EDA Awards @ IDFA 2015 Filmmaker Interview: Alisa Kovalenko on ALISA IN WARLAND

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alisa 1Alisa in Warland, one of ten films nominated for the AWFJ EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Documentary at IDFA 2015, is a film in which the director discovered that she was also the lead character. Just out of film school, Alisa Kovalenko and Liubov Durakova set out to document the war in their homeland, embedding themselves with soldiers on the fron in Eastern Ukraine. Read what Alisa Kovalenko has to say about their experiences as first time filmmakers working under truly extraordinary circumstances.

AWFJ: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

Alisa Kovalenko: In the contexte of this film, we didn’t choose neither the subject, the theme, nor the characters of the story, they came to us. And from the beginning, I didn’t expect that my own personal life and my experiences would be part of the film, and even that I would become the main character. At the end, reality prevailed, all the events on which we participated. We were just part of it. We just lived our life, and our life soon became the narrative of this film.

Before the events started in Ukraine in November 2013, my friend Liuba made a short film about me in our cinema school in Kiev, filming our life. Then, suddenly, the revolution started, and we all came to the Maidan. At that time, we didn’t have any specific idea of what we were filming, but it was just important to be there. This was our revolution, our struggle, our country. We were studying documentary film at the cinema school of Kiev, that’s why we had to take or camera and film what was happening. Then, at some point, Liuba gradually started to film me.

Then, later, after the revolution, Russia invaded Crimea, and the war started in Eastern Ukraine. Personally, I couldn’t imagine how a documentary filmmaker could not go there to see what was happening with their own eyes. Because this war was taking place in our country. Some of my friends went to the front line, some were injured, lost one hand, one leg, one head, they were shredded by bombs. Many didn’t come back, and when you know some of them personally, you definitively know that it’s also your war.

AWFJ: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?*

AK: I think that I started to see life from a different angle. In the middle of
the war, life becomes completly different, just as the sense of values, the perception of time, of danger, of friendship, of love, and finally of life and death. In total, I’ve been filming two months with the Ukrainian army and volunteers battalions. At one point, the most amazing thing was when you start, very fast, being there with those guys, feeling like being part of a family. In a very period of time, those guys whom you film, with whom you live, with whom you’re hiding from the fire in a basement, with whom you peel potatoes, with whom you eat the last can of sprats, somehow they become a family for you, and no one can remove it from you.

And suddenly, you start to realize : “Damn! who am I actually here?” This question never stopped tormenting me through all the events that took place in Ukraine.

Because when it becomes your personal history, you cannot be just a director, a stranger, who only looks through the viewfinder of his camera. You stop feeling the distance which separates yourself from the outisde world through the room of the camera. The meaning of life is becoming more and more intense, and you want to be part of this life, outside the room of the camera.

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AWFJ: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

AK: Patience! I remember, once, my lovely polish tutor, the polish director Jacek Blavut, said to me that being a documentary filmmaker, is like being a gold digger. it’s like being a gold digger. Sometimes you gotta explore kilometers of land to find just a small nugget of gold. The other thing I learned? Overcoming fears. Certainly, while making this movie, I made the most crazy things in my life. But it was worth it.

AWFJ: What were your biggest challenges? Gaining trust? Filming conditions?
Making a coherent story or creating impact through edited juxtapositions?*

AK: The biggest challenge was probably the very existence of this film. You
have to go through a wide range of problems, it’s a real test of strength. And you never know if you can reach the end. One of the most difficult things that I had to cope with during this shooting was that in the film, I was both director and character. It was very complicated for me to decide to strip my personal life, my pains and personal experiences on the screen.

In the contexte of a raging war, I still find it incredible that I could stand two months. In the film, the viewer wil learn that I have been held in captivity. Even after this, I had to decide to go back or not to the frontline. One problem is to go to the frontline, another is to come back from the frontline. Over there, together with the others, we experienced coldness, lack of food, lack of sleep, health problems. I lost two teeth because of avitaminosis. We couldn’t go to the toilets outside because you never know when the next shell will fall down, and believe me, none of us wanted to die at the WC!

One night on the front line, I went to a position called ÂŤSkyÂť. ÂŤSkyÂť was one of the most strategic positions because it was the highest Ukrainian position next to Donetsk airport. ÂŤSkyÂť is an old iron tower, from a former mining facility, high as a 10-storey building. Above, two men were sitting and observing the surroundings. We had to climb the tower as fast as we could because it was constantly under the fire of snipers. It seemed to me that my lungs would explode, you feel so hot, during ten minutes. But it was freezing, and right after it became terribly cold, it was snowing.

Two hours later, the separatists have found our radio frequency, and, live, talking on air, they promised to keep us warm with mortars shots. First, a sniper shot at us, and then during two hours, we were fired by mortars and multiple Grad rockets. The tower was shaking. We layed in a heap on the metal floor, and none of the Ukrainian positions around was able to answer. I layed there and thought that now it could be the end.

It was not the bombs which were scaring me at most, but the idea that this tower could collapse and that nobody could survive. One hour afterwards, the shelling stopped and everything was so cold again. This was the end of November, the winter was beginning, and the wind was blowing so so strong that we couldn’t hide from it. We could not sleep. I have never felt so cold in my life, and I even thought that the coldness was worse than the bombs. At dawn, we went down and I saw the entire field arounbd the tower dotted with holes from the shells, and for the first time of my life I discovered the fear of vertigo.

AWFJ: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process? If so, please let us know how. If not, please let us know your thoughts about this question.

AK: I think yes. For me, it was important to capture something sensual in this
war that, something something that is not typically male, especially in a military environment, and it was easier for me as a woman and the military, and it was easier for me to have that particular emotional contact with the soldiers. I felt I feel that they are entrusted to me,
with affection. However, being a woman in a war zone reduces your chances to access to some dangerous positions on the front line. I have spent two weeks trying to persuade soldiers to take me to Donetsk airport, during the battle of the airport, one of the hottest places in the war zone.

AWFJ: What are your plans for the future? Do you have specific career goals? A ten year plan? What sorts of “ideal world” opportunities would make it possible for you to succeed?

AK: It’s difficult now to talk about future plans. I don’t know what will happen in Ukraine in the near future, and how the war in Ukraine will be resolved. I have just completed an important stage in my life. And I donâ’t know what will happen next. My ideal world? It would be to have the possibility to do what I want, making movies or something else.

If possible, I’d like not to be obliged to film what I don’t want, have to comply with the rules of the traditional film industry in Ukraine. I hope that my country will have the capacity to support an independant film industry.

AWFJ: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

AK: To be honest, our film owes much to the excellent polish documentary director Jacek Blawut, he was our tutor on thos project. He was the first person who truly believed in our film and helped us to realize it. Personally, in the past time, I have been influenced by the Polish school of documentary cinema.

AWFJ: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

AK: Fight as long as you can, even if you have no strength to fight. Even if you will not win at the end you will know that you did everything you could do. I heard so many times: “it s not a place for women”, but I stayed, and stayed, and stayed, and finally nobody repeated me this sentence again.

IDFA’s Notes on Alisa in Warland: Alisa is a 26-year-old student at the film academy in Kiev. Her life is pretty normal until the day that President Viktor Yanukovych refuses to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Suddenly, everything changes: protests erupt in the capital, with the inhabitants demanding the president’s resignation. Alisa witnesses the demonstrations and embarks on a trip through Ukraine in an attempt to understand the war. Her journey takes her to the east of the country, where she comes across demonstrations again, this time of a pro-Russian character. Along the way, she faces shootings, explosions and the searing consequences of the war for the people of her country. Very much against her will, Alisa is then personally caught up in the war when she is arrested by separatists for spying. The risks she is taking also jeopardize her romantic relationship with a French journalist. This candid self-portrait shows us a sensitive, concerned woman in search of answers. The direct, often handheld camerawork gives us an impression of Ukraine in the wake of the protests and of the tensions that arose among the various population groups.

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