Interview: When the Trees Fall Director Marysia Nikitiuk

Q: Your film When the Trees Fall tackles issues of poverty and racism. What drew you to this story and these themes?

A: OUTSIDE of the big cities, life in Ukraine is far from easy. Racism and other kinds of intolerance are still a reality. Unfortunately, these issues are becoming stronger.

The reason for this lies in former Soviet propaganda that perverted human values for decades on all its territories including Ukraine.

This perverting of human values still continues, spreading amongst the people. It is not only an intolerance for other nations, but also in gender intolerance and anything different. I can only observe it and do what I feel to counter it as an author. So these themes exist in the background of my movie and they form the behaviour of my characters, their fears and traumas, and lead them to the main conflict.

Q: Why did you want to tell much of the story through a five year old and a teenager?

A: PERHAPS, for us to truly free of all circumstances, meanings, public opinions and trends we can be only be in childhood. I have told the story through five year old Vitka because part of the plot I took from my childhood and what I remember about myself being little.

To make the main character Larysa a teenager was an instinctive decision. In the journey to becoming an adult we are at our most fragile and also our vital and beautiful.

Q: Can you tell us about the casting decisions for the film?

A: SOME of the actors were professionals. Others were either students at acting school or non-professionals.

My main trio – Larysa, Scar and Vitka – were not so easy to find but I worked with one of the best Ukrainian casting directors in Alla Samoylenko.

We searched for a Larysa for half a year. I needed her to be both wild and fragile at the same time. When we finally found Nastya Pustovit she was perfect for this role. She is an emotional volcano and has something of a wolf look in her glance. She is also enormously open. Immediately I understood she was our Larysa.

But for little Vitka it was harder. I was looking for an emotional naughty girl who would play a big dramatic role with words and character changes. When we started casting, I discovered that children are so childish. They lack concentration and they did not understand what I wanted from them.

We looked at 100 girls. I was almost desperate. Then Samoylenko told me there was one girl waiting behind the door who was four years old.

I thought it was a joke but then four year old Sonya Khalaimova entered the room and did a brilliant rehearsal that could never be expected from a child. I was shocked – she was a gift for my patience.

It was much easier with Maksym Samchyk who plays Scar. He is not so brutal in real life, more naive, but he is accurate in his reactions. So this combination of his natural softness with an acquired masculinity created a very truthful and ambiguous character.


Q: The film has been described as a genre-blender. Why did you opt for this approach and the use of magical realism?

A: THIS is the story about Larysa as seen by Vitka. She is only five years old, so a lot of things she still cannot understand or perceive. Everything she cannot understand clearly she explain in her magic way, using her imagination. This is a source of magic realism that unites different parts of the story.

Q: You have made many short films. How did you find the experience writing and filming your first feature?

A: FEATURE film and short film are incomparable. I feel more free in a feature story than in a short form. For When The Trees Fall I used part of my own experience and made documentary research about the characters I was missing for the plot.

To complete a feature film you have to be not only talented, psychologically stable, opened, generous, lucky, but also to have tons of patience.

Q: What is the atmosphere like for an emerging filmmaker in Ukraine?

A: IN 2011 Ukrainian State Film Agency (USFA) was established. Since then almost all talented directors have had the opportunity to make films. Also a new generation has come in to the industry with possibility of making their debut.

From then onwards Ukrainian films were A-class festivals and some become blockbusters on a local level. People and the media suddenly started talking about Ukrainian movies. But the success and Government funding for films led to the whole process becoming political. An increase in film funding interested not only filmmakers but corrupt officials.

Last year the USFA was under information attack and subject to permanent inspection from state authorities. The aim was to get rid of the current head of USFA but when this did not work the financing of Film Fund was cut.

For some strange reason new funds became available under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture – but only supporting hooray-patriotic TV-content.

The situation was quite friendly for emerging filmmakers but perhaps it will not last.

Q: Can you tell us about any upcoming projects? The poster for Seraphyma is very attention-grabbing.

A: MY Larysa from When The Trees Fall is a victim. But during work on this film I felt that I wanted to make a movie about a strong female character.

I have found this character in a novel by Oles Ulyanenko. In his Seraphyma I have discovered something very mine – a strong, psychologically unstable protagonist, that sees herself as a deity.

So I started to research and create her. Led by trauma she is not afraid to kill. The lack of love and warmness given to her has made this little girl a deity, a monster.

Seraphyma is possessed by a deep desire of being loved. She will be played by Sonya Khalaimova.




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