Ukrainians can moan and groan about the absence of a national cinema until the cows come home. They can champion its national essence by banning all languages but their own on movie theater screens. They can lobby at conventions and plenary meetings and gather in studio corridors, trying to topple former idols while lashing out at today’s vassals. None of this will help revive Ukrainian cinematography whose glorious achievements — the films of Alexander Dovzhenko, Serhii Paradzhanov, Ihor Savchenko, Roman Balaian, Leonid Osyka, and the Ilienko brothers — are recorded in the annals of film.
I don’t want to sound banal, but filmmaking means that films have to be made, regardless of the ministerial leap-frogging, the general dissension in the country, and the passionate quests for the national idea, which are separate from the interests of an individual. And it is the individual that craves a serious discussion of his/her own problems that occasionally acquire a universal scope. Films are not supposed to impose their revisionist versions of history. They are supposed to tell us stories that can help people who are united by the screen understand themselves and their times.
Oleh KOKHAN, the general producer of the SOTA Cinema Group, is a young man who has amassed quite a few achievements in Ukrainian cinematography. He rarely agrees to give interviews, saying: “There’s work to do!” After I talked him into granting me an interview, I was surprised to learn that his company will premiere six Ukrainian films in 2008.
The profession of producer is something entirely new in Ukraine, although a variety of bureaucrats responsible for culture have tried to act in this capacity, along with specialists and graduates of our drama institutes or other schools of higher education. In the Ukrainian film business a producer is an “unidentified flying object.” Can we talk about producers in Ukraine today, and how did you end up in this profession?
If we’re talking about producing as a new profession in the filmmaking industry, it is just being mastered in Ukraine and Russia. Our older colleagues, like Vladimir Dostal and Nikita Mikhalkov, are referred to as the first generation of producers. They were the trailblazers in this field, and now we are adding new options, like co-producers, to this experience. I’m not sure that at this point we can shape a full package of knowledge and notions about the producer’s profession. If you recall the history of this profession in Hollywood, a producer first had to go through all the phases: production, shoots, screenings, and ticket sales. It was a totally closed cycle.
Then various other models started taking form. With our Soviet heritage, we are using a trial-and-error approach, attempting to access the world market with our obsolete economic model, unable to acquire theoretical knowledge or an idea of the process. This profession is multifaceted; you have to be a financier, promoter, and distributor; you have to see, understand, and coordinate the entire process. The general producer, in my opinion, has to work on an idea, the footage, take part in casting, and analyze people’s reactions and the expressions in their eyes during the premiere. A producer must be at the core of the project and keep a sensitive finger on the pulse of everything that guarantees the project’s viability.
Today we are dismantling stereotypes and switching from the stage-directed to the producer- supervised filmmaking process. There is always a question of who is more important. Of course, the producer is responsible for the entire project, but every production must have a film director, and in many respects this is a definitive position. I have always treated film directors with the greatest respect, and long years of work won’t change my attitude. At the same time, making a movie is team work.
I’m prepared to argue this point. Whether we like it or not, creative people are usually — there are rare exceptions — too flighty and ready to sit around waiting for good weather or inspiration, whereas a producer has a clearly formulated production schedule, and any delays spell a loss of money. Does a producer need an iron hand?
People often ask questions with a built-in conflict between the director and the entire creative group on one side — one world perception and one organization — and the producer on the other. The crux of the matter lies elsewhere. What they have in common is the creative process. Should a producer attempt to influence or alter the world outlooks of a Roman Balaian or a Zanussi? In the future, once a market is formed, when tasks, functions, and positions are clearly defined, there will be a film director developing the idea, another director will be doing the editing, and the story will be written by a team of script writers.
Are you talking about the commercial film industry?
I was fortunate to work with such celebrated film directors as Kira Muratova, Roman Balaian, and Krzysztof Zanussi. This is a very high professional standard, with differing world outlooks and creative approaches. But to return to your question about producing and commercial film, I think that the profession of producer is gradually taking shape. At this stage it is still too early to talk about full-cycle producers, professionals who know how to deal with the world market, work at festivals, and get involved in international productions.
What about Selianov and Tolstunov, who are the top Russian film producers?
That’s exactly what I mean; these people represent a generation that has maintained filmmaking contacts from Soviet times.
Russia has a powerful organization of producers, who reached the conclusion that they had to unite. What is happening in Ukraine?
So far there have been only attempts at uniting. What we need is not a formal organization but a structure that could get market operators together. In order for there to be good reasons for this, our producers, who at the moment are friends and competitors, have to go through the whole cycle of a project because it takes four or five films before you understand all the cause and effect linkages and the reefs. I think that this process will take another few years and a number of stages. While defending your interests on the financial, creative, and other levels, you have to comprehend the role, meaning, and importance of a joint promotion campaign in the international arena.
It is common knowledge that Ukraine’s filmmaking industry lacks attention and funding, and that this is why there is no film industry in our country. Russia still has the lion’s share of projects that are supported by the state. What about Ukraine? How do you find working here?
The key issue that is preventing us from getting the green light in terms of large investments in films is the government contract, where the state retains all rights to a production. In the film industries of every country, including Russia, even where the state provides financing, the film rights pass to those who made the film, regardless of the producer’s financial contribution.
If I understand you correctly, in Ukraine a producer doesn’t benefit from cooperating with the government?
Right. Investors are ready to finance our productions, but the first thing they want to know is where they will be making their investments. In the film industry! Who owns it? The state. But if a government contract is replaced with government financing, we’ll need government support for the next five to seven years, until our industry is fully established, especially in children’s and debut films.
Let’s talk about Two in One , the film that you produced. What were some of your victories and defeats?
This was Kira Muratova’s first production that was screened nationwide. Neither she, nor Roman Balaian, nor any other living directors ever had such a wide release, especially considering it was an art house film. We had 10 copies of the film and we screened them in every city with a population of one million, and finally there was a huge world premiere in Kyiv.
So far I haven’t used investment money. I rely on my holding company’s resources. The SOTA Cinema Group can already afford up to 12 productions a year. When the government contract system turns into one that is financially supported by the government, when the producer can exercise his legal rights, then we’ll able to enlist the help of financial institutions.
I’ve heard that the films that were made by your company and submitted to international festivals will be represented by the Ukrainian Cinema Foundation. Are you transferring your rights to it or is this a joint endeavor?
We haven’t reached a 100 percent understanding with this foundation. I welcome the creation of this organization; its objectives are dear and understandable to me, but there are no official relations between us. This is an issue that requires a clear- cut program of cooperation. One of our plans is to set up a subdivision that will be in charge of distributing and promoting our productions. After we passed a certain stage of the Two in One project, having transferred international distribution rights to certain distributors, I realized the expediency of creating a structure to promote my own productions.
The lack of civilized financing patterns, the low domestic potential of making and screening Ukrainian motion pictures — is this art for the sake of art? Why make films that won’t earn profits or even allow you to recoup your investment?
In order to launch a project, you have to sign a contract, buy a script. But in view of the proximity of the Russian market, which is capable of increasing your royalties, there is no alternative except to invest your own funds. This has been the only configuration in which film projects have become possible. A closer look at the pattern of financing a film shows that the bulk of the money invested by the producer bounces back. With state support, by which I mean when your risks are ensured by the state, you can invest exactly as much as you can return from the market, whereas the second part — 40-50-60 percent — constitutes the state’s investment. This “cream” is what helps the producer get back his money and return the rest to the central budget if the project goes well.
Someone must do something at this stage. Someone has to invest and find the configurations of financial participation that will make it possible to keep the filmmaking process ticking while looking for opportunities to advance it. The fact that we are planning six premieres this year is proof that we’re on the right track, even if we don’t have a solution to this problem, which will allow us to have financing and invest our own money.
But the Ukrainian producer should operate with an eye to other markets, not only the domestic one. Russia will hardly open its arms.
At the moment there are no bans or restricting factors on the Russian market, and none are likely to materialize in the nearest future. Russia is interested in quality productions. Its market does not require protection. It is just evolving, but once it establishes itself, then protection will become an issue.
All over the world big channels and television companies provide a big chunk of investments. Are any Ukrainian television companies prepared to produce and commission films? I don’t mean TV series but motion pictures, something they can own later, the way Ernst, Valerii Todorovsky, and others have been doing?
I think that such financing opportunities are emerging. We are starting to see the first signs indicating that our channels are getting to this point.
The many TV series that are made in Ukraine are proof of this, even though most of them are meant for the Russian market. The successful screening of Sappho is another positive indicator. From what I know, a big channel is negotiating the creation of a structure that will specialize in large-scale filmmaking projects.
How do you find projects? How do you select them?
We don’t have the Hollywood pattern of a special department that only selects film scripts. Muratova or Zanussi came up with ready material. Our young director Ihor Podolchak also joined the project.
Your reference to Zanussi indicates that you’re following the same path as the rest of the world’s filmmakers, the one leading to co-production. This is something new for Ukraine. What is helping or impeding your progress? Is our legislation helpful?
This is a classical co-production pattern, where several countries and companies combine their efforts to raise funds and provide equipment and a cast to make a film. This pattern has far more advantages than disadvantages; it has been effectively used all over the world for a number of years. First, the financial risks can be distributed. Second, the production is promoted by a number of interested parties in the countries concerned. Our first attempts along these lines are being slowed down by our legislation, which is not adjusted to this cooperation format. For example, after we struck a deal with Philippe Bober of France in 2007, we only found an optimal way to sign the agreement with him about The Summer of 1953 (directed by Shirin Neshat) in 2008. There are also concurrent problems of deadlines, payments, taxes, etc. There are quite a few questions like this.
All countries have encountered these problems in the initial phase, but there must be some legislation somewhere that we could use.
We definitely have to take advantage of this experience, but first we have to study it and then adjust it to our conditions. So we are proposing to set up a working group of people from various state and commercial institutions to develop co-production legislation that will help us carry out projects and solve other problems. Why should we re-invent the wheel? All these procedures have been tested in a civilized manner, so why should we start from scratch when we can get recommendations on how to avoid this or that problem? There is an objective dimension of the situation that exists right now, and there are similar models. In other words, we shouldn’t do things like in Russia. We should do things as they must be done in Ukraine because they have a money surplus, while we are short of cash. Once we study the Polish, French, British, and German models, we will be able to develop our own.
You have painted an ideal picture, but translating it into life will take time, whereas our legislation allows full-fledged cooperation with foreign producers. Is our legislation not suitable in principle?
It is not. It’s medieval. Instead of working with the director or on the script, or shooting the film, a great deal of energy and time is spent on looking for financial and legal schemes that can secure cooperation. So, I would like to share my seven years of knowledge and experience with my colleagues. We have to decide on the optimal algorithm of finding solutions to all these complex problems, so that we can spend the bulk of our time working on projects and making sure that our movies are top quality, the way producers do all over the world.
You mentioned that you will be premiering six films this year. What are they about, and what are your plans for releasing them?
One of them is Roman Balaian’s Birds of Paradise. The script was written by Rustam Ibragimbekov, based on Dmytro Savytsky’s short stories. The film stars Oleg Yankovsky, Andrei Kuzichev, Oksana Akynshyna, Yehor Pazenko, and Serhii Romaniuk. The film will be submitted to the Moscow Film Festival this June. Then we will have the premiere. Muratova’s new production, Melody for a Hand Organ , is done in the style of a holiday story, which is not germane to this director. The cast includes her favorite actors: Renata Lytvynova, Oleg Tabakov, Nina Ruslanova, Natalia Buzko, and Jean Daniel. Although young unknowns are playing the leading roles, Muratova has this to say about the movie: “The plot has no puzzling psychological or formal twists and turns, except one funny mystery of human nature: the need for games.”
Muratova also made a film with you at the same time. Will it also be released this year?
The Doll is a 30-minute sparkling farce about whether you can make someone happy while ignoring moral dictates. Since it doesn’t fit the screening format, we plan to show it in film clubs because every one of our cities with a million residents has a network of such clubs. This film will be screened in digital format.
Is Ihor Podolchak’s experiment one of your films?
Yes. Lidia Mlynarych and I are co-producers of Ihor Podolchak’s Las Meninas. It’s a bold project, a film rooted in perception, an experiment where visual references to 17th-century paintings are placed in avant- garde style alongside the eternal and contemporary problems of human relationships.
You also have two more projects in your portfolio.
Yes, I do. Zanussi’s Serce na dloni is an invitation to a nontrivial discussion of human values and the importance of listening to each other. It stars Bohdan Stupka, Marek Kudelko, Nina Andricz, and Ostap Stupka. The other film is Shirin Neshtat’s directorial debut. She is a rebel in her own country because she is oriented toward Western values. Her film is about the 1953 coup in Iran, which led to the strengthening of fanaticism in the country. It is a joint project with the French producers Philippe Bober and Susanne Marian.
There is another project underway. If we can finish it on time, it will be our seventh premiere this year. Our company is maturing and is prepared to make Ukrainian films and show them to both domestic and foreign audiences.