Filming in Donbas gives peek of Zhadan’s ‘Voroshylovhrad’
STAROBILSK, Ukraine — When a petrol tanker blew up in Starobilsk, an eastern Luhansk Oblast city less than 100 kilometers northwest of the war front, local citizens were unfazed.
The explosion had nothing to do with Russia’s war in Donbas. It was being filmed as part of a scene in a movie, so locals in the city of 18,000 people came along to watch the spectacle.
The movie is a screen adaptation of the book “Voroshylovhrad” by Ukrainian writer Sergiy Zhadan. Ukrainian director and radio host Yaroslav Lodygin has been shooting in Starobilsk and its outskirts since Aug. 1.
Zhadan is one of country’s most popular poets and writers, whose works are studied in literature courses in Ukrainian universities. Voroshylovhrad is the former name of an eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk, which is now occupied by Russian-led forces.
The book has won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland and has been translated into nine languages.
“Voroshylovhrad” that was initially published in 2010 tells about the 33-year-old Herman, or Hera, who comes back to his hometown of Starobilsk after his brother goes missing. Having returned home, Hera is forced to confront local criminals who want to take over his brother’s run-down petrol station.
The future film is an “Eastern” — an action movie shot in Eastern Europe and countries that were part of the Soviet Union.
Long way to screen
The film's director Lodygin, who is also the co-founder of popular online radio broadcaster Radio Aristocrats, told the Kyiv Post on Aug. 18 that he had decided to make a film based on Zhadan's novel as soon as it was published in 2010.
“From the very first pages I (identified) with Herman, because he graduated from the same university and did the same major as I did. On page seven he drives past my house in Kharkiv, so I became completely engaged in the story,” Lodygin said. “As I was reading this story, I wanted more people to find out about it and to see it with their eyes.”
In 2011, Lodygin contacted Zhadan, who, having been born in Starobilsk, was brought up in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city — with 1.4 million people — located 470 kilometers east Kyiv. Together they started working on a script.
However, it took Lodygin more than six years to begin shooting.
“At one point we had a crisis moment in writing the script,” Lodygin said. “Then the Euro-Maidan Revolution started (in 2013), and we postponed writing the script. But then (Ukrainian theater script writer) Natalia Vorozhbyt stepped in and resolved the problems without even noticing them.”
The film project was pitched to Ukraine’s State Film Agency, which provided half of the total budget of $1.3 million. The other half came from private donations and money the film project raised when it was pitched at the German film co-production market, Connecting Cottbus 2016.
The film is expected to be screened in Ukrainian cinemas in 2018, but it has already generated interest among Ukrainian and international media thanks to the book's popularity.
The New Yorker published a review on the book in November 2016, calling Zhadan the bard of eastern Ukraine.
Shooting goes on
The on-location shooting is taking place in an area that perfectly matches the scenes described in the book: on a hill with a bird’s eye view of Starobilsk, with the Aidar River on one side, and a tall TV broadcasting tower on the other. On the hill, there is a petrol station, an old trailer, parts of cars lying around and the petrol truck, which eventually explodes after it is set on fire.
Lodygin said transporting all these props to Starobilsk was difficult, as the roads to the city are in bad shape, but it was worth travelling to the east.
“We could have been shooting somewhere in Kyiv Oblast, but the atmosphere wouldn’t have been the same,” he said, adding that the nature of eastern Ukraine is an essential character in the book.
Every day before the start of filming, Lodygin approves the costumes of the characters, including the hilarious grey striped jacket that gas station worker Travma (short form of “injured” in Ukrainian) wore for a date in a scene shot on Aug. 18.
Lodygin said that one times the crew couldn’t choose a shirt for the main character, Hera, played by Oleg Moskalenko, as nothing seemed to match the description in the script. So he ended up wearing Lodygin’s old shirt, as it appeared to fit.
The crew is now working six days per week to complete shootings by Sept. 20. At midday on Aug. 18, the temperature on the hill exceeds 35 degrees Celsius, but the crew takes a break only at sunset, having filmed some scenes dozens of times until they were perfect.
Lodygin came to Starobilsk with part of the cast before shooting started to observe the life of local people to see how to portray them on screen.
Zhadan’s description of Starobilsk was very precise, and the film’s executive producer Oleksandra Kostina said that before shooting the film crew even found a man named Hera, who partly matched the description in the book, and who could have been the inspiration for the book’s main character.
Locals often come to watch the filming, and many of them have been taken on as extras for crowd scenes.
Actress Ruslana Khazipova, who plays one of the leading female characters — Olga, the accountant at the petrol station — is on set every day. She said she had been coming even on the days when she wasn't acting, to watch the filming process and to stay in character.
For Khazipova, who is also a member of the popular Dakh Daughters theatrical music band, it’s her first film role. However, she said that movie acting and playing in a theater feel very similar, despite her having to stay in character for much longer than when she is on stage.
According to Lodygin, the film script does not follow the book exactly, and he often lets actors improvise during a scene to get the best performance out of them.
“Yaroslav (Lodygin) is a very demanding and professional director,” Volodymyr Yamnenko, who plays Kocha, a former gang leader in Starobilsk, told the Kyiv Post. In the film, Kocha lives in an old trailer and, like most of the characters, drinks a lot. Yamnenko says Kocha and Travma, a former local football star whose career is ended by a knee injury, are the two characters who force a reluctant Hera to start fighting for his brother’s property.
“I love to work with directors who have things to say, and Lodygin has his own vision of ‘Voroshylovhrad,’” Yamnenko said.
The book’s author Zhadan says all of the problems described in the book are still common in small-town communities all over Ukraine. But Zhadan also sees progress.
“What did change is that society has become more active, people have become more willing to protect their rights and interests,” he told the Kyiv Post on Aug. 19 during the Road to the East poetry-music festival, which he had organized in Izum, a city in Kharkiv Oblast 615 kilometers from Kyiv. “Society is changing even when the state doesn’t keep up with the society.”
Zhadan said that now “Voroshylovhrad,” as everything concerning the Donbas, is perceived by readers “through the prism of war.”
“I wish that the stories about eastern Ukraine like ‘ Voroshylovhrad’ and stories by other authors from eastern Ukraine could become bridges of understanding between the east and other regions of Ukraine,” Zhadan said.
“How realistic is that? We’ll see. In any case, it’s hard work for both sides: those who want to explain, and those who want to understand.”
BY ANNA YAKUTENKO The film crew of director Yaroslav Lodygin shoots a scene from the film “Voroshylovgrad,” based on Sergiy Zhadan’s book of that name, near the city of Starobilsk in Luhansk Oblast on Aug. 18. (Volodymyr Petrov)