.”
“DOCUMENTARY CINEMA IS VERY FORGIVING OF ERRORS”
We cannot do without this question: what is the situation with documentary cinema in this country?
“There are excellent directors who you can learn from. However, documentary cinema is very uneven. I went to the Leipzig Festival with Sirs and Seniors, it was my first such event, and I thought: ‘It is a cool festival, now I will learn something.’ I watched 22 films there and liked only one and a half of them. Documentary cinema is very forgiving of errors; it seems that you can afford a little more of them. I do not like abstruse, boring films. Many documentary filmmakers do not seem to care about the audience at all. I am focusing on myself, but I want my film to be not so much comfortable... rather I want it to get into people’s minds. And some films are just painful to watch.”
But our filmmakers have begun to shoot a lot.
“I am cautious about these successes. Well, we do have a film industry again, but how it will develop, we do not know yet. This is a long distance. We love to praise ourselves. But we live in a vast world and we must take into account what is happening in it. The alternative is to sit and enjoy our exclusivity, and we do like it.”
“LET IT HAPPEN IN A CONCRETE JUNGLE”
Have you thought of doing feature films?
“I do not know yet. It is hard for me to imagine my next documentary even.”
“I would like to shoot a film in Dnipro. However, there are only some notes at the moment.”
And what kind of picture can be extracted from the industrial city of Dnipro?
“Let it happen in a concrete jungle, why not? People live there as well. They are good and not so good, but all are great as characters. This post-Soviet world is also interesting. Do you remember the ancient trams of Route 5, popularly known as ‘coffins’? In 2005, it seemed to me that it was disappearing, and we had to film it urgently. Today, I understand that nothing goes anywhere, everything is fine, there is still time, steam billows from plant smokestacks, trams serve their routes, people are still understandable. Provided conditions improve, something will come out of it.”
The Petrovsky Plant reminds me of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings...
“It is because you can turn to Bosch’s paintings. Unfortunately, in the school where I studied, they did not show us Bosch. I had to come to it over time. Now that we have access to the world, we can use all this and understand how everything is interconnected, understand that something similar has already happened and will happen in the future, and this is somehow connected with what is happening 10,000 kilometers away from us, and your story can be understood in any other place.”
A RECOVERY AID
“I am very fond of cycling. Even when I come to Kyiv, I take my bicycle with me. When we were editing All Things Ablaze after the Maidan and I had to visit the Donetsk Region a lot at the same time, there was a difficult period: bodies were coming in, and we were editing a Maidan-themed film, and there were bodies in it too, and I did not feel very well. And here, the bicycle was a recovery aid then, and it continues to help me even now.”