Saturday 23 May 2020

A Desire to Bring Colour into Life: An Interview with Darya Zhuk

Unfolding in mid-1990s Belarus, Darya Zhuk's debut feature Crystal Swan (Khrustal) focuses on Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a DJ who intends to escape her homeland for a new life in the US. A mistake on her forged visa application throws a spanner in the works, though, forcing Velya to decamp to a village that's the location of the crystal-making factory of which she's pretended to be the manager. There Velya finds herself embroiled in a troublesome family's wedding plans, as she awaits a phone call that will determine her fate. Visually vibrant, consistently surprising, wryly funny, and more than a little melancholy, Zhuk's distinctive debut - which I reviewed for Sight & Sound - revels in '90s materiality as it examines the ambitions of its heroine, and her hopes of a life beyond Belarus. 

I enjoyed speaking to Zhuk following Crystal Swan's premiere at the London Film Festival, where we discussed her background and inspirations for the film, the importance of challenging stereotypes, the use of music, and the Belorussian "desire to bring colour into life." Crystal Swan is streaming now at Mubi.

AR: When did your interest in filmmaking begin?

DZ: I found film in a roundabout way, and it was actually through music. I was studying Economics, but not enjoying it, and I wanted to meet creative people. I took an electronic music composition class, and immediately had a feeling of "Oh my God, this is my tribe!" I find it hard to articulate how that desire to direct came about. It's just something that haunts you. I would go to see films, and sit in the dark and cry. I couldn't explain it. It was just a strong feeling of "I want to be part of this."

And this was in the US, right?

Yes, I went from Belarus to the States for school and I went to film school there too. I call going to film school "the most expensive vacation." All of my other schooling was on scholarship as a Belorussian student. But I felt that I had to go to film school, even if it meant being in debt for the rest of my life.

Darya Zhuk (Photo: KVIFF)

What films did you grow up watching in Belarus and what are some of your influences?

My Grandma would drop me off at the cinema on a Sunday morning. I saw a lot of Soviet children's films, and some Czech films, all stuff from that area. I didn't really watch American films then, but when we did see them they all looked like horrible B movies to us because they were always terrible copies! We assumed they were bad cinema. It wasn't until I came to the US that I realised that we really knew nothing about good cinema. I had to rewatch a lot and really educate myself.

When you're at film school there's this "film school language" that you get exposed to, you know, Tarkovsky, Bergman. They're great but at a certain point you realise it's not you, and that you have to find your own inspirations and voice. I realised I loved Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, and that irony and humour are very important to me. In terms of female filmmakers, I love Kira Muratova and Larisa Shepitko. It feels like gender wasn't a barrier in the Soviet system, and there were many amazing women.

To what extent was Crystal Swan inspired by your own experience of trying to get to the States?

Somewhat, but not the actual story. I've been thinking about this film, really, for the past 10 years. I had a version of the script in 2011, but then it kept getting re-written and "massaged" by Helga Landauer. She's a Russian screenwriter and poet who lives in New York, and we collaborated. One short I made in 2015, called The Real America, is a bit of a precursor; it's more autobiographical, but it has a similar kind of wild character who refuses to be victimised.

Crystal Swan was definitely inspired by some real women I knew. I had girlfriends like Velya; they fascinated me. I loved them, but I was always afraid that something would happen to them. They were so wild. And of course I loved the subculture...the music always smelled like freedom to me: the fascination with the West, a breath of fresh air. So I can relate to the character's desire to take on the world. To self-actualise. That feeling of wanting something more: some abstract America that we don't know the realities of.

That's one of the themes, in fact: the tension between the fantasy of a place you want to escape to, and the reality: that nagging sense of doubt.

Yes. These are issues that come up for anyone who doesn't live in the country they were born in. Did I do the right thing? Am I to blame for things that go wrong? There are seldom easy answers to these questions.

How did you find Alina Nasibullina to play Velya? She's a theatre actress, right?

Yes, mostly in Russia you get a theatre training, and then you go on to do both theatre and film. But this is her first leading role. It was a long process; I'd cast the whole film but I hadn't found the lead. You want to fall in love with someone, you know? I'd worked with the casting director before on a TV show in Moscow: an ensemble comedy that was very hard to cast. She knew people that I didn't know and could track them down. So that's how, at the 11th hour, she sent me Alina and said: "You must see her."

My whole crew kind of gathered around to watch the piece Alina sent in and were like: "Who is this?!" She was funny and quirky - she might have been slightly drunk when she did the piece! - and obviously amazing but we wondered if she was the kind of person who'd show up for work... Of course it turned out that she'd had this amazing education and was so skilled and professional. So I said: "I must see her now! I'm in Minsk and shooting in two weeks and I have no one to shoot!"

Another filmmaker I love is Susan Seidelman, in particular Desperately Seeking Susan. And when Alina showed up I was like "Oh my God, you look like Madonna!" But she has so much presence of her own that it wasn't about her doing a Madonna "thing." She just oozes charisma and she changes so much. I love seeing all the new Alinas.

I think that with another actress the film would have been more of a drama, but Alina naturally has this comic quality, an ironic sensibility.

I wanted to ask you about genre. Given some of the darker elements in the film, how did you feel about LFF putting the film in the "Laugh" strand?

I always intended it to be a drama with comedic elements: ironic, tragicomic. When it was put into the "Laugh" gala in London I said I would also take the "Cry" section! I guess it's easier to sell a comedy, but the mix of tones is important to me. It's an Eastern European thing in some ways.

How was the response at the LFF premiere? Did the Brits laugh?

I ducked out, but I heard there was a lot of laughter. There were many Eastern Europeans in who speak the language and get the nuances. But Belorussians are the hardest audience for me. Because it's home and they're like: "This will be sent around the world, and it represents us. Why don't you love your homeland?!"

How is the film industry in Belarus right now?

The Government-funded films are about the war and other historical subjects; they're building up a national identity narrative and they're pretty depressing. But there are some independent filmmakers, doing low budget stuff that's interesting, some of it with a mumblecore vibe.

And what was your funding process like for Crystal Swan?

Excruciating, actually. We got some from the States, some from Germany, some private equity money... It allowed me to retain creative freedom, which is the most important thing, but getting everything together was a lot of work.

How did you choose the music for the film? You use it pretty sparingly throughout.

I wanted to include music that she could realistically listen to: that would be of the time and already released by the period that the film is set. But it turned out that a lot of it had aged badly. I was like: "Wow, we used to listen to this?!" A lot of it is just unbearable! And it's house music, 4/4 repetitive, so when you put it in a scene it doesn't have development, it doesn't escalate. So it kind of ruins your dramatic structure. I eventually found only a couple of tracks that could work. The important thing is that it's a storytelling device. It reminds you of her dreams, and it symbolises freedom. When her Walkman breaks it's like she's on the moon.

LFF has been extremely (some might say excessively) proud of the fact that this year 38% of the featured films are by female directors. How does that compare to the situation in Belarus? 

I don't know the statistics of our film festival, Listopad, in Belarus, but I feel that we do have a lot of female filmmakers, not necessarily those being picked for international festivals, but in terms of the national programme, there's a decent parity. That's also true in neighbouring countries like Georgia.

On Crystal Swan, I worked hard to make sure we had a female DP and I'm very proud of my collaboration with Carolina [Costa]. I also have a female producer and AD, and that was a fantastic collaboration. The screenwriter is a woman. So I feel that it's a feminist film, not only in terms of what's up there on the screen.

It was important to tackle stereotypes in the film, too. I tried to reverse the dynamic a bit. You see a lot of women working, and men not being present or being silent. And Eastern European women do that. They do a couple of jobs and that's considered the norm.

Tell me about your collaboration with Carolina, and the look of the film, which has great vibrancy - plus a distinctive ratio.

I just realized that I love colours. I was finding references and realised that the ones I was pulling on had a lot of colour. Belarus is very clean. It's always been like that. In the downtown, everything is painted. It's beautiful. There's a government building right near my house in Minsk. It has some architectural elements that resemble a vase. The building is blue and the vase is pink. I think that really says something about us as a society. There's such a desire to bring colour into life. I go back there and find myself  observing and appreciating all those details. It's not this grey reality that some people still like to think of as defining Eastern Europe. That's such a stereotype.

The apartment that we filmed in belongs to an elderly lady and, honestly, we changed so little. The kitchen really is red and crazy, and the living room, the carpets... we just literally put in one throw! I pulled a few elements a little tighter within the frame. But really it was all there. And it became the language of the film.

As for the ratio, it's something that Carolina and I discussed, and we felt that it helped to convey the character's sense of claustrophobia. It evokes the 90s a bit, too. I felt like: Well, I have few elements. We don't have much shooting time. Every decision I make needs to serve the story.

Which recent films have you liked?

I loved Michał Marczak's All These Sleepless Nights. Happy as Lazzaro by Alice Rohrwacher was also wonderful. And Roma... Oh my God, it's a masterpiece. That elegant simplicity. It looks like he's doing do little and really he's doing so much. And it's such a feminist film. I was amazed.

And how about your own next project ?

I have some ideas. A couple of things about love in certain contexts... But then when I saw Cold War, I felt like it had all been done.

Oh, I really don't think Cold War does it all...

Maybe you're right. I thought the film was great, but perhaps he over-cut it. It needed more love story, more emotion, to get it to that end. But yes, love and geopolitics is definitely what I'm interested in exploring. It's a fascinating mix.

You can stream Crystal Swan on Mubi here.

Further reading:

Monday 4 May 2020

Book Review: Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020)

With 2005's Piece by Piece, created in collaboration with the journalist Ann Powers, Tori Amos rewrote the rules of the rock star memoir, producing a book that went broad, intimate, playful and deep as it placed her personal and professional experiences in the context of wider patterns, ones reflecting both her Native American and Christian heritage, as well as her Jung and Joseph Campbell-schooled study of archetypes and myth. 

Via an ambitious structure, and in prose as image-rich, perceptive, surprising and witty as her best lyric-writing, Amos and Powers explored formative family influences, music biz machinations, motherhood, creative process, live performance, and much more besides, the book drawing a great deal of its power from its structure as a wide-ranging dialogue between the two writers. 

Seven diverse albums (including the conceptual tours-de-force American Doll Posse and Night of Hunters), several world tours (encompassing band, solo and orchestral set-ups) and a one-of-a-kind National Theatre musical later, the prolific Amos now follows Piece by Piece with a second book, Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage. 

As its title suggests, this new work feels very much like a companion to Amos's last album, 2017's Native Invader, which mostly took inspiration from two events: the 2016 American election result and her mother's debilitating stroke. Over two years on from the record's release, Donald Trump remains in the White House and Amos's mother, Mary, a muse for many songs and the person to whom the book is dedicated, is sadly deceased. Those two facts are pivots for the volume, inspiring Amos to investigate the artist's position and potential in what she defines as an "unprecedented moment of crisis." (And that's before the horror of the current pandemic.)  

A feature of Piece by Piece was a number of "Song Canvases" - short sections focusing on specific songs - and in Resistance the prose sections are juxtaposed with full lyrics from a range of songs drawn from across Amos's catalogue (plus some never-seen-before photos, too). The book begins, appropriately, with Scarlet's Walk's majestic finale "Gold Dust" and Amos's memories of her late '70s/early '80s piano bar days in Washington D.C. Here, from her vantage point as a teenage girl starting her career under the supervision of her father (a minister with "more than a dose of Mama Rose pulsing through his veins" [p.8]), Amos observes the Carter-Reagan shift and right wing lobbyists' rise, finding herself playing in "a hotbed of conservative thinking on its rise to power" (p.13) as she smuggles songs like "The Last Chance Texaco" into her set. 

A lengthy section focusing on the 1979-1981 American hostage situation in Iran indicates the ambitious political dimension of the volume, as Amos aims to trace American foreign policy decisions from reaction to that event through the later Afghanistan invasion and the Iraq war/s. These elements are interwoven with many other reflections, from memories of her return to the piano following her first failed record to events as current as Christine Blasey Ford's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.   

"[I]ntersecting situations can compel a future work" (p126), Amos writes, and that observation clearly compels the volume itself. Amos shows songs both reflecting and refracting personal and political events, and expanding their meanings and resonances over time. Overall, though, Resistance ends up at once less expansive and less cohesive than Piece by Piece. An associative, place-based fluidity of structure is attempted, and sometimes achieved, but there's a restlessness to the book which often doesn't let an idea settle and develop before moving on to the next. The transitions, though at times arresting, can also be jarring, giving a random, unfocused quality to some chapters.  

"Part of a songwriter's discipline is being ruthless with lazy concepts" (92), Amos notes, and originality of thought and response has defined her as an artist. Still, while the writing here is often striking and vivid - check out the great description of "Cornflake Girl"'s genesis, for one (p.91-3) - some sections resort to rhetoric you could find in a social media post on any day of the week. There are predictable shorthands ("our Handmaid's Tale-like reality"), overused fashionable buzzwords ("gaslighting", "weaponizing"), and a touch of TDS, especially in the accusations of Russian meddling in the US election. (The linked Native Invader songs "Benjamin" and "Russia", with their teasing cryptographic elements, evoked the latter much more subtly and potently.)

But Resistance gets better as it progresses. As Amos writes frankly of the time that it can take for an artist to find their style, about the lessons learned from "failure", about the vital importance of recognising your own story as unique and valuable, so the book itself belatedly finds its shape. Her account of 9/11 and its aftermath, during which she was one of very few artists not to cancel a planned US tour, is powerful - showing how interactions and conversations experienced at that fraught time inspired Scarlet's Walk

The book also broadens out from a US context to take in her experiences in Russia on the mighty 2014 Unrepentant Geraldines solo tour, which she describes as "a turning point for me as a person and as an artist" (p.171-2) and where a highly emotional Moscow concert was followed by an encounter with Putin's heavies. Touring in Turkey, meanwhile, Amos observes restrictions of liberty under President Erdoğan that contrast with her experiences of the city 9 years before, reminding "how freedoms can be taken away before you realise they are gone" (p.175). As such, the book gives a vivid sense of the value of the touring life and its ability to expand the perspective of an artist dedicated to taking the temperature of every city and creating ever-evolving set-lists reflecting current events. (Oddly, though, given Amos's status as at least a part-time UK resident, reference to recent British political strife - Brexit, for instance - is completely excluded from the volume.)

Equally powerful are the later sections dealing with bereavement: firstly, her husband Mark Hawley's grief over the death of his father (an experience that inspired the songs "1000 Oceans" and "Invisible Boy") and then Amos's pain at her mother and friend Beenie's deaths within days of each other last May. As tender and lacerating as Michael Haneke's Amour, these sections find Amos finally taking comfort in her sense of continued communication with her mother, which provides encouragement and inspiration for a new album in development. (A verse from one of these new tracks, the beautiful "Mary's Raven," is included in the book.)

While Amos's creative process - as mystical as it is intensely practical - was more deeply sketched in Piece by Piece, the new book does yield some fresh insights, especially her disavowal of the notion of "writer's block" or artistic "barrenness," which she dismisses as a "delusion" that keeps too many people from making work at all. "Artists don't have 'limited' access to the universal creative force," Amos argues (p.245).

Ending with the lyrics to "Climb", her subtle, spiritual song about abuse and transcendence, Amos presents artistic creation as an endeavour requiring discipline, commitment, risk-taking, trust in one's own story, and respectful attentiveness to the force she figures throughout as "the Muses." Resistance doesn't always bring its strands together as seamlessly as you would wish, but at its best this anti-despair book offers a provocative, intelligent perspective on the necessity of keeping open, present, perceptive and creative in our deeply challenging times.