During the Vilnius queer festival “Kreivės” (taking place on September 7–11), I am talking with two directors from Ukraine – Olena Siyatovska and Zhanna Ozirna. Siyatovska’s short film “I am Michelle” (2021) about a young transgender girl’s life and dreams in Kiyv is part of the competition programme. “Bond” (2018) by Ozirna follows the one-year-long coming out process for a normal-looking family. Both directors have come to Vilnius for the festival.
You both make movies that are documentaries. What about documentary cinema attracts you?
Olena Siyatovska: It’s my first film. I started with documentaries because it was easier. I wanted to be as close to reality as possible. I think the story found me and I needed to film it.
Zhanna Ozirna: I like Olena’s explanation about how the story finds you, because I also believe in this. I shot this film many years ago. The film is about my family and about me as well. I chose to film a documentary because it was a really difficult time in my life and this was a pretty regular way to understand how to solve some issues. I started to make a film out of it. It started more as psychotherapy, but turned into something much bigger.
Olena, how did you meet Michele, the main character of your film? How did you decide to make a documentary about her? How is she doing right now?
Olena: It was two years ago. I was at the art residency, because I am mostly an artist. The residency was organized by the Ukrainian platform “Izolyatsia” and connected with Kyiv Pride. The main topics were video and LGBTQ+.
When I started thinking about my work, I thought about documentary film, because for me it seemed like the right way. And I tried to find a character for the film. Then, I met three girls and one of them was Michelle.
When I met her, I understood that I wanted to make a film about her, because I was very impressed with her personal story. During the first evening we spent together, she told me a lot about herself and her family. She was very open. I understood that she also wanted to take part in this project. Sometimes she reminds me of myself many many years ago. It was a special connection and an immediate match.
After that we talked sometimes, spent time together and started filming step by step. From a very small story it became a bit longer. So we spent two years together and that’s how this film was created.
Yesterday, I saw that Michelle visited her family in their village, in the Lviv region, which is shown in our film. But mostly she lives in Kyiv, where she returned from her native village maybe a month or two ago. She’s working and trying to continue her ordinary life.
I Am Michelle
Zhanna, you are yourself the main character of your film. Was it a hard decision to be this vulnerable and open in front of and behind the camera? You’ve mentioned the therapeutic aspect of filmmaking. How did you decide to make your personal story and healing public?
Zhanna: At that moment I had already been working as a film festival programmer at one of the Ukrainian short film festivals for about two or three years. And when you are watching so many films, you somehow understand that the story from your own life could be universal.
It was an interesting experiment, because I tried to detach myself. I was actually behind the camera most of the time, but my voice was present in the film all the time, because I was asking my relatives all kinds of things, I was the voice behind the camera. I appear in the film just once in the beginning, just to show myself and that it is my story.
I just started to shoot different relationships that I have with my family members. My first thought about this project was to reveal how strange the relationship could be in the family that looks very regular. At first glance, it is a very ordinary family, but we see a very strange relationship. I wanted to show that in a way every normal person could be queer.
The shooting took one year, from Christmas to Christmas. I collected a lot of material, because I was practically shooting everything. And at one moment, I went to a workshop in Tbilisi dedicated to story development in documentaries. The aim of this workshop was to understand what your story is about. At that moment, I didn’t know and just had a huge pile of filmed material.
But I thought about it in a concentrated way, because the workshop demanded that. In the end of this workshop, I all of the sudden finally came up with the main idea and the focus of my film: “Your family can tolerate your queerness, but can you tolerate the normality of your family?”.
I understood that it is about acceptance, two sides of normality and queerness and that there is no understandable line between them. And exactly at this moment I understood that my personal story and my personal way of therapy should be made into a film, because it finally had some universal relevance. After I launched this film, I showed it at film festivals and understood that it works, because I got a lot of messages from different people telling me that they had the same situation and that they could relate to my story. It was a sign that I succeeded.
Zhanna, you explore queerness through the lens of normality or even normativity. Was it a conscious choice or did it happen organically? Were you aware of it while filming?
Zhanna: No, it was just my curious eye on everything that was going on around me. My family sometimes behave in really funny ways. They are so sincere to the point it becomes a little bit funny. That’s why I thought it would be really interesting to look at it with a little bit of distance. But this layer of queerness and normality appeared later.
Olena, could you briefly describe your film?
Olena: This film is about a girl named Michelle. She’s the main character. The film itself is her portrait. The main focus is on her life and transformation. I met her when she was twenty years old and it was her first months in Kyiv after moving out of her native village. And in that short period of time she changed a lot and I wanted to capture it. And now everything is more different, because she changed a lot.
I was seeing changes every week while filming. At the beginning, I saw how she felt in a new city. The main part of the film is about her feelings when she returned to her home village and met with her family. We show their relationships and their lives, how they understand and support her.
It is really interesting, when people saw the film, they thought that Michelle was not an easy person. Even though she is young, right now she is only twenty two, but she has a really strong personality and a very strong nature. Sometimes it was not easy to work with her. And people saw that she’s not always nice, that particular side of her interested everyone. It would be amazing to hear more reactions since I have shown this film at a festival only once.
Have the people that you filmed seen the final movies? How did they react?
Olena: Michelle was one of the first people to watch the film. While watching, she was saying: “at this moment I like myself, and at this moment I don’t”. It was funny, because a few days ago, when I posted the trailer and the poster of the film, she wrote a message: “I look more beautiful now than two years ago.”
Zhanna: [My family] watched the film separately. The most interesting reaction for me was my father’s. It was the most sensitive line in this film, during the whole relationship with my father. I didn’t know that he watched the film, because my mother secretly sent him the link. I asked my mother what he said and she told me that he said nothing, but he didn’t like his own voice. So the reaction was a little bit like Michelle’s. I, as a filmmaker, can distance myself from myself as a character on the screen, but my family cannot do that, they just watch at themselves and either like it or dislike it.
You took a role in your film both as a character and as a director.
Zhanna: I knew that I could make this film only when I started seeing myself as a character. If you are too emotionally involved in the material, you really have zero chances to finish the film. Because you won’t pick the most important scenes, but rather scenes that are emotional for you, instead of those that would be most important and emotional for the viewer. Sometimes what is very significant for me is not that important for the film.
You both focus on family and home in your films. Why did this topic seem significant for you to capture?
Olena: For my film, it was important to show the family of Michelle, because it was the circle in which she grew up, they were the first people who accepted her identity and helped her to be herself. In the new big city she was all alone, but when we came back home to the people close to her, I understood how she did everything.
Also, this film for me is about women’s power, because her family consists of a mother, a sister, a small sister, an aunt, a father and the husband of her aunt. We didn’t talk much with Michelle’s father or the husband of her aunt, so the main characters were women, who are really powerful and strong. Most importantly, they have supported Michelle all this time.
Zhanna: It’s interesting that Ukrainian families tend to have this powerful female circle. It’s a pretty ordinary scene based on female energy.
In my case, I was thinking about generational differences. In Ukraine and all the other countries that were under the Soviet occupation, people went through big historical changes. So every generation is very different and there are huge distances between them. For example, the most productive period for my parents was the 90s. And we all know everything about the 90s and how it was a super difficult time. In a way, they are very much influenced by this period of time, they are kind of disoriented, they can’t keep together even right now, because they do not know how to live in the current reality.
My brother’s generation (he’s around 40 now), for example, is stuck in the middle a little bit. Every generation has a very different historical background, because especially in Ukraine historical events change very intensively, as you see. Right now there’s a war, before that there were a couple of revolutions… We actually didn’t have a long stable period of life and that influences relationships inside the family.
Previously, I made a short film just about a couple of regular girls talking, but everything is in the context. It’s right after the revolution, you don’t know anything, Russia has already invaded and everything is falling apart every time, but you are still talking about kids, relationships, etc. So those changes of history and how they are reflected in ordinary life was always important.
In a way, both of you reflect in your films on how your Ukrainian identity merges with queerness?
Zhanna: I want to say a couple of words about identity, because in our times it is sometimes strange to talk about national identity and queerness in one sentence. It’s very important to understand that Russian propaganda called us nationalists. I forgot the exact name of the book, but it was about post-colonialism studies, and there was written that there is nationalism connected to invasion, expansion and also there is nationalism that stems from protecting identity which is being erased or attacked.
In a way, we are nationalists, but our nationalism is becoming an essential part of our existence, because for Russia, nationalism only contributes to the existence of the empire. And the rule of empires is that it can only survive if it expands all the time and absorbs new territories.
And even eight years ago we were always shamed by Western Europeans that we were talking about nationality even though these topics come from historical and current traumas. People in Western Europe really should be more educated about the history of Eastern Europe and understand that comparing our current nationalism with radical nationalisms in the history of Western Europe is not appropriate.
This is why in our situation we are allowed a really unique combination. But we are still talking about really basic things actually, because in a lot of European countries so many things and rights are already something ordinary, something that you have by default.
Olena: For me, our nationalism is only keeping our culture alive and does not conflict with other topics. If we are going back to the film, I remember one moment when Michelle was in a car and having a discussion with her best friend’s husband and her friend. There were important points about relationships and Michelle talked about it in a very traditional way. And even though the meaning of the word queer doesn’t really link with tradition, for Michelle it kind of does, she dreams of ordinary simple things.
Zhanna: One of the biggest goals for queer people in Ukraine is actually to have ordinary human rights. A lot of queer and LGBTQ+ people went to war and are under mortal danger every day, but their partners at home can’t have access to shared property, etc. The war kind of pushes the topic of legalizing rights for LGBTQ+ people.
Olena: I would also like to add that, in this terrible situation in which we find ourselves right now, people in Ukraine are more sensitive to each other. Before, people thought if they didn’t understand something, it was automatically evil, but now we understand: if evil is in front of you, you will see it. And I hope that after the war we will keep this understanding and sensitivity.
Zhanna: Right now, we all became minorities in a way. We are all a little bit refugees, a little bit homeless, etc. And maybe from these hardships comes a little bit more understanding for queer people.
Could you share how people abroad could help Ukraine?
Olena: First, it is very important to spread the word, to talk and not to forget about what is happening. Culture can play a crucial role here – you can show films, create platforms, and invite Ukrainian artists. In recent years, many important films made by Ukrainian directors have been released. And of course, the war and resistance are very costly, so it is important to regularly donate according to your capacities.
Zhanna: I would suggest three really trusted foundations: “Come Back Alive”, the biggest Ukrainian foundation providing assistance to the military, Medical battalion “Hospitallers”, and “Voices of children”, foundation that helps kids with war traumas.