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VENICE 2019 Orizzonti

Valentyn Vasyanovych • Director of Atlantis

“In Ukraine, you have to be an optimist”

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- VENICE 2019: With the help of producer Vladimir Yatsenko, this time providing interpretation, Cineuropa chatted to Valentyn Vasyanovych about Atlantis, named Best Film in this year’s Orizzonti

Valentyn Vasyanovych  • Director of Atlantis

In Atlantis [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Valentyn Vasyanovych
film profile
]
, chosen as the Best Film in Venice’s Orizzonti, Valentyn Vasyanovych goes all the way to the future, showing Eastern Ukraine in 2025. It is one year after the war, and the country is already destroyed beyond recognition, with a former soldier, Sergiy, still suffering from PTSD, trying to make sense of the barren world around him. And maybe also finding love along the way.

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Cineuropa: In Atlantis, you wanted to show war as an ecological disaster, not just an armed conflict. How did you go about creating this desert-like world?
Valentyn Vasyanovych:
I like to put my characters in unusual locations. Donbass fitted it perfectly because I spent a long time there, and now, it really is like the Zone in [Andrei Tarkovsky’s] Stalker. I would say there are several different layers to this story, but this ecological disaster is something we are experiencing already. It’s like Chernobyl, one could say. The problem is, things like that don’t happen overnight. That’s why people don’t pay that much attention at first.

It’s a rural region, and there aren’t many water sources left. With many abandoned mines all over this territory, already closed down for many years, they still have to pump the water out – otherwise it would just absorb all the poison. It will still take a few years for us to lose all of the water sources in that region, but in all likelihood, it will become a desert, a salty swamp – just like in the film. Nobody knows if we can still stop it or if it’s already too late. I wanted to show the world once it’s already a done deal. In Atlantis, the Russian troops have already left, but we can’t really use this land any more. It’s a dark thought – people were dying for something that has literally become a swamp.

To say that a director “has found light in the darkness” has become one of the worst clichés in film criticism. But that’s exactly what happens! Why was it important to leave a bit of hope at the end?
I am an optimist – in Ukraine, you have to be. First of all, because I say that in 2025, the war will already be over. I was very serious when approaching this story at first. But then I shot about 70% of the film and realised it just wasn’t working. So I re-wrote some scenes, visited Donbass again and added this love story [between a couple played by Andriy Rymaruk and Liudmyla Bileka], and then it started to make sense. The way I work, I don’t stick too much to the script. I prefer to absorb situations. I know what I am trying to get, sure, but I usually leave some space for miracles to happen.

When they are digging up mummified corpses in the film, they say they are “coming back for the ones they left behind”. This concept is based on a real initiative, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a real organisation. [Actress] Liudmyla Bileka, when she started to work on her character, talked to the girl who worked for the Black Tulip Mission [a humanitarian organisation searching for the bodies of missing people. “War is not over until the last soldier is buried,” it claims]. I wanted to have these scenes to underline that at this point, the war is already over – with both sides of the conflict already deep in the ground. And when it’s over, it actually takes many, many years to sort things out and clean up all the mess. By now, we have already lost thousands of people, and with Ukrainian troops, all of these volunteers, nobody really counts them – they just disappear one day. In the film, the war might have ended, but it continues in people’s souls.

Was it interesting for you to talk about these events less directly? You mentioned Stalker, and yes, there is almost a science-fiction aspect to Atlantis as well. But after my recent visit to Odessa, I feel like Ukrainian filmmakers in general are finally ready to address the war.
In Atlantis, I didn’t need to show the whole picture – the details were much more important. I wanted to go beyond simple facts, and moving the entire storyline into the future allowed me to reflect on what is happening. It was a psychological exercise for my brain. It’s true that only now are we starting to talk about these events as filmmakers, but the majority of society still prefers to ignore it. You know how it is – when you face something scary, you keep telling yourself it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t really work: that way, you just avoid the situation, which ultimately makes it much worse. Because you can ignore it all you want – go ahead. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still there.

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