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Interview with Ukrainian Film Director Victoria Trofimenko


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? How long have you worked in the film industry? What is your profession?


I am Ukrainian film director, scriptwriter and creative producer. Working in film industry over 20 years in total.


How did you get involved in film? Why are you passionate about it?


At around the age of 18, I watched the film "Before the Rain," directed by Milcho Malchevski, and had an epiphany: "Wow! Movies can be like that!" I wanted to become a film director and create such movies.

Passionate? There is nothing else I am passionate about. This is my ikigai. I feel completely fulfilled at every stage of filmmaking, except fundraising. I love everything about film. There is nothing else I want to do in this life. Once, I was asked, "If you had a billion dollars, what would you do?" I replied, "The same, I would make movies, but quicker… " I even thought that if reincarnation exists, in my next life, I would still want to direct movies, unless humanity discovers something even better than film. So far, there isn't anything better for me than filmmaking.

In a way, when you have to leave your country because of the war and radically change your life, you have the chance to change your profession and start from scratch, if you ever was thinking about that. But I definitely do not want to change my profession. I need the processes of the film industry like oxygen. I just love it. I was created for this. So, this is my purpose.


What are the key characteristics of a successful filmmaker/producer?


It depends on your role and goals in the film industry. If you're a commercial director, then revenue is a primary measure of success. For arthouse directors, recognition at prestigious film festivals, referred to as Group A film festivals, is crucial.

Even though many consider me an arthouse director, I see myself somewhere in between these two categories. This is where I want to eventually settle, where I see my niche – as an author's director whose films captivate a broad audience and generate revenue. It's vital that the audience votes for the movie with their ticket purchase. I aspire to strike a balance between commercial appeal and the depth of the ideas I convey to the viewer. After all, what's the point if there are no viewers? I want the audience to watch my movies with keen attention.

I love working on a grand scale of production. The more demanding a film is, the more I enjoy the process of making it. It's like a drug to me. I relish the challenges of cinematography. I don't use drugs, but I have something stronger – I'm captivated by cinematography. It's pure adrenaline flowing through my veins.


Can you describe your career path?


I graduated from Kyiv's National University of Theatre, Film, and TV, named after Karpenko-Kary, where I obtained my second Master's degree. Later, I became a senior lecturer at the same institution, teaching directing for four years at my alma mater.

Returning to my career journey, I initially embarked on a path in documentary filmmaking. My first film, a full-length production (in retrospect, it resembled more of a journalistic essay), caught the attention of a decision-maker at Soho cinema in London. This man watched the film and inquired of the producer, 'Is this the very first project she has ever shot in her life, essentially her debut?' The producer confirmed it was indeed my maiden venture, to which the decision-maker responded, 'We will show it. 'Producer told me: 'Victoria, not every director’s first film is screened in Soho.'

Subsequently, I ventured into various TV projects in Ukraine. During this period, I also served as a 1st Assistant Director on several cinema productions. However, it was during this experience that I came to a profound realization - I am not destined to be a 1st AD; I am the Director. I vividly recall having received highly attractive propositions (in terms of income) during that time: offers to work as a 1st AD for the most popular company specializing in musical full-length films. Additionally, an advertising company proposed a role as a producer. I deliberated over these offers, taking the time to contemplate my life's path and where I should dedicate my energy and time. Ultimately, I made the resolute decision to decline both propositions and pursue as the main director within the realm of television. I was willing to endure short-term financial sacrifices for long-term creative fulfillment, and in retrospect, it stands as one of the wisest decisions I've made.

So, I immersed myself in docudramas, where approximately 80% of the content comprised fiction. It was during this period that I unearthed my profound passion for working with actors and recognized my innate talent for directing and collaborating with performers.

The next step was to start shoot my cinema project. To bring my inaugural film project to life, I established my own production company in Ukraine. The budget for my film, ‘Brothers: The Final Confession” and started this process. Later I have united with big company Pronto film within this project. The budget amounted to $2,000,000. This film marked a significant milestone as it became the first Ukrainian production to be selected for three Group A film festivals since the country's independence. It heralded the onset of a new era in modern Ukrainian cinema.


What were some of your recent projects about? Which projects are you most proud of? What are you working on right now?


I believe it's essential to invest yourself fully in every project, ensuring you won't be ashamed of any of them. Some projects might feel like you've outgrown them, when you look back, but in the moment when you do it, it's important to pour your heart into each one, much like cherish your own children.

Before the onset of the war, I had several projects in development. Currently, my primary focus is on 'Yakiv,' a full-length film that delves into the forced starvation in Ukraine caused by Josef Stalin during the 1930s. While other projects have been on a standby regime, I believe it's time to move forward and explore opportunities here in US, to bring all of them to fruition.

I'm preparing to attend the American Film Market in LA, to pitch current projects. One of them is a sports miniseries about boxer, set against the backdrop of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA.

Another project involves a full-length film with four women directors from different countries, including Ukraine (myself), Afghanistan (Sahra Karimi), India (Dar Gai), and Belgium (Delphine Noels). It promises to be an incredibly interesting project. We reached the second stage of USAID for this project in 2022, but the war has disrupted all processes in Ukraine, and created a completely different reality.

Recently, I completed a stage play based on the script 'Yakiv.' I initially started working on it in Sweden at the Ingmar Bergman residency on Faro Island and continued the work here in The University of Texas at Austin. I'm thrilled that the play received enthusiastic feedback from readers of the publisher, and it's set to be published in Ukraine. Readers even had physical reactions while reading it, which makes me very happy. Meanwhile, my focus over translation of this play into English, engaging with theaters, and considering the option of a radio play due to its cost-effectiveness.


How could you describe Ukraine's filmmaking landscape before the full-scale invasion?


The film industry in Ukraine experienced a revival, and we enjoyed the support of the State, which put Ukraine on the map of international film festival circuit. We engaged in European co-productions and had relatively robust support compared to many European countries.

In 2019, we encountered challenge, there came new Minister of Culture who compelled the board overseeing the State Film Agency's support to reduce funding for projects that had won pitching competitions. This reduction was explained because the agency had exceeded its annual budget for 2019. Unfortunately, my project 'Yakiv' was one of the casualties, as it had a high budget (historical project can’t be cheap) and was excluded from the list of films eligible for support.

Then, in 2020, we faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. While 2021 was focused on recovery of economy, 2022 was anticipated to be a year with significant support for the film industry. However, it was overshadowed by the full-scale invasion by Russia and the start of a full-scale war.


In what ways has the 2022 invasion transformed Ukraine's film production?


The outbreak of war, often accompanied by cataclysmic events, has historically been a time for documentary filmmaking. Ukrainian documentary filmmaking experienced a resurgence with the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 and the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014. The full-scale invasion in 2022 further energized documentary filmmakers who are actively capturing and documenting this unfolding chapter of the history. It's their moment to contribute, particularly as state support for fiction filmmaking has diminished. Instead, Ukrainian documentary filmmakers are now receiving crucial backing from European funds. We can confidently assert that this war is one of the most thoroughly documented war conflicts, with professionals and ordinary citizens alike capturing it on their phones.

However, the production of fiction films has ground to a halt. While there are isolated cases when producer attempt to continue, in those cases budgets have been drastically reduced, representing only a fraction of their former size. Many filmmakers have had to pivot to new careers, with some actively participating in the war effort, whether by supporting the army through volunteering, working with humanitarian organizations, serving as fixers, or joining the front lines within the Military Forces of Ukraine. Tragically, many have lost their lives in this endeavor, and though I cannot recall all their names, I will mention some of those on my mind: editor Viktor Onysko, actors Pasha Li and Olexiy Hilsky, the best special effects specialist Alexander Suvorov, and many-many others. We are losing some of the best and brightest film professionals on the front lines. Others have turned to change their occupation, while some remain without any employment. When I refer to filmmakers, I encompass everyone involved in the filmmaking process, from directors and screenwriters to costume designers, art directors, composers, line producers, location scouts, managers, and more. Making a film is comparable to constructing and operating a factory, involving a substantial number of people, immense effort, and significant budgets.

It remains uncertain how many years it will take to restore the film industry to its pre-war and pre-COVID level. The timeline for the conclusion of the war remains equally uncertain, and then we must factor in about five years for restoration. Current priorities understandably center on rebuilding the country and providing shelter for its citizens.

When the war eventually draws to a close, and the film industry embarks on its recovery – accounting for approximately five years post-war – we may find that there aren't many people left who can return to filmmaking. Many might not even be able to return, feeling that time has passed. We do not know how many people will return from the front lines, how many will be disabled due to the war, and how many will suffer from post-traumatic syndrome. These are creative individuals with labile and empathetic psyches who will embody the profound changes that Ukraine has undergone. The prospect of a new generation of filmmakers at the helm will be very challenging.


Will the invasion and its consequences be somehow reflected in your future works?


I am Ukrainian, and this invasion is now an integral part of my life story. Whatever I create, whatever thoughts and feelings flow through my head, heart, and spirit, I carry this experience with me, just as I carry any other my life experience. Consequently, everything I produce, in one way or another, will be influenced by my lived experience. Even if I were to craft a comedy set in the year 2067, entirely unrelated to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, my perspective as a Ukrainian would inevitably shape the narrative as well as any other my life experience. This experience of enduring the anticipation of invasion and fleeing from the war will remain with me as one of the aspects of my personality and my life journey. My life experience is a fundamental part of who I am as a director.

If you mean will I write and shoot films about this war, I don’t know. We’ll see.

Now, my primary task is to remain afloat within my profession where I am.

MISHA SIMANOVSKYY How do you see Ukraine's film industry in the future? And do you see yourself in it?


It's indeed challenging to predict the future of Ukraine's film industry. Currently, we are grappling with numerous internal issues, which are further compounded by external factors such as the ongoing war. Filmmaking has never been an easy path, and it's likely to become even more arduous after the war eventually concludes. Viewers are growing tired of war-related themes, but Ukrainian filmmakers will persist in reflecting on it, as it's a deeply personal experience that they need to process and convey through their films. Art, including filmmaking, serves a therapeutic function, not just for the viewers but also for the artists themselves. After the war, its impact will continue to resonate in the hearts of artists and, consequently, in their art for years to come.

As for myself, my top priority is to be in a place where my daughter and I are safe, and where I can continue to create as filmmaker. The film industry is highly international, particularly in the age of the internet. Even while in Ukraine, people from all around the world discover your work and learn about you in the US, Europe, Asia, or anywhere else. I remember a time in China when they referred to me as the hope of their cinematography. It was amusing, given the geographical distance - where is China and where am I? - but in a way, they were correct. Location becomes secondary; cinematography is a global entity. Ultimately, with this profession, you become a citizen of the world, and that's one of the aspects I cherish."


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