AHEAD of Crystal Swan’s screenings at the BFI London Film Festival, we revisit our interview with director Darya Zhuk from earlier this year.
Q: You are in the final stages of completing your film Crystal Swan. Can you tell us about the project and what we can expect?
A: CRYSTAL Swan is a coming-of-age story about a young woman in post-soviet Belarus in the mid 1990s. She loves house music and dreams of going to Chicago where this music style emerged a decade earlier.
To get a visa to America, she has to prove she has ‘substantial ties’ to her home country. But she is jobless, so she fakes her visa application by buying a letter of employment on the black market. The embassy decides to check the validity of her claims and instead of America our heroine ends up by the phone in a small town waiting for the US embassy to call.
For me it was always a story about a young person’s relationship to their place of birth. It is also a story about a young country, Belarus, where people are working towards figuring out their identity and their own attitude towards who they are.
Belarusian identity was heavily influenced by the country’s history in World War Two so there are a lot of humorous references to this as well.
I approached this story and the character through the lens of my own experience growing up in Belarus. For me the 1990s were full of hope for a new beginning – Belarus got its independence in 1991 – so I picked bright colours for the production design and costume. It is not the dreary Eastern European reality of the 1990’s many are used to seeing.
I was a raver myself so I have a soft spot for anything connected with electronic music. I nostalgically wanted to explore the emergence of the electronic dance music scene in Minsk. Growing up, I thought it was a perfect antithesis to the Soviet rock music that our parents listened to.
I also hope you will catch some humour in the film. That part of the world has been through so much that maybe humour is the only way to deal with historical trauma.
Q: You are an accomplished short film maker. How did you find the transition into directing a feature length?
A: ALL my fears about directing a feature were in my head, I was ready for the challenge. Besides having short film experience I spent five years studying directing at Columbia – and I also did some narrative directing for TV in Russia.
The transition was a lot more painful as it involves finding producers and financial partners. It is insanely hard to raise money for your first feature as producers see you as a risky investment no matter what.
When I pitched this project to investors as a small feature in Russian based in Belarus, I often imagined myself as a cat hanging high up on a curtain while they tried to shake me off my balance.
I remember one Russian producer told me no one needs my film. Instead of letting it go I spent a few hours convincing him otherwise.
Sometimes it took weeks to get there what with evaluations from film critics and development executives. Even if people would not invest, they were open to chatting again because my determination to make this film became a curiosity in itself.
Q: Crystal Swan deals with the American Dream – and a denial of that dream. Was the story conceived with the current political climate in mind?
A: THE story happens in the mid-1990’s so it has no direct relationship to current Trump policies and certain Arab countries on the no-entry list.
The generative image for this story came to me standing in a long queue of people for the US embassy in Minsk. Travelling on a student visa and then on a work visa back and forth between the US and Belarus for a decade, I stood in that queue so many times.
I watched and listened to many people sharing their most intimate stories with strangers. They were stressed out and humiliated, trying to prove they were worthy of going to America – and many felt like they were being stripped of their pride.
When I talked to my American friends I found that they knew little about how difficult it is to be approved for a US visa, so I thought it was a worthy theme to explore.
I understand that my story cannot escape being framed by a political discourse as Belarus has been under the rule of an autocratic president Lukashenko for the past 23 years.
I was lucky – I did not wait for the Belarusian government to fund Crystal Swan and therefore I had less of a responsibility to hit certain ideological marks. I took many more chances than a typical Belorusian film that is geared towards pleasing the bureaucrats first.
Q: How would you describe your style and approach as a director?
A: I HAVE been inspired by the visual minimalism and humour of Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismak. At the same time I love the energy of characters in Susan Seidelman’s films – I really hope it comes through in this project but it is not for me to judge. The work should speak for itself.
Generally, I am more influenced by the American indie scene than a regular filmmaker coming from a former Soviet Union because I went to film school in New York. It also reflects how much I think and care about the audience’s experience of the film.
Q: Can you talk about working with your lead actress Alina Nasibullina? What did she bring to the table?
A: THE casting process was stressful, I really could not find the right girl for a while. I looked at everyone in Minsk and everyone in Moscow and St. Petersburg and Kiev. Most people speak Russian in Belarus, so going to cast in Russia is usually effective. I desperately reached out to a few women in Vilnius and Tallinn, but their Russian was not as good.
I am forever grateful to my unstoppable Moscow-based casting director Darya Korobova who sent me Alina’s tape at the 11th hour. It was a magical combination of naïveté and spunk that Alina brought to her character. My team fell in love with her in seconds.
I remember one moment – we were trying costumes and the next we were just dancing around Alina, laughing and amusing ourselves because we could not stop taking pictures of her.
Alina’s character Velya is like a young celebrity who has not done anything in her life yet and in spite of all odds you wholeheartedly root for her to conquer the world – I am going to share a secret, she looks like a young Madonna.
She is bold and moves fearlessly towards her goal regardless of the fact that her ways are not very well thought through.
As a character in Crystal Swan she has a lot of unlikeable traits and I was looking for a girl that the audience would love in spite of her imperfections.
Q: Lastly, what kind of stories do you want to tell in the future?
A: I GREW up watching films without identifying with women characters because I just did not find them that compelling. I was searching for my reflection, but it was nowhere to be found. With Crystal Swan I explored a character my younger self would have killed to see on screen.
There has been a paradigm change in the past few years. I am seeing more diverse, crazy, sexual, more confident, unpredictable women on screen.
I am committed to contributing to this new world, giving women an empowered and original voice on screen.
You can see ‘Crystal Swan’ at the BFI London Film Festival on 14 and 16 October
Images by Igor Chischeyna