On Mariupol, memory and life in two realities - Filma. Feminist Film Festival
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Filma. Feminist Film Festival
Portrait of the film director Zoya Laktionova
Portrait of the film director Zoya Laktionova

On Mariupol, memory and life in two realities

A conversation with Zoya Laktionova

by Svitlana Shymko

When and under what circumstances did you work on “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”?

I worked on it during my residency in the city of Feldkirch in Austria. We were given three weeks to make a film.

It was in May, when Mariupol had finally been utterly destroyed. Wherever I was, I saw Mariupol. Likewise, in Feldkirch I could see the Alps from my window, and the mountain directly in front of it was of a very similar shape to the slag heap in Mariupol.

I saw the peaceful Alps all the time. I thought about Mariupol and the slag heap all the time. One of these realities was restless inside me, and I was annoyed by the calmness of the other. I was constantly in two realities back then and I decided to show them both.

At the end of my Austrian residency, I created this film and screened it in such a way that the audience found themselves between my two realities. There was a big TV set in front of them with my film running, and the Alps behind a window off to the side. I put a sofa between the window and the TV so that people could choose what they wanted to see. 

If they preferred to look at the Alps instead of delving into my work, they were welcome to do so, as I explained there would be unpleasant things in it. They also had the option to  face the TV and try to understand me.

What inspired the text to the film? Do you keep a diary?

No, I don’t keep diaries. This text somehow wrote itself.

It was in March. I felt very bad. Everything seemed so gloomy, and the terrible news about Mariupol kept coming. I was completely out of touch with myself, with my body, and with everything else.

Then I got invited to a residency in Barcelona. I created absolutely nothing while actually living there, because it was the most stressful time of all, I was unable to do anything. But that text was written on my way from the airport to the residency.

When I arrived in Spain, I left the airport, and immediately felt alive. First of all, it was warm, and secondly, the air was the same as in Mariupol. Any seaside city has this pleasant humidity in the air. I felt warm air embracing me. I started to feel a connection with myself, with my body again, as if I was softening, because I’d arrived so petrified and frozen. Also before arriving in Spain I saw a photo of the dead woman referred to in the film. I began to understand that I hadn’t died, that I hadn’t been killed like all those people in Mariupol, and that I was actually alive. I began to feel my body, my muscles. I felt alive. Then, while on the plane, I read Chantal Akerman’s diaries, and I really enjoyed her style, and her way of writing. She doesn’t just relate facts, but mixes them with her feelings. 

I was inspired to describe the pleasant feeling I’d experienced, in the same way…

Still from the film “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”
Still from the film “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”

You use subtitles in the film. But we don’t hear your voice. Why did you choose this stylistic device?

I wanted to express my emotions, but not with a voice. I didn’t want to talk back then. That’s such a difficult emotional job and it requires an even bigger effort if you’re an introvert like me. That’s why I used text. Also I enjoy the visual effect of subtitles. I planned the look of them very carefully. It’s almost like they twinkle. I think they look good. This work is very visual in general.

Please tell us about the photo and video archives you used. Why did you choose those particular materials?

I used those pictures of myself and my sister as children in the film because I no longer have any other photos from my childhood. I left them in Mariupol. I mean, those pictures are all I have left of my childhood memories. I didn’t have those ones either; I found them on my mother’s Facebook page. They show me and my sister as children by the sea with our mom. My mother had scanned them and made a little album of four or five photos. That’s all I have left. I was just thinking of how the memory of Mariupol is being destroyed right now. They destroy every photo, and people’s pasts, because everything burns along with the houses: all the childhood pictures and memories… I thought about that as well. How they are trying to destroy my memory too. I also used one archival video of myself, which was filmed in Mariupol in 2017. I think I was [riding a bicycle – edit.] by the sea. 

There’s a sandbar surrounded by water, right in front of the slag heap. I brought my bicycle there specially to ride it. That was something I really wanted to do; it was my dream. It’s a very pleasant memory.

Your previous films “Diorama” and “The Territory of Empty Windows” are also related to Mariupol. Are you going to keep working on projects about Mariupol? And if so, what stories would you like to tell?

Actually, not really. Before the beginning of the war, I decided I wanted to draw a line under this topic.

But after the full-scale invasion, I realized I now had some completely new trauma. I needed to work through it. That’s why I made “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”.Earlier, I’d planned to make a last farewell feature film about Mariupol. It’s called “Ash that Settles in Layers on the Surface”. I’m still working on it. As it happens, this project is turning out to be a literal farewell, because Mariupol has been destroyed. I plan to finish this feature film, but I wouldn’t really want to return to Mariupol for my documentary work.

Still from the film “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”
Still from the film “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”

Please tell us more about this feature-length project.

“Ash that Settles in Layers on the Surface” is the title of the film. I thought previously that I’d call the film “Kopot” (“Soot” in Russian – edit.), but I didn’t like any of the analogues of the word available in either English or Ukrainian. Soot is this black smoke, the emissions produced by a factory as a result of burning something. The same smoke comes out of a crematorium.

The factory (Azovstal) was to become a metaphor for both the crematorium and the totalitarian system in my film. Therefore, I really needed the word “soot”, and I found the definition: soot settles in a layer on the surface of an object. I replaced the word soot with ash, because these are the ashes of my relatives. Hence the title.

My grandfather died while working at Azovstal. My mother died of skin cancer due to the emissions from the plant. I’ve thought a lot about why everything turned out that way, and why we’d ended up in Mariupol. It was all a result of Soviet policy. They forcibly transferred my grandfather from the Vinnytsia region to rebuild the Azovstal plant after World War II.

Why did my grandfather stay to work at this factory in Mariupol? Why did he go on to encourage my mother to work as a crane operator there? Later he died at the factory under a crane my mother was operating… This isn’t just my family’s story. The totalitarian system did this to so many people in the course of exploiting them.

I planned to present this story in my film, and try to explore different interpretations of the reasons why everything happened the way it did, and then just draw a line under this painful topic for myself.

When Azovstal, and then Mariupol, were destroyed in March, I felt the circle had been closed, because everything began with the destruction of Azovstal and now it had ended with the destruction of Azovstal. The crematorium as a theme is still relevant too, because Russia used mobile crematoriums there and literally burned corpses to hide their war crimes. Everything in the film was as I planned. Apart from the city being destroyed.

Still from the film “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”
Still from the film “Remember the Smell of Mariupol”

At what stage is your work on this film at the moment? When can we expect the premiere?

We’re preparing to do the filming, and I’ll be going to Ukraine for that soon. This film has become a hybrid. I’d planned to shoot in Mariupol and Azovstal this summer. But now another plant will play the role of Azovstal. 

I’ll also film a district in Kharkiv that’s very similar to eastern Mariupol.

I’ve been working on this film for two years now, but it’s still in development.

Recently, we finally got funding that at least allows me to shoot what I want. The premiere is tentatively scheduled for 2024. But if there’s nuclear war, then who knows, I’ll have to rewrite the script again. Nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe I’ll have to shoot elsewhere, not in Ukraine, who knows. In that case, maybe it will turn into a VR project…

Still from the film "Remember the Smell of Mariupol"

Remember the Smell of Mariupol

Full-scale war and forced evacuation force the director to find herself between two worlds: in one, the city of her childhood and people are destroyed, in the other, nothing happens, but any landscapes begin to resemble home.

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