Interview: Belarusian Filmmaker Darya Zhuk on Her First Feature Film
by Alex Billington
July 26, 2018
"I was trying to create a character that I myself would identify with." A film from Belarus titled Crystal Swan premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this year, the feature directorial debut of a talented filmmaker named Darya Zhuk. Darya grew up in Minsk, Belarus, but left at age 16 to study in the US. After graduating college and years of working in various jobs, she decided to go and study directing at Columbia University and has finally completed her first feature film - Crystal Swan, about a young Belarusian woman named Velya who is trying to get a visa to travel to the USA. The film premiered to positive reviews and is still searching for an American distributor, but I wanted to bring extra attention to this filmmaker and her film. Here is my interview with Darya Zhuk, discussing the challenges and joys of making her first feature.
Zhuk's Crystal Swan is about a woman named Evelina, or Velya for short, as played by Alina Nasibullina. Set in 1996, the film follows her funky story as she drops off her application for a visa at the embassy, then she rushes off to a tiny town because she put the wrong phone number on the form. The film has a very unique voice telling a meaningful story of independence, about a young woman who pushes back, bravely, against the conservative culture and society she's born into. The film has already been chosen by Belarus as their submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year, which shows just how much they're supporting it. One review describes the film as "the sort of blazing triumph that would hold even the sleepiest festivalgoer in rapt attention." Hopefully folks all around the world get a chance to see it.
My interview was conducted in-person at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic in early July of this year. I'm so glad I had the chance to meet Darya and chat with her about filmmaking and cinema. She has an immense amount of talent, and a growing confidence, and I really wanted to see what she was like in person and ask her some of the questions in my mind. Because Darya is still a new filmmaker on the scene, I wanted to start from scratch to hear her story about how she even got into filmmaking and how this film's story came about. So that's where we begin our conversation - with a complete introduction to her story.
What is your background? Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
Darya Zhuk: I actually never even considered it.
Darya: It just seemed so impossible. I loved films, but it just seemed so far away. It just wasn't an option, in a way. I always had this hard-working, Eastern European mind. And I went to school in America, so I had to deal with, "oh I'm a hard working immigrant from a small country," and I don't really have that system of support that a lot of my American friends enjoy. So I worked really hard and long –– I tried to resist this desire for a really long time until I came to a point where I absolutely could not not do it anymore.
I took a film class just because my friend was taking a film class, when I was 19. I was in college. And I got into filmmaking through a process. I really love the process. I love shooting. I love editing. So it wasn't the celebrity culture that I got attracted to… I was like "oh my God, 16mm!, oh my God, I absolutely cannot wait to be in the editing room again!" And then, of course it's hard to survive in New York. So… there's another eight years that I didn't touch it. I tried all other routes: I tried to produce, I tried to be a distributor, I tried to be a video artist. Everything, just not directing. And then eventually I was like, I have to. And then I went back to school. I went to a graduate school: Columbia University, School of the Arts in New York.
Darya: For filmmaking, for directing. So it's a long and intense program. I spent five years there.
And now you feel at home as a filmmaker?
Darya: I definitely feel like I know what I'm doing. Yes, I do. I am much more comfortable with the craft. And so this film comes as a result of that first script I wrote in film school in 2011. I always thought that this could be a good story, but of course I worked on other projects and it just took a while to do another revision. I worked with a screenwriter who is a friend of mine. So it took different forms at different times. Two and a half years ago I started sending it out and looking for money. And so here we are.
And you also made a few other short films before this, right?
Darya: That's right. I had many short films. I think maybe four or five. And one of them did eventually play at a prestigious festival, so that time I was like okay, check mark. I can move on. I feel okay, I understand. And I have enough credits to go and raise money for a feature, which is so, so difficult. The first film is just — it's nearly impossible. You hear a lot of "no's", and I cried a lot, and I'm not ashamed of it. I remember moments of total desperation, like, "this cannot be done" and I remember I did a lot of swimming.
Darya: Yeah, exercising helps.
In a therapeutic way to get over the challenge of it?
Darya: Yeah, because you can actually say — I'm going to do 10 laps. And you can achieve these small goals, because the goal of I'm going to get the film and I'm going to get it made, it's almost like writing a novel. You have to write it in chapters. You can't imagine the whole process, and you try to fit it inside, suddenly it's overwhelming.
Was there one thing or one part of making this film that clicked with financiers? Was there something that finally convinced everyone to get on board?
Darya: You know, interestingly enough, everybody invested for different reasons. For instance, Vice Films, who are so influential in the US and opened a lot of doors for me — for them it was the story. It was a combination of: it's youth, the 90s, there's some subculture. There's electronic dance music. And they also liked the story. They liked the dark turn at the end. I know that was, for them, "oh, that's interesting." But then another investor came on board because it was about immigration and he thought that was a relevant theme. A Russian producer came on board because it had a little bit of a revolutionary theme buried inside. I hope the same happens with the audience. Everybody will find their own way in into the story.
Was there something that caused the snowball to start rolling, and all of a sudden it started to come together? What else can you tell someone who is struggling with financing and wants to make a film?
Darya: I hear these stories and like, one person comes on and then everybody else comes on. It didn't work for me like that. It was really hard work. We were 50% funded, 60% funded, 70% funded. Every step of the way… it was a lot of work and of course yeah, Vice Films came on board first, they legitimized the project. And then right away I got a grant in a parallel universe, a government grant from the New York Council for the Arts. Then a couple of months later, I got a grant from Germany. That came with a German producer, she was working on that. But I did a lot of pitching, a lot of meetings. I think it's just persistence. You have to be really stubborn. I think I became the most boring person in the world because all I talked about is my movie all the time, to all my friends. I think my husband cannot hear the name Crystal Swan anymore. But that's what it takes. It takes a single, monomaniacal vision of just doing the work.
Is it an autobiographical film? Is it inspired by your life, did you go to the town of Crystal…?
Darya: It's based on a story that I overheard.
Someone else's story…?
Darya: It is someone else's story. Of course, I love electronic dance music and I DJ'd a little bit in my 20's. So, in that way I admire her and I love the character [of Velya], because I think she represents a number of my girlfriends. But this is not autobiographical.
It seems to be a very personal story. Not only from your upbringing and where you're from, but your understanding of the character and what she's going through is very impressive.
Darya: Thank you.
That's why I'm curious about how & why exactly you wanted to tell her story as a filmmaker.
Darya: I really love the character. She's so much fun. I have friends like that. Yeah, girlfriends like that. That's kind of what I love and I'm also afraid for them because — they're brave, but also too brave. Cool, but naïve. We all went through so many layers of coming of age, I have to say. I felt like I saw a lot of films growing up, but somehow I was like "oh, I don't like any of these women." I don't identify [with any of them]. I was trying to create a character that I myself would identify with. Or parts of her. But, I love all my characters in the film.
Your producer mentioned that while shooting the film in Minsk, it sometimes evolved and you might follow a storyline to see where it goes. How much did it evolve on set and how different is it from the script? Or was she just leading me on a bit too much…?
Darya: I did some rehearsing, but it stayed very close to the script. We changed a little bit. Alik, the drug addict DJ/boyfriend, we crafted his story. We worked very closely with him [Yuriy Borisov] and added some parts to the script, because he was so excited about this role. But other than that, I wish we had that opportunity. I'd love to have more freedom. You just don't have time. You have to be really careful about how you use your time on set. I didn't really rewrite anything. I have to say, I rewrote maybe a couple of monologues. As you rehearse, as you put it up, some things are not working and you start taking things out. Adding other things, yeah.
Did it evolve in the editing process? How much of what you envisioned for the script that you originally wrote changed when you finally made the film?
Darya: It did evolve in the editing room… I love how some film professors always talk about when they film the beginning and it is so visionary and it speaks for the whole film. Our case is a case where the beginning and the end changed completely. I had two other scenes that framed the film that, they just didn't work. And a couple of months later, I had to come in and I had to have another half a day of shooting. Before anybody could understand what I was doing, the producers… I'm going, "Oh the actors are coming for ADR? Okay, and we can shoot another scene." I knew I didn't have the beginning. So I had to rewrite it. I had to rewrite it once I was done with the rest of the film.
And you feel like this process helped you create a better film in the end?
Darya: Oh for sure, yeah. I had the film, I just didn't have the beginning, so I didn't have anything. If you don't have the beginning, you're like okay, this is…
You were talking about freedom on set. If you had a bigger budget and more time, you might lose that ability to be more creative, whereas on the indie set you have limitations.
Darya: I think the limitations are very similar. And I'm sure they're the same [as with a bigger budget]. Whether it's a tight budget or a larger budget, where people get paid more, but you're still scrambling for — I wish I had more shooting days. I think that's a common wish. But I'm so aware of the budget and so aware… In a way, I had to create the visual language that worked for the budget that I had. Knowing that this is just what I could get. And I was so anxious to shoot and I wanted to shoot now and I'm not waiting. I'm not even waiting for the post budget to come in. Because I know for a first-time filmmaker, at least once I'd shot, I could go to works-in-progress and could show material and raise the rest of the money.
At what point did the aspect ratio (4:3) decision get made? I like this aspect ratio, but it all depends how it's used - right?
Darya: Absolutely. It was a conceptual decision. The first two scenes, the beginning and the end that used to be in the script, that's no longer in the film. Those scenes were based — they were literally archival footage. There was original archival footage from the '90s and they were 4:3. So because that started leading me down that path, and then I thought about, of course, 4:3's an interesting portrait frame. And we have a single protagonist. And then 4:3 is very, very 90s as well. But also, it's such an oppressive frame. It's very prison-like. It doesn't leave you and it speaks about what her reality is like. She's just caught up in this prison frame. With lots of overhead space on top and then she's this very lively bird that's trying to get out of this cage.
That's beautiful, so well put. As a filmmaker, what kind of stories do you really want to tell? Do you want to tell more personal stories? It's a cliche question, but, do you want to make a Star Wars movie? Where do you want to go from here?
Darya: I'm trying to figure it out. I don't want to make Star Wars. But, I mean, would I make Twilight? Yes.
Darya: Yeah. For me it's not about the genre, it's about characters. It's about finding a way in and finding that empathy and love for the human condition. So, I would love to make bigger budget films but I still feel like, I want them to be relevant. I'm interested in feminist stories. I'm interested in more women on screen, more socially active women maybe… Fighting. Achieving their goals, maybe. Maybe not in Crystal Swan, but I still have high hopes for Velya. I haven't given up on her. [Laughs] So I am looking at making an English language, bigger budget film next. Yeah.
Is there one thing you want audiences to take away from watching this film?
Darya: For viewers that don't know much about Belarus I would love for them to get a glimpse into that world and maybe think about a culture clash. Or maybe learn a little bit more about history. So hard to say, I mean, also for me it's very much a discussion… There is a lot of commentary on the relationship between sexes as well. And for the Eastern European viewers, I would love if they would see that layer, that would be really interesting. You see a lot of women that are doing a lot of the work. And men that are very passive and silent. And so it's there. It asks the question… It asks the question: is it because of history, or…? I hope it starts a discussion.
What inspires you the most? Is it other filmmakers, other films, or art, music?
Darya: Yeah, interestingly enough, I'm not watching just films, but a lot of TV. There's some wonderful long form television.
Yeah, we're in a great era of TV right now.
Darya: Yeah, we're in the golden era of TV. I've been very focused on watching a lot of films and going to a lot of festivals and watching festival films. And of course, [the] Cannes [Film Festival] inspires me. And I'm inspired by my friends who are making films. It's very important to have someone really close to you who is successful in this industry, I feel. My friends from film school, I always look up to them. And their opinion actually matters a lot to me. And I love showing them material. They're something like an extended family, a traveling extended family. You do feel at home really anywhere.
Thank you to Darya for her time in Karlovy Vary, and Shelby at Media Plan PR for arranging.
Darya Zhuk's Crystal Swan premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in July. It's set for a release in August in Belarus, but no more releases confirmed yet. Stay tuned. Follow Darya on Twitter @Atlantidarya.