Belarus is not the New East country most readily associated with cult cinema. With the film industry there dominated by a Soviet hangover of a state studio, Belarusfilm, the space and resources for young directors are limited. Enter Darya Zhuk, a first-time feature director who studied film in the US before returning home to make Crystal Swan, one of the year’s most striking debuts. Set in the economic chaos of the post-Soviet 90s, the film tells the story of Velya, an aspiring house DJ who dreams of moving to Chicago to pursue her musical career. When a mistake on a dodgy US visa application form forces her to journey to the heart of rural Belarus, she is forced to question her place in the world. With its stylish but unflinching eye for issues of family, nationalism and gender, Crystal Swan would signal an exciting directorial talent regardless of its provenance, but the fact that it comes out of Belarus, with a Belarusian cast and crew, is real cause for celebration. Zhuk spoke to The Calvert Journal about how she managed to get the film made, its autobiographical elements, and the obstacles facing young filmmakers in one of the New East’s most misunderstood countries.
It was nearly impossible to make this film. I sent a script to the state-run studio Belarusfilm nearly four years ago. I remember talking to the then-head of the studio who said, “you do realise that your film is going to be really hard to make? You’ll have to go to a little village and then half of your crew is gonna be drunk.” After a year or two waiting for them to write back to me, I knew I would never make this film if I did it the “proper” way. I went to film school in the US, so I knew about private equity available there. I borrowed some equipment and locations from Belarusfilm, but their people will work for eight hours and that’s it: you cannot make a film in 22 days if you only work eight hours a day…
The film was just the biggest thing in Belarus — we have amazing box office numbers. Mostly in Minsk; in regional cities it didn’t do as well. Minsk has some private theatres but in regional cities cinemas are mostly controlled by Minskkinoprokat, which is also a government body. They were lukewarm with it. There was a lot of hugely positive reaction and a lot of trolling and hatred. And the Oscar nomination also corrupted people’s minds.
There’s a very old-fashioned way of thinking here, that if you’re representing the country you have to be very propagandistic. There were grandmothers attacking me: “How can you? How can you hate your homeland so much?” In America no one presumes that films are representing the country as a whole. In Belarus there’s a collective response.
It’s very difficult for Belarusian directors. I think the way I did it is probably the easier way to do it — or do it through Russian funding, which Belarusian directors can access. A lot of people went to study in Moscow and then came back, but now they’re stuck doing commercials. Quite a few people are trying to make it in Warsaw. Some fall into doing TV for Russia, or they survive by writing Russian soaps while sitting in Minsk. I worked a little bit in Moscow before I realised: this is a factory, I’m going to be crushed here.
Once you’re from Eastern Europe you have to be bleak. I was making a film for myself and my friends. I wasn’t thinking of a target audience, though I really wanted it to be released in Belarus. You make something that you think is sincere or real for yourself, first of all. Belarusian audiences are a lot hungrier because they haven’t seen themselves onscreen. It’s amazing to make something there, where it resonates. It’s too complex for Americans. I’ve had a really hard time getting it into an American festival, even with all the humour; it’s a little bit removed from their reality altogether. From one festival programmer I heard, “it’s not dark enough” — literally, word for word. But I’m optimistic: I would never make a [Sergei] Loznitsa movie.
I grew up with a very strong sense that women were doing more work and not being recognised for it, both in family life and their careers. So I found them a lot more fascinating than men. In Eastern Europe they like to talk about negative selection — how all the best men were killed in the war and now we’re dealing with the leftovers, even three generations down. For me it was very important that Velya doesn’t want to get married, that she wants a bigger life, self-actualisation. I got some fan letters from 18-year-old girls who said that the film was inspiring even if they couldn’t even put into words how. If I made this film for this one 18-year-old who never goes to the movies, then that’s good.
The story itself happened to a friend of mine — she submitted fake paperwork and then had to go to a provincial town and wait by the phone. I always felt like that story would make a good film. A couple of my other friends played some tricks with documents; the system wasn’t computerised so it was a common thing.
I loved electronic music growing up because it seemed so abstract: it seemed like we could get rid of everything and create something new. That culture, with the drugs, was about wiping your mind of the historical trauma that’s haunting you through your parents. It smelled like freedom.
It’s easier to be from a small country because you don’t have a big ego to protect. Russians constantly have something to prove and that becomes part of their personality. On a daily basis, they feel insecure. I’d love to make another film in Belarus. Now people want to work with me, it will be less impossible. Now Belarusfilm is calling me — they want to give me money.