Film­ing in Don­bas gives peek of Zhadan’s ‘Voroshylovhrad’

Kyiv Post - - Lifestyle - YAKUTENKO@KYIVPOST.COM

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)

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