ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2017

Q&A

with Filmmaker Alisa in Warland

POLAND  2016  74 min.
directed by Alisa Kovalenko

The screening of Alisa in Warland was followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker Alisa Kovalenko. An edited transcript was prepared by Michelle Betbadal.

Question: What did you think of yourself in relation to Ukraine and these events, and even before these events?

Alisa Kovalenko: When the revolution started, I was still a student at a film school. I first started as a journalism student, but found more interest in filming documentaries, as being a filmmaker provided me with the ability to spend more time with characters and to look deeper into the events of the time. I am from Eastern Ukraine, but it is clear through this personal film, that I felt the need to stand against the separatist movement. The war was so close to the territory where I am from, which meant to me that it was also my war. I felt obliged to film this important document. It was important to film what happened.

 

Where are you now [in your personal life, under strain in the film]?

While I spent time with Pravyi Sektor [she was embedded with a Pravyi Sektor battalion during a significant part of the film –Ed.], I had no idea what would happen afterwards—especially in terms of my relationship with Stéphane [Siohan, a French journalist based in Kyïv, who was also attending the Danyliw Seminar  -Ed.]. Today, Stéphane and I are still partners, and have a six month-old baby.

How did you decide to go with those soldiers (Pravyi Sektor) in particular?

I did not want to go with Pravyi Sektor originally, I wanted to go with volunteers. I was on the frontline for the first time. I was a little bit afraid—afraid to see radicalism. But I did not end up seeing radicalism. It is important to understand that the party and  military wings [of Pravyi Sektor] are very different. The Ukrainian army was in a bad state at the time. The soldiers kept saying that I am a journalist, but it is funny because they noticed that I never asked anyone any question. I thought it was very important to spend as much time as I could with them. I had no authorization. I was a student at the time, and I asked the university to send a letter, but they declined. I received accreditation when I finished the film. Usually you know where you can and cannot film (in military zones), however I did not get this information.

At times you are filming yourself and at other times your friends are filming you. Could explain why this is?

My film reflects two projects into one. One is my personal story, and the other is my story being filmed by others. At first, my friend filmed me, but as the film carried on, I began to film myself.

Could you tell us more about these people (Pravyi Sektor)?

One of them was Jewish, another a businessman, many were students—one actually went back to pass an exam and then came back to fight. There was a professor, one a commander from [a military] school, as well many young boys.

So the Right Sector and the regular army were different but sometimes worked together?

I thought it was important to go with them because I wanted to make a film about four guys, but they decided not to go to the front, so I ended up going with this group.

From your point of view, where is the limit in the film? Where did you stop being a filmmaker and become a soldier?

I never became a soldier. There was only one time I shot that gun, because the soldier wanted me to shoot a gun with him [For practice, not in live combat –Ed.]. I cannot be coldhearted when there is a war in mycountry. I got to see incredible human relationships—you are between life and death and everybody can show their inner human nature. The moments when I was happy was when I was with the soldiers. Being in a war is very easy—you fight, you laugh—everything is black and white—there is a sort of illusion about the world.


Question to Stéphane Siohan: What is your vision of the film and of her during these months and how did you convince her to choose you over [staying with] the Right Sector?

Stéphane Siohan: It was not easy to film for us. It was both a film and a story. When I met her, she was still in university. She knew that she was one of the emerging filmmakers. I had to trust her—she was not just a student going to film the revolution, she was a documentary maker already. I could not precent her from going to the war. I was supposed to stay one week, but I ended up staying three months. Who was I to prevent her? She is not a child, and it is her country. I decided to trust her completely, one hundred percent. I was in a very difficult position because working as a reporter in Eastern Ukraine, I knew what was at stake, and I knew the limits of journalists, and how to keep myself out of danger. As a journalist, you fight to stay alive, but as a filmmaker, you have to stay with the people you are filming—this is the difference between the two. It is difficult to find the limit between giving her freedom and trying to protect her.

Today, there is a lot of disappointment with what has been achieved, how do you and your colleagues of yours and the soldiers feel about the situation, are you patient? Are you hopeful? Disappointed?

Alisa Kovalenko: There are no spirits like there were when the war started. There was a spirit in Maidan, we all went with a spirit, and now it is not there anymore. We know we have problems to solve, and we felt we had to do something—we didn’t just want to fight.

Could you explain the title (reference to Alice in Wonderland)?

We were in the editing room, and I recalled that one soldier said to me: “you are in a war zone.”. My editor said that this would be a working title, but it just ended up as the title.

What is it like for you to see the film now?

I am not a journalist anymore. It is painful to watch some parts of the film—I cannot watch it. I went outside [during the screening] to smoke a cigarette. But I still think the film is important… painful…traumatic—you understand what human relationship is like during war.

 

What made you stop going to the war zone?

When the guys who I filmed stopped fighting. The last time was in March 2015. Afterwards, no men were fighting there… I wanted to go and meet them there, but they decided that it was finished.

Did you try to shoot on the separatist side?

It was impossible for me to film in Donetsk. Honestly, you can be captured there, you become afraid. After captivity you cannot go back. I wanted to and tried to contact them, but it was very dangerous for me. It was impossible to go to the separatist side, even with the desire to go there.

Do you think that the soldiers you were filming even helped to stop the war? Did they accomplish the task at hand?

It was not my task to analyze it. I am not a journalist. I started the film with my point of view. I was not making a TV documentary, I was not there to validate anything.

Do you think you are offering something helpful as a citizen?

When we went to war, I didn’t feel like it was the solution, and I didn’t ask them. What could we do except for war? I did not necessarily support those who fought. I asked myself, what could I do? I could provide food, or I could witness it, or I could provide medical aid.

 

Stéphane Siohan: I don’t believe filmmakers should take a civic position. Journalists work in that way. It helped as a journalist to have deep insight, off and on record, with this film. It helped greatly to understand what the war was about. I refused to report on Pravyi Sektor. When she was finished, I then chose to go there.

Did you come across any foreign fighters?

Alisa Kovalenko: Yes, they were form Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Canada, and France.

 

Where did the supplies come from and from whom?

It was very complicated with the guards. The army gave shells to Pravyi Sektor. Food—it was different, it was complicated with the food. One would go seek for it—we’d have corn and fish, and made borscht with fish—it was disgusting!

 

How do you feel now? You say you are a different Alisa now… how?

I think I already answered this question before. I am more of a pessimist now. I would make it completely different film if I went to war again. I had emotion and hope. It is not the same for the guys who participated. One cannot always be at such a high level of emotions or we will become crazy. I didn’t become a soldier because I did not feel like it.

 

What is the project you are working on now?

Alisa: I am working on a social drama about a young girl; one of the best football players in Ukraine. Her mother died at the onset of the film. She has siblings, a younger sister and brother. It is hard to choose between saving the family and football. I have been filming her for almost three years now.

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