Volia Chajkouskaya is a film producer and the founder of Volia Films, Belarus’s most exciting independent company. She’s also the founder and director of the country’s leading Northern Lights Nordic Baltic Film Festival. Her debut feature as producer, The Road Movie (dir. Dmitry Kalashnikov, 2016) is a hilarious, morbid and existential documentary composed entirely of dash cam footage from around Russia which was recently signed up for an American release.
What sets Volia apart is her determination to shake up the small and isolated Belarusian cinema scene with a raft of fresh, locally-relevant documentaries. In the face of huge logistical and political challenges, she’s a necessary figurehead. We spoke to Volia about starting out in her career and the state of film in her home country.
How and why did you get into film?
I’ve been into cinema since university: I went to the faculty of journalism and started to work as a freelance art and cinema journalist. I started to discover films by Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Fellini that impressed me a lot.
For some time, I remained a “theoretician”. Then in 2015, I was asked to program a one-off showcase of Nordic cinema in Belarus. I agreed and turned this into a festival: Northern Lights Nordic Baltic Film Festival in Belarus, which is now alive and growing. It takes place in Minsk and other Belarusian cities every April and has a great reputation modern, agile and professional film festival. I showcase films from eight different Northern and Baltic countries, invite guests, build an industry platform in order to share cinema knowledge in Belarus, as filmmakers and amateurs are really lacking it.
We don’t have a huge film festival infrastructure in Belarus and Northern Lights is a great for development. It has already became an example for other smaller film festivals in the country.
Why did you set up Volia Films and produce The Road Movie?
At some point I was asked to help out on a Belarusian documentary project and that was actually the beginning of my career as a film producer. Or, better to say, it was the first prompt. And since in Belarus the industry lacks structure and money, I picked up documentaries: in terms of production they are easier to make with little or even no money.
I met Dmitry Kalashnikov, who had the idea of The Road Movie — a film entirely edited together from dashboard camera footage shot all around Russia. We went to pitch the project to Karlovy Vary’s DocuTalents from the East. I applied for the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2016, and The Road Movie was selected for The First Appearance Competition. It was the perfect start as it’s Dima’s debut feature film, and my first film as an independent producer. While working on The Road Movie I registered Volia Films.
What your experience is of trying to liven up cinema in Belarus?
I really don't want to blow off, but sometimes I can’t help it when it comes to the situation with Belarusian cinema. Of course, taking into consideration my humble successes, it’s useless to whine. But to talk about the general situation: there are really few things to be happy about. So, to concentrate on them: firstly, we have plenty of enthusiasts and a growing number of independent filmmakers, film festivals and film clubs, that (I hope) are going to change the situation. We have a lot of talented people. And I believe that only people can move things forward. This is what I am trying to do at Volia Films – to not give up and to try and get the maximum out of the few opportunities film producers have in Belarus. We have no money, but luckily we have directors to work with and their beautiful projects. For instance, I’m working with Aleksandr Mihalkovich on his touching and personal documentary about his grandmother in Crimea, Babushka: Lost in Transition, and with Maksim Shved and his adventurous and (self)-ironical doc The Art of Censorship.
I believe as well that Belarus is a potential Klondike for documentary films. We have to develop the local film market and set up domestic TV and theatrical distribution in order to succeed with the sorts of topics that work for the local market. Also, politically, since we are kind of (self)-constrained on an international level, films from Belarus are not in great demand. This is, unfortunately, what I am facing as a film producer. It happens over and over again, that I come to a film festival or a pitching platform, and they tell me that I am the first Belarusian producer ever to visit them. But Belarus is a country of 10 million people! We are huge! And we are underrepresented, we have no access to European funds. Film people are suffering from the political situation.
I managed to wrap up The Road Movie only by adding private sponsors from other countries. You know that saying: there is no prophet in one’s own homeland. I think it’s very Belarusian for one girl to take a risk and then for everybody to realise that it can be done, and start to follow. OK, I’m happy to be a successful pioneer.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
I’d like the situation in Belarus to change in terms of support for producers and filmmakers. At the moment we don’t have any proper funding system, no transparent system of grants for independent filmmakers, no cadre of film producers. We lack money. We have no government or private support; private businesses in Belarus are not used to supporting culture. Cinema here “detached” in terms of its reputation among common people: we don’t even have proper distribution for domestic movies. It means that local films are underrepresented and people have no trust in what Belarusian filmmakers do. It’s a kind of subculture, rather then a reliable industry. I would like to contribute to changing this whole situation.
I am planning to finish three more documentary films by Belarusian directors by the end of 2018. I was invited to be a jury member at one European film festival — the first time in my life I’ve been asked to do such a responsible job. And I’m also working on my third book of poetry. It will be called Not That Thing and I hope it will be published by the beginning of 2018.
Text: Samuel Goff
Top portrait by Ihar Chyshchenia
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