The Quirky Sheriffs of the Wild East

1. 3. 2016

Author: Filip Šebek

There is no district police officer in the Ukrainian village of Stara Zburjivka. The nearest one lives more than 20 kilometers away. Whatever happens in Stara Zburjivka, it is no use waiting for the police – it just doesn't come if you call them. Therefore, the law and order in the village is being taken care of by two "sheriffs" with the appearance of Chuck Norris and Tony Soprano. And they are also the protagonists of the successful film by Roman Bondarchuk, Ukrainian Sheriffs, which has been supported by the  Institute of documentary film since 2012 and which will be screened at One World IHRDFF

If you are interested in the circumstances of the filming of Ukrainian Sheriffs, the Special Jury Award for Feature-Length Documentary winner at IDFA 2015, do not miss the biggest  documentary industry event  in the region, East Doc Platform, organized by the Institute of Documentary Film. On Monday, March 7 from 5: 30 pm, the director Roman Bondarchuk and the producers Dar'ya Averchenko and Uldis Cekulis will present a case study on their filming in a godforsaken village.

How did you find your protagonists? I believe in Ukraine there are not so many villages with their own sheriffs…
We met them almost 4 years ago, when we had been shooting New Heroes – short documentaries about ordinary people, who succeeded in a corrupted country and defended themselves against the attacks of the state. Viktor Vasylyovych was already a mayor of this village and wanted to protect their land from being stolen. It was a land-boom, when people from the capital started to buy the best land on the seashore, near the rivers. Of course, it was illegal, but with the support of the officials from the regional center. When Marunyak stood up against the officials, they first offered him money – something like 1,000,000 dollars just for silence.

Did he manage to resist such a bribe? 
Yes, he refused and was immediately `caught` with bribe and put into prison. But local people conducted a real campaign to release the mayor: petitions, demonstrations in front of the prison, everything was done with great passion and finally he was released! We made a short documentary about this story, it became very popular on social media and on YouTube. I think this short documentary also helped the mayor to overcome the trauma from the imprisonment and go back to his work. Anyway, after we made the documentary, we became as close as relatives to those villagers, as we went together with them through the bad times.

The idea of Zburjivka's own "police" was also the mayor's initiative?
While recording an interview with the mayor, he told us that he built a kindergarden, which is unusual for a village of this size. He also built a good road. And in between of this and that he said: It's really hard to get the police here, they never come. So, I found two guys, gave them a car, managed to pay them from the really useless funds in the village budget and called them sheriffs. Now they are here instead of the police. When I first met them, I thought I would never find a better casting for a fiction movie. One – the big guy - looks like Tony Soprano, the other - thin and with moustache, like Chuck Norris. I was immediately attracted and fascinated. They told me, let's go and fix some problems and it was exactly like that. And that day we shot two episodes, which are in the film now.

Have they agreed with the shooting from the start? How much timehave you spent with them?
The problem was that at the first shooting day they were so open, they wanted to do their best for us, to please us, to open for us their achievements, but when they realized that we are there for longer time, we become annoying people who follow them with this boom microphone and a camera. So they started to avoid us. That was the moment where we decided to stay with them as long as we could in order to dive into their life. If we had stopped then, we would never be close to them, we would be aliens for them forever. So we moved into the village - me, Dasha and our friend and sound man Borys Peter, and started to hunt them.
 In total we had about 70 shooting days during 3 years period.

What was the most suprising, funny or interesting moment during the shooting for you?
Once Viktor, the guy with moustache, suddenly told me something, that I couldn't forget. They have a coffin, a special village coffin, they store it in the firewood shed for poor people, who can not afford a personal coffin. The ceremony looks like this: They bring the body in the coffin to a cemetery and then just overturn it into the grave. Then the coffin waits for the next poor one. While showing me this coffin, Grygorovych said dramatically: recently I counted how many people I buried – it's about 80! It was said very poetically.

Do you think that people from Zburjivka represent typical present - day Ukrainians or are they different in some way?
I hope so. Maybe they’re more initiative – as their village never had kolkhoz (collective farm) and Lenin monument, it is old Cossacks village. Probably the spirit of freedom still inside them. At least when I first met them I was totally fascinated: In the country where everything was corrupted, authorities were not working correctly and police never comes, people were not complaining, but found an alternative way to arrange their life.

What method did you use? Have you focused strictly on the observation of their work?
Yes, it was pure observation – their reality was too unfamiliar for us, so we couldn’t stage anything even if we’d wanted to… And we were curious to discover them and their life. It wasn’t easy at the beginning. I thought that they could call me if something happens, but they never called me back. The working day in the village council starts at 8 a.m. And we decided to come there at 7:45, just sit and wait. Sound man Boris was strong enough to put radio microphones on them straight at morning and he was sitting and listening, what they were talking about in his headphones. And when he heard some interesting conversation, he always pressed «rec» button and I knew, that it was time to go inside and film. Even with their «cases» and scenes in the car: When I asked them, where are you going? – Oh, it's nothing serious, nothing interesting. We'll be back in 15 minutes. Then when they are back: «Oh! It was so amazing! It's a pity you were not there. One huge man has beaten his woman…» - It was like that. After a few «what a pity» we decided to jump into their car without permission, each time they went. Soon they got used to us.

What is your message?  Do you rather wish to show how people can deal with a new role or to show the everyday life in an ordinary Ukrainian village?
I want to create empathy towards these people and to transfer this feeling of new times, when people try to adjust to reality by themselves. They are afraid of war, but they draft people to this war, they deliver goods and food to their soldiers, when they are drafted. I want to create live characters to connect Ukraine with them, not on an abstract but on a deeper level. For me it's about former and new thinking. When Grygorovich draws Jesus following the cells, he is just repeating lines, not creating, for me it'san image of former thinking. And the celebration the 9'th of May, Victory of Soviet Union over German fascists. When they paint the monument to Alyosha in gold while they have new war in the country. They celebrate former victory. It's absurd!  The ritual they still follow – absurd paradox. And my message is that we have to see that from a new perspective, come on, we have to win now! And it's all about rituals and possibility to see reality. I want them to see reality not to paint Soviet soldier monument. Come on, it's not our hero. 
Before Maidan we were a colony of Russia and we still are like an informational colony, still have their TV, films – it's what imprisoned us. We can't go fight with them, because we know them since our childhood as our friends and brothers. And this golden guy is also image of Russian brotherhood and they are painting him in gold. 

I think that is almost impossible to make a documentary about Ukraine these days and avoid political topics. In which respects might your film be considered political and did your approach change in some way after the Maidan shooting etc.?
In 2013 it was absolutely unimportant, all the political issues. All was clear – we had a dictator and a country stucked in the middle of nowhere, with a village completely separated from police. We didn't care about the context at all. We just knew this is Ukraine and this is the village, which is in Ukraine geographically, but in a completely different universe with police service and other rules, but then when Maidan came in November 2013… We were in Kyiv filming Maidan and when we came back that winter after Maidan, they all started to talk about politics and Putin, fear of war, how to react to Russians – it was all about that. Our film changed really, it was really like two different films from summer and from winter. But we had the wonderful guy on the top of the tower. He is a complete freak and doesn't care about anything, so we put some radio news over his «hard-working» job. Like he is really cares about future and provide news from the big land to this small universe of Stara Zburjivka.

You spend a lot of time in Zburjivka, so, can you tell how the current political situation changed your protagonists and other villagers?
During Yanukovich time our mayor Marunyak was kept as a briber and sent into prison, a completely innocent person. It was possible at that time and a lot of such situations happened, not only to our mayor, but to many others, who defended their land and didn't want to sell it to oligarchs. And now I think there are a lot of good changes, but unfortunately the reformation of the country couldn't be so quick, because of the war.

What should the Ukrainian and European politics do to bring peace back to Ukraine? 
I am not a political expert. All I know - Ukrainians are fighting now to protect democratic values, freedoms and human rights. And they’re dying for those values. And we really need all kind of support from countries who also share these values with us.

Your film was supported by Institute of documenatry film from 2012 as a part of East European Forum selection and later as a part of East Doc Platform. How did it help to your film and to you personally?
It was amazing! We where trained how to pitch our project, got very useful advices and changed our trailer several times – and finally won 2 prizes! One – was a trip to Doc Barcelona pitch, where we met our commission editor from Germany. Another prize was participation in Idfa academy. On East European forum we met people from IDFA Bertha fund, had an interview with them and later got production funding. It was essential for the project at that time. So it was great and very important stage for our film. Starting point for Ukrainian Sheriffs. 

How did your protagonists and villagers like your film?
Hope they’ll watch it at One World for the first time. We’re now arranging visas for them. Looking forward to see their reaction – I feel like it’s our common work.

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