Everyday life in the shadow of war is full of strange contradictions and juxtapositions. Ukrainian filmmaker Iryna Tsylik captures them all in her feature debut, The Earth Is Blue As An Orange: a documentary film which follows teenager and budding cinematographer Myroslava as she joins forces with her family to make a short film about living in the war-torn Ukrainian region of Donbas.
Even though the family’s neighbourhood has been heavily bombed and almost completely abandoned by its residents, family traditions and adolescent rites of passage still continue here as elsewhere. One of the film’s most memorable images is of Myroslava and her friend as they pose for graduation photos outside high school, holding their diplomas and smiling as a convoy of military vehicles passes in the background.
Trauma and the destruction of war are also a source of creative inspiration for Myroslava, and her battle to overcome the challenges that surrounded her rings true with Tyslik’s experience. “I can’t say that I had a similar childhood,” the director tells The Calvert Journal. “But I grew up in a rather poor family in Ukraine, in the 90s, with all that post-Soviet reality — it had many challenges.” The conflict in Donbas, however, is still somewhat personal for Tyslik. Her husband was a soldier in the Ukrainian army, and fought in the region. She has also shot two films in the area previously, Tyra and Kid, part of the 2017 anthology Invisible Battalion. “I would take any opportunity to go to Donbas,” she says. “I would go there for literary readings, I was also shooting films. I still feel very connected to this region.”
She first encountered the family as a guest tutor for Yellow Bus, a mobile filmmaking school for young Ukrainians which Myroslava was attending. “It’s a volunteer project, so they’re not dependent on any powerful institutions. They work with young people from the territories on the Russian border, which are really divided between different influences,” she says. “I saw with my own eyes how cool it was for all these teenagers to shoot some stories, and become people who can use their own voices to tell their own stories.”
Inspired by Yellow Bus’ impact in Donbas, Tyslik initially wanted to put the film camp itself as the subject of her documentary. “But I couldn’t choose what to focus on: there were so many interesting lives,” she explains. “I decided to just observe one family. [Suddenly] this family had the tools to become more than just silent victims. Even doing something very simple, was their way to be alive.” Tyslik’s previous films had been far more engaged with the atmosphere of war — this was different. I was trying to imagine: what does it mean to live in a warzone and to just be a civilian? Not only to survive, but to enjoy life? When I met this family, I realised that both they, and many other people that I met in Donbas, were just trying to live normal lives despite the circumstances. It’s impossible to live in “war mode” all the time; you can’t put your life on standby.”
This change of perspective led Tyslik to create a film with a real sense of warmth and humanity, giving a specific, local situation, a universal resonance. It also exposed how underreported the conflict has been on the global stage. “When I showed my rough cut to some non-Ukrainians, many people told me that they didn’t realise that the war was still going on,” Tsylik says. “So, I decided to explain a little bit [of the context] at the beginning [of the film], and I added a scene where we see a shelling, and where an explosive falls onto a neighbour’s house. But I wanted to have the war as the background, or just as a setting. Because my characters try to live as if there’s no war at all.”
Yet a lack of awareness of the issue has not stopped the film from receiving tumultuous praise from foreign audiences. The Earth Is Blue as an Orange won Tsylik the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance film festival in January 2020, before lockdown and travel restrictions forced the press campaign for the film to be put on hold. “To be honest, I never expected that we could have such a great response from foreign viewers,” Tsylik admits. “Everything started from Sundance. That was a very special experience for me, because we had a private screening. Viewers were crying and laughing. I got so much feedback from different viewers around the world. Maybe [because] it’s a story about people who endure life despite their difficult circumstances. There are many people in the world who live like that. Even this lockdown situation: maybe people could relate to our characters who were just stuck in their house, but still trying to live at the same time.”
Yet while the pandemic has seen promotion for the film grind to a halt, the 38-year-old filmmaker has been as busy as ever. She recently finished her first feature-length fiction film, which presented creative challenges that even she hadn’t encountered before. “I was waiting so many years for this”, she says. “I wasn’t brave enough to shoot a fiction feature. It wasn’t scary to go to the warzone, I was enjoying the process. When you know how to behave, it’s not really scary. You’re protected by the military, you have a good relationship with locals. This fiction film was much more scary.”