Graduate of the Moscow State University, department of journalistic (1989), Olga Antimony is a filmmaker who taught at school, edited books, and was the chief editor of the sci-fi program "Gordon" at NTV. She is also a graduate of Moscow School of Scriptwriters and she has worked as a film director on both fiction and documentary genres. She has participated in many international film festival and it is our pleasure to interview Olga Antimony for the Toronto Film Magazine regarding her film, Aelita Dream Big.
How did you start making films, and what was the first film project you worked on?
I grew up and spent my childhood and early teenage years in Ukraine. At the age of 17, I left Ukraine and went to study in Moscow. After graduating from the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University, I decided to continue my studies at the High Courses for Scriptwriters and Film Directors. This unique film school was founded almost seventy years ago for those who already had higher education diplomas and wanted to try filmmaking. The Courses were famous for many outstanding cinematographers who studied and taught there, and who largely shaped Soviet cinema, and later the cinema of the post-Soviet states.
The years of studying at the High Courses were the best years of my life. My first work was a film about one of the liquidators of the Chernobyl accident, a film that was conceived as a simple educational assignment and then turned into a full-fledged documentary that won awards at several festivals.
Here are a few excerpts from the reviews about the film:
“Chernobyl-2 is a unique meditation on the matter of human strength and helplessness, touching memories and the harsh reality of the consequences of an atomic explosion. The film managed to capture the historical tragedy as a personal story in which unique human relationships overcome the abstract terror of what happened in Chernobyl” (Docpoint, Helsinki, 2006).
“The simplicity of this student work is a bit confusing at first. However, in the 12th minute of the film, the technical imperfection of the ‘visuals’ begins to fade into the background, and the burning pain of compassion comes to the fore. Close-ups of the characters, unobtrusive plasticity of looks and timid touches, the entire visual solution of the film is ‘tuned’ to the inner beauty of a person, which cannot be conveyed with a perfectly aligned frame and carefully selected colors. Chernobyl-2 made quite a strong impression on the members of the jury, having won the prize for the best short film” (Literaturnaya Gazeta, 2005, no. 47).
What genre of filmmaking are you looking to work on and why?
I’m a documentary filmmaker, so when it comes to fiction filming I’m just exploring it. My heroes are real people. I’m interested in true stories and characters. Once, when I was a child, I met a stranger, a lady who was just a passer-by, and she asked me to accompany her home. While we walked she was telling me about her life. It was one of sheer horror: famine, war, death, loneliness, and diseases. My heart was bleeding. I felt completely lost. I wanted to offer her some consolation, but what could I do? It wasn’t in my power to roll her life back, bring back her dead loved ones, fill her home with voices of unborn children and the sweet atmosphere of family celebrations. What could I help her with? Shopping? House-cleaning? A sudden thought crossed my mind: She didn’t need any of this! All she needed was just having someone beside her, someone who can stay quiet and listen to her.
Since then “staying beside” is kind of my credo. Worries, anger, arguments, or enjoying beauty and feeling happy, they all are my elements if I “stay beside.” In this sense, the documentary genre is a great thing when you can stay beside. Life flows like a river; you catch some of its fragments and build something whole out of it. It builds itself, a film builds itself, and all you need to know is what it wants and where it leads us. Because whatever script I will try to stick to, this “stay beside” filming will ultimately change it and take it in its own direction. The most important rules are: be thoughtful, don’t force it, don’t meddle, don’t try to squeeze it into your own template. The same applies to editing. I “knead” the material, so to speak, reshuffling frames and scenes, trying to purge all the unnecessary stuff that obscures its essence. Do you know the famous saying, "In fiction films, the director is god, and in documentaries, God is the director”? You are only an instrument, an opportunity to materialize it.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker?
Just sticking to what you are doing. When you get caught in all those commitments, agreements, deadlines, projects… Independence means complete absence of any constraints. The most difficult part is committing yourself to certain restraints, because in my heart I want to keep everything I filmed; every scene, every shot, I just can’t cut them off. Sometimes I tell myself, “OK, you won’t go anywhere until this 15-minute part is cut down to three.” I review this part again and again, and my brain stubbornly refuses to throw anything out, believing that everything is too important. Finally, reviewing it the hundredth time I start cleansing it bit by tiny bit. This is the most difficult thing to do…
In “dependence” situation, the deadlines and format requirements momentarily kill all those possibilities.
How challenging is it to fund indie films?
Getting funding for your own project is always a tricky task, but I can work on the run, so to speak, filling the roles of scriptwriter, director, DOP, and editor all at once. Therefore, financing is a secondary thing for me. The most important is to work on something that excites you, and do what you love to do, and those willing to pay for that will come.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. Have they been influential in your work?
Andrei Tarkovsky, Miloš Forman, and Federico Fellini. It’s very hard to describe their impact on me in just a few words. I watch their films again and again. I’m still learning from them.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
Recently, we started work on the series Gulag Witnesses, about the people who went through Stalin’s prison camps. It is based on real stories of the experience, which still hasn’t been re-evaluated or even reflected upon. That’s why in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, in post-Soviet countries, this system keeps recreating itself. Each episode consists of two narratives: one of a prisoner and another one of a prison camp’s employee, both parts played by the same actor. Some sort of two-faced Janus of the system, when both were victims.
What inspired you to work on Dream Big: Aelita?
As far as I remember, we met with Jack and Aelita somewhere in 2013. They are a wonderful couple! The house lights were always turning on when they appeared. I wanted to share this feeling with others. I repeatedly picked up a camera. My favorite part in this film was shot in Florida, when Aelita and Jack were putting their grandson to bed. I was shooting something else that evening, but it didn’t come out as colourful and expressive; either the exposure was not the same, or the picture was out of focus. I might have wanted to record Jack's stories about Italy, but... The film itself chose what it saw fit.
Then they sold their house in Toronto. When the parents died, Aelita and Jack decided to move closer to their daughter. I convinced our producer to give me a team of cameramen to film them in their home, where they had lived for thirty years and which was getting new owners the very next day.
The film was shelved for a few years. We stayed friends and got together from time to time. In 2018 our company took up a new project, “Dream Big, Life Stories of Ten Immigrant Women.” I decided that in my film, Aelita’s story will be told by Jack. Aelita turned out to be the only film of this series where the story of a heroine is presented by her husband. Besides, the filmed material provides an opportunity for a “double portrait,” an opportunity I may use someday, dedicating a film to Jack’s life story that will be narrated by Aelita.
How did you find the cast and the crew of the film?
The camera crew is a part of our team at Ethnic Channels Group, which was assembled over the years. It’s quite a multinational team including guys from Russia, Moldova, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine. A great team. It’s very important to be aware of the special talents and abilities of each teammate so together they can apply them when working on a project. Cinema is an art involving a collective of individuals, where everybody contributes something to the common effort, or maybe even multiplies the team’s success.
What is the distribution plan for the film, and did the film receive any screenings or was it featured in festivals?
We are planning to show it in festivals, and broadcast on TV as well.
Why do you make films and what kind of impact would your work have on the world?
Why do I make films? That’s what I love to do. Every day. You know, when you wake up in the morning having this strange feeling of being carried away. After a while you realize, yes, you are being carried away and right to your desk. Because film is being shot for some time, followed by months and months of torturous fine-tuning at the computer.
Impact on the world? I don’t expect it. My kids will watch it, my friends, my acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, and so on. It will somehow affect them, and I’ll thank God for that! Although I love when people spend hours, days, months, and even years peering into my work. There is a special feature on YouTube or Vimeo where you can see for how long people watch your file. That’s quite entertaining! I remember, when after a long hour-and-a-half screening of my film at the cinema, an acquaintance of mine said to me, “I would rather keep watching it.” I was afraid that the film happened to be too long, but it turned out OK. This man plunged into the world of Another One, living his life, discovering his universe. Or maybe changing his own.