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Belarus has to become its own country

Interview with Belarusian filmmaker Vlada Senkova. Interviewer: Kateryna Pryshchepa.

November 17, 2020 - Kateryna Pryshchepa Vlada Senkova - Interviews

Vlada Senkova Photo: Andrei Nekrasov

Vlada Senkova represents a young generation of filmmakers in Belarus, who are increasingly rejecting traditional career paths involving the state film school and studio ‘Belarusfilm’. She is currently based in Warsaw, where she has just finished Film School of Andrzej Wajda. Her film “II” was released last year and screened in solidarity with Belarus during fifth edition of Ukraïna film festival, which took place in Warsaw at the end of October. We talked with Vlada about the state of the film industry in Belarus, political influence in the creative industries and her expectations for the future.

KATERYNA PRYSHCHEPA: You mentioned in your public talk that state funding for cinema in Belarus is distributed only to the state studio Belarusfilm. Of course, you are an independent director. Could you tell us about the independent or non-state film industry in the country? Who is making films in Belarus now and how did they enter the industry?

VLADA SENKOVA: There are people who studied at and graduated from state art and film universities. But I think that the most productive filmmakers are those who come from outside the official world of filmmaking. Here I mean that state art university brings nothing in comparison to some film school courses. Quite a few people have turned to the industry after working in television for some time, having felt the need to express themselves in this way.

In Ukraine many filmmakers used to work in the advertising industry, as it could provide a stable income in between making films. Is the situation in Belarus comparable?

To some extent it is comparable. Unfortunately, however, the advertising industry in Belarus is smaller so there is less work. If we also speak of directors, I think the people who work in advertising tend to make rather ‘commercial’ films if they manage to get funding. Of course, industries such as advertisement and television can provide a stable income for other film specialists like editors, cameramen and light experts. Despite this, many ultimately decide to pursue the art. I know an owner of an advertisement agency who just closed their company and went to study in Moscow in order to become a serious film director.

So how did you start making films under these circumstances?

I have been always writing scripts so after I graduated from the university I decided to take a course in screenwriting. Having finished that course I realized I simply didn’t want other people to make films based on my screenplays, I wanted to do them myself.

And how did you start?

At the time I had a broken heart so I had to do something to take my mind off of it.

And you didn’t have any doubts regarding your ability? Were you sure it was going to work?

To be honest I wasn’t sure then. I just had to ‘save myself’ at that point. Of course, it required some courage to gather a team of people and start making a film without any money. It helped that we did not know how difficult it would be when we started. But I was lucky as I was able to find a team who have remained with me since then. They still continue to support me in my risky endeavours. As you know, the actor who plays one of the main characters in “II” has been in all my films.

And you started already with a full feature film?

I had that notion that if I made a film it had to be a proper feature-length project. So we started with big ambitions. We were very serious about it from the very beginning. Although my main motivation was to change something in my life.

Was it easy for you to be accepted as an “official” film director in Belarus? Was it possible to get advice or feedback from established directors?

I think people who have been in the industry for many years are not very keen on competition. Overall, I didn’t receive much help from this group. At the same time, we do not have many established directors in Belarus. In that sense the field is quite open. Every year state films are made but they usually do not have much impact. Now a group of young filmmakers like me have appeared in the last few years. We are trying to find our own way in the industry.

So what caused these young film directors to suddenly appear?

I think the main reason is that good resolution digital cameras have become accessible and affordable. Young filmmakers are no longer dependent on expensive equipment. For my first film we used a Canon photo camera which also had a video function. I cannot say I am very proud of my first film now, but it did manage to get into some festival programmes. I think when aspiring filmmakers in Belarus saw that a film could be made completely with a photo camera it naturally encouraged them to do something themselves.

So it took just one person with a photo camera to start a new wave of filmmaking?

I actually think that my 2015 film (The Count in Oranges – ed.) was one of the first ones when you could go to the cinema and see that there was a film made with a simple photo camera. However, others were also trying to make such films themselves at that time. We just started pushing each other forward.

So can we really speak about a new wave? How many films have been made by these newcomers since 2015?

It is hard to say. There have been quite a few short films. But if we talk about full length productions I think that there have been less than ten films. Those films were made with the director’s own money. But there is definitely a new wave in Belarusian cinema.

During the public discussion today you mentioned censorship in the film industry in Belarus. How does that work?

Well, if your film upsets the authorities it won’t be allowed to be shown in the cinemas. It just won’t get the license for it.

So what topics are prohibited in the cinema?

In general, you cannot say anything bad or joke about the police or authorities.

It has been said that despite everything that there are quite good documentary films now being made in Belarus. Why do you think documentary filmmakers are more successful?

I think this is partly due to money as well. Documentary films are less expensive to make. Of course, it is a very difficult type of film. I cannot see myself getting into someone’s private space with a camera as you have to do making a documentary. So people who can do that need very special skills. But on the other hand, you don’t need a big film crew to make a documentary. You also need much less equipment – basically just a microphone and a camera. It is also easier to find someone who will buy these documentaries. In many cases, television channels commission or buy them.

I would have thought that due to the aforementioned problems of censorship it would be more difficult to make documentaries.

There are various cases of documentaries being banned by authorities. For instance, the film “Striptease and War”, which was also included in this year’s Ukraïna festival, was removed from the programme of Minsk International Film Festival Listapad in 2018. The festival programmers wanted to show it. However, it was banned following an administrative decision. The members of FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) subsequently delivered a statement on stage during the event against the ban. As a result, the film was included in the Listapad programme in 2019 and even won the festival’s prize.

With both countries speaking the same language and possessing close relations, how strong are the ties between the film industries in Belarus and Russia?

It’s hard to say if we actually have a proper film industry in Belarus. Of course, we’ve got Belarusfilm. Though it is its own thing and not really an industry. There are people, like me, who are trying to make films by looking for resources in unlikely places. Overall, we don’t have proper film training. I did a short course in a film school but it was not what you might call a formal education. So we do ‘partisan’ (partisan Rus. партизанский – here meaning not an official setting or institution) films. We simply gather a team and start making films. Occasionally there might be some big films funded by Russian money but those are very rare exceptions. Our ties with Russian filmmaking are mostly the result of Russian companies coming to Belarus to make television shows. Naturally, they have to engage with local actors and technical specialists. However, this has stopped now due to the pandemic and all the travel restrictions.

Do you think things will go back to normal in the industry after the pandemic?

It’s hard to say what relations will look like in the near future. It is possible there will be no more of this cooperation. It is hard to say what travel requirements there will be or if the border between the countries will be closed. In this respect, it will be much simpler for Russian companies to organise filming somewhere in Moscow or Saint-Petersburg.

So are filmmakers in Belarus now facing both an economic crisis due to COVID-19 as well as a political crisis?

This is the biggest problem for the actors. For directors the situation was even less predictable before the events of this year. State financing for films in Belarus is very limited and the ways in which it is distributed are very unclear. The state often spends one or two million dollars on one “official” film project instead of giving smaller sums to more independent projects that could also be successful. Simultaneously, we don’t have too much in the way of private investment in the film industry.

We often have talks about the industry and there is a so-called ‘industrial platform’ as part of Minsk International Film Festival Listapad in Belarus. But we can’t really compare our situation to neighbouring countries like Ukraine, where the film industry has really been developing in recent years. So we have to use every opportunity to get resources for the films. That’s why “II” was made on a budget which was initially intended for a short information film about HIV prevention. UNICEF wanted me to make a short video that would be distributed in the Russian-speaking countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. However, we convinced them that it would be better to make a full length feature.

What is your opinion regarding the connections between the cultural spaces of Belarus and Russia and their impact on the creative industries? There have been a lot of talks in Ukraine about competition with Russian producers. There was even a period when it was thought that making films in Ukraine was ‘unnecessary’, as those produced in Russia could cater for all the countries where Russian was spoken.

We had a situation like that in Belarus. I think we really need to stop being dependent on Russian market. We should not operate with this thought of the Russian market in mind. We just have to concentrate on making films. For me personally, it is very hard to imagine how I would make films in the Belarusian language. I have to reflect on the reality that not many people speak the language in the country. Maybe this situation will change. I don’t speak it very well myself. But on the other hand, after August 9th I understand that we have to become our own separate country, with our own language and culture.

In Ukraine there were various ‘waves’ where different quotas and requirements were introduced in order to give more air and screen time for music and films in the Ukrainian language. Do you think such measures are worth trying in Belarus?

Well, smart people understand that creative industries and films in particular are something that represent the country abroad. They are statements about the country.

We had rules introduced some time back requiring that a certain portion of radio airtime should be reserved for music by Belarusian musicians. It had a very positive impact on the country’s music scene. Those were not language quotas as they simply supported local talent.

Language quotas might be useful at least for some period. This is because when a country is starting from zero, as we are in Belarus now, you need to have some stimulus for revival.

What do you hope to work on personally next? Do you have any ideas for your next film?

I have an idea that I have been working on for some time now. It is a film about two young guys who decide to run away from compulsory military service in Belarus. Events in the film will take place during the current political crisis. I think this is very relevant to ongoing events in Belarus. I hope to find funds for this film here in Poland. I start filming this winter.

Vlada Senkova is a Belarusian filmmaker

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist, PhD candidate and frequent contributor to New Eastern Europe.

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