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Roman BALAIAN: “It is your decision whether to hear me or not”

An unsolemn sincere talk with a well-known film director about life and art
19 April, 2016 - 11:51
OLEG YANKOVSKY AND OKSANA AKINSHINA IN THE FILM BIRDS OF PARADISE. THE FILM IS SET IN THE USSR OF EARLY 1980s / Photo from the website KINOPOISK.RU

This director, whose name brought honor and glory to Ukraine, his second home, needs no introductions. Likewise, no advertisement is needed for his films, which not only represent the golden standard of cinema, but, more importantly, live in the hearts and minds of millions of his contemporaries. He created the famous Lone Wolf; the unconventional Spy; the magical Kashtanka; the intelligent Guard Me, My Talisman; the Flights in Dreams and in Reality, which stirred the consciousness of an entire generation; the underappreciated Birds of Paradise. This is certainly not the full list. The saddest thing is that most of them are now included in the so-called blacklist, due to the stupidity of the Ministry of Culture’s officials.

One of his favorite actors and a close friend, Oleg Yankovsky, once accurately noted, that “Balaian is a person whose spine is always straight.” It is true, Balaian is always honest – when speaking with the audience and with friends, and, most importantly, with the authorities.

He is here, among us. He knows much, his skills are many. He has something to say, but... he no longer makes films. He would never go begging for himself. And he does not participate in pitching, because he believes that it is the young who should be given the green light.

This conversation is not an anniversary one, but, as always, sincere. Exclusively for The Day.

In recent years, it seems like a new development is going on in the Ukrainian cinema – there are fresh people and movies. Something seems to have started happening. You have always paid a lot of attention to young directors, what can you say about them now?

“Everyone knows that I’m a fan of the young, of beginners. I think that one should stop throwing money away, and give them to debutants. In Soviet times, every graduate had the right to film their graduate work at the Dovzhenko studio, for public money. As I always say, there was the right for an artistic error at public expense. I do not know them all, but, say, Slaboshpytsky or Trofymenko are definitely interesting. I would not say Brothers is a perfect film, but there are these two actors, two brothers ... the director works well with them. During the first pitching, I said that it was interesting and it resembled a Scandinavian saga.”

Yes, the script is based on a story by a Swedish writer.

“In any case, it’s interesting. I think it has even more potential for distribution, but there is none of it. So, here you have two names, and since I have been in the jury for short films at the last Molodist Festival, I can call another one – Kateryna Hornostai. She won the Grand Prix. I think this girl will go far.”

Do novices turn to you, asking to read the script or for any other support?

“Two years ago I was the artistic director of several debuts at the Dovzhenko studio. I had given all my advice to them, and it was their decision whether to hear me or not. Then I took two films (each of them was 26 minutes long), and shortened them to 15 and 11 minutes. I think that gave a lesson... And Molodist featured good works, albeit unfinished in terms of drama. By the way, there is a guy named Navrotsky – I think, he can be a feature film director, although he is an operator; as an operator, he imagined a black-and-white documentary. It was very nice and cinematic. As I am at an age when I am more of a coach than a director to my own films, I know the others’ films well, and I can help them in their future career.”

Don’t you want to make films yourself?

“I have two scenarios. One so far is 32 pages long... I plan to take it with Vakarchuk starring. There is another one, but for some reason I do not want to shoot it. The fact is that these two scenarios had a Russian producer, two years ago. It makes no sense to return to him now and make it here on the Russians’ money. And asking the money from Ukrainian government is a bit awkward as I always said that we must give it to the young. Incidentally, I will say a few words about the Birds of Paradise, in which I also wanted Vakarchuk as the main star. I do not like this movie, but I have the reason to seemingly justify it. In Birds of Paradise I was lacking the ambience. I am a person of improvisation on the set, be it good or bad. I am discussing quality now; for example, as we were making Flights, whenever someone passed by I stopped filming and had them appear in the frame. There was some life around the main character, unlike the Birds of Paradise, which had an empty city. We were making 1981, but there were billboards all around, the new cars; I was always shooting the character without anyone around him. And it never happens like this. In Paris, too, we were shooting along the walls. This limited us and hindered our creativity, there was no ambience. I needed to film the shoulders wider, but we had no room for that. But I was never wrong with subjects, even in the films I was criticized for. But I regret that Two Moons, Three Suns and Birds of Paradise are part of my filmography.”

I cannot agree. Birds of Paradise was not a failure, it was simply made in the time when the viewers who like your movies, didn’t go to movie theaters.

“I made it for those people who wanted to return to the Soviet Union. The fact that the Soviet times made culture and science suffer from censorship. A farmer or worker could spend wages in Crimea and Sochi, and lived well. There was not much poverty for us, but there was the humiliating procedure for the Artistic Council discussion of a film, the brutal censorship, etc. I never took my children to the studio, because this censorship was humiliating for me as a Highlander. I filmed something, and they told me to cut it away. Certainly, I didn’t cut it away, but I got very angry. Later, there was a time when seemingly everything was possible. But there was no editing, no advice from the outside. In Kashtanka, I had Morozov as the editor; he made a very good point. It did not matter, whether I took his advice or not. But it had mobilized me and made me think. On the studio there were four of us: me, Viachek Kryshtofovych, Kostiantyn Yershov, and Mykhailo Bielikov. We were showing the scenarios to one another, we were nitpicking, but only because we wanted them to be better. True friendship is when you want only the best for your friend. And today we have no area for cinema. Everyone dug their own hole. It would be good to have us all gathered at the Dovzhenko studio. Make us not pay the rent for a year, only for the heat and electricity. But let us communicate with each other.”

What is your attitude to the so-called blacklist? It does not include, for example, Mikhalkov, but includes Balaian.

“I pay absolutely no attention to it. Moreover, I never get anything from the shows of my films. Everyone who needs it, the part of intelligentsia that is used to thinking creatively, had seen all my films, and that’s all I want. Mykhailo Illienko recently had a good proposal on a meeting – we should not ban movies with certain names in them, we should ban those, which have all the raised income go to Russia. I thought that the television rights for The Kiss, Kashtanka, and others belonged to Moscow, but indeed they are the property of the Dovzhenko Film Studios. The Kiss features Tabakov for minute, in the Lone Wolf he is there for three minutes, he had enough screen time in the Flights, and there is also Kashtanka. In five years we will be ashamed we have been doing this – that is the issue. How many conflicts were there between Turks and Azerbaijanis against Armenians, right? But Armenians still go to Antalya, no matter whether the genocide is recognized or not. Over the years, everything gets into some balance, at least provisional... I have never said a bad word about the Azerbaijani in public, and not only in public. And when I come to Armenia and criticize it, they say to me: ‘You look like a Turk,’ to which I say: ‘No, I just love Armenia more than you.’ About the Russian government, about Putin you can say what you want with any words; or take the Tsarist government – no questions asked! But another story was at the concert of Sylvestrov’s songs, in Utkin’s master class. And Sylvestrov said – not from the stage so far, but in a private conversation, that among authors he had Rylsky, Shevchenko, Lermontov, Pushkin. And someone said – maybe we should take Pushkin away? And then I understand why Ukrainians did not like Guard Me, My Talisman. In Moscow, it had irritated some critics and writers as it turned out that it was not up to the honor and dignity of those who they worshiped; and here people didn’t like it because it’s about Pushkin. They immediately recall Pushkin’s Mazepa. But did Pushkin have other sources of information available except for that imperial one? To one critic I said: ‘my friend, look again and imagine that it’s about Shevchenko.’ Because I believe it to be my best film as a director. And, also, The Kiss. In general, all these absurd prohibitions are reminiscent of the Soviet Union. This is the level of inhibited thinking, of the censorship. I do not think it’s going to help Ukrainians or Ukraine. No, it’s only someone wants to say or do something rashly.”

The leadership of the country has been changing; there is a sustained strife under the dome of Verkhovna Rada. And what happens in the Ukrainian cinema? The studios also experience the change in the leadership.

“When people on top do not understand that movies are the only way of rapid integration of the mentality into the world, it is unlikely that anything would change. It is enough to make a more or less decent movie, and then anyone who has some acquaintances in Venice and Cannes, even I, can call those people to ask to demonstrate it – be it out of the competition, in the panorama whatever. And it will be written that the film is produced in Ukraine. If we produce 20 films a year, two might be decent. One of our leaders said: ‘we need masterpieces!’ What masterpieces? Masterpieces are not bought by an order; they either happen or they don’t, right? Therefore, I believe there is not enough money for movies; and sometimes producers abandon the director halfway, and the movie is not finished. Thus, the issue we have is with the producers. In short, we still need to give chances to young, even if there is no hope that they would make something interesting. In fact, after Romashkin’s Effect, after such a terrible failure, I was given Kashtanka. A person can make mistakes, right? But the second film might just be completely different. More young people, beginners should start making movies.”

Taking into account what is going on in the country we live in today – the situation, the aura, the attitude towards people – how is the life of Roman Balaian? What is your attitude to what’s going on?

“The attitude is bad. My opinion is that the leadership has been doing all wrong since 1991. By the way, rumor has it that they want to replace the director of Mystetsky Arsenal. What for, may I ask? Natalia Zabolotna, in her years of Arsenal’s management, has been able to find necessary and quality relationships both within the country and abroad. There were wonderful exhibitions and meetings, and not only them... In five years, Arsenal had three million visitors! The youth goes there! This area became a place of communication; not to mention the events such as exhibitions of Bilokur, Prymachenko. There was the recent exhibition of Dychenko’s collection and the amazing dedication to the Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. I think it would be a fatal error to remove everything made by Zabolotna and her team from the history of the museum. The museum became a place of pilgrimage after all! Since 1991, we have been witnessing wrong and ill-considered steps in the management of film production and beyond. You know, any people has 30 percent of creators and 70 percent of consumers. We must talk about the 30 percent we see. And there is something to ask those public persons since 1991. I do not like the word ‘nationalist’ because nationalist is one who loves their own nation and does not respect others. A patriot is a person who loves their nation and respects others. I believe I treat Ukraine better than nationalists, because I am a very responsible citizen of Ukraine. Not word, not a film of mine has ever tarnished the image of Ukraine. I want to say that I do not like this time because it tends to mix journalism and art, and it’s not my way. First of all, there are too many films about Maidan... and only two of them are decent enough. It’s like Parajanov – articles, books are made about a brand name that can earn money. Our country could achieve a lot, if properly treated. What are we even talking about? About politics? In Soviet times, would I talk about politics? I had rarely seen the newspaper Pravda at the time. Now turn on the TV – the parliament, the ‘Freedom of Speech’ and so on, and they are always the same people. The politicians. Once I asked an assistant at Shuster’s show: ‘why don’t you invite people of culture, people of science?’ And he said to me: ‘Well, what our ratings would be then?’”

The Day joins in the congratulations for Roman Balaian. We wish him good health and longevity in life and in the artistic career. And also, the good cinema!

By Svitlana AGREST-KOROTKOVA
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