The last time I met Alisa Kovalenko was at the CPH:DOX Forum in late April 2021, where she and her partner and producer Stéphane Siohan had gone to pitch their latest project. I knew the project from visits to Docudays in Kiev, but had forgotten about Expedition 49, the title of their upcoming film. The teaser was wonderful, and the pitch charming and well performed, so I was happy to make this interview on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of IDF, in whose activities they have taken part for many years.
For the interview we met twice online. The first time they were on holiday in France visiting Stéphane’s family with their four-year-old child Theo. The second time, the Euro Football was going on and Ukraine was doing well until they faced England…
Alisa, you are Ukrainian and Stéphane is French. Alisa is a filmmaker and Stéphane is a journalist for the French daily newspaper Libération, as well as a producer for his own and other films. Two different cultures, two different professions. That must make for interesting discussions around the dinner table. Let’s see...
Stéphane: What differentiates us in our work is our cultural differences, our personal background: My identity as a young forty-something European from the Maastricht generation, and Alisa, a Ukrainian director, from a former Soviet country, born at the end of the 1980s, struggling with the realities of her country. Our stories and our psychologies are different, so, yes, it makes for interesting discussions. It creates debate, friction, conflicts, and disagreements, which I hope are creative. It helps us broaden our horizons, take a step back, and give depth. It helps us question and surpass ourselves.'
Stéphane, tell us more about your background, please…
I started working as a journalist in 2002, and I am still a reporter, but documentaries have been part of my career for a long time. In my journalism school in Lille, we were trained in radio documentaries by producers from the public radio France Culture, and as teachers I had the producers of Strip-tease, a mythical documentary television programme on the Belgian public television RTBF, which was broadcast in France and Belgium in the 1990s and 2000s. Strip-tease was cinéma-réel, without voice-over, shot in the industrial lands of Belgium and northern France. It left a deep impression on me and showed that there was a different world from the journalistic format and classic French cinema. It's something I've never forgotten, knowing that I would return to it one day.
And you, Alisa, what are your sources of inspiration?
I would say the Polish school of documentary. When I was still in the first year of the cinema faculty in Kiev, some masters from the Lodz Film School and the Wajda School of Warsaw came to the Ukraine to hold a workshop. It was a laboratory. We had to make a film about our own city. Two worlds collided. In our school, we had to sign millions of papers and go through the nine circles of hell, just to have access to an awful VHS camera, which we usually didn't get. We were watching Paradjanov, Tarkovsky and our own students' etudes on an old cathode ray tube TV, which was then locked up in a safe like a treasure that no one was allowed to touch without authorization! And then the Poles arrived with super cool Sony video cameras and Sennheiser microphones. It was a shock! But what is most valuable is the knowledge and experience they have passed on to us. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to study in Poland, and eventually I went for a year in the DoK Pro programme at the Wajda Film School with charismatic teachers like Marcel Lozinski and Jacek Blawut.
And the Big Question, Alisa, why do you make documentaries?
For me, doing and watching documentaries is an absolutely incredible way of experiencing the world, one where you can live in other spaces and share something with people you would have otherwise never met. It's a way to cross boundaries, to see more broadly, to feel the world and discover something new. It's an exploration, a quest, sometimes without answers, a dialogue about important existential questions that we all ask ourselves in the end. Today, we lack depth on a lot of things. We run, we read short notifications that create the illusion that we know something about the world, while, in fact, we miss the essence of things. I love documentary because you dive deeper; you see other facets that you can only see when you're fully immersed in someone's life. I don't like movies where's there's no quest, but only ready-made answers, beautiful intellectual concepts, or just golden shots. I want to feel directly what the director was looking for, not just aesthetics. I think that today there's a lot of beautiful and seamless cinema that lacks the spontaneity of reality, with all its cracks and scars. We see a tendency to worship dramaturgy or concept, but behind all that, the inner search is lost. A documentary cannot be a perfect object!
Stéphane, what is production for you?
I consider production primarily as help for authors to formulate their stories, not just logistics or fundraising, but an intellectual process. It’s a way of extending the narrative, using different kinds of channels, and shaping messages. My job is not to tell the director what to do. I have too much respect for the courageous and unglamourous work of documentary filmmakers, who take the responsibility of confronting real life and human beings for months or years. I want to respect the director’s artistic integrity. My job is to accompany, to contribute to this work of distillation. And this is done through words and speech.
Alisa, I would like to touch on ethical questions and the relation to your protagonists, like Alina in Home Games and now the teenagers you film in Expedition 49. Do you feel an obligation as a director to help your protagonists, and to stay in contact after the film is made?
Well, I wouldn't say it's easy! In both projects, I filmed characters who have a lot of problems in their lives. I shoot extensively, and I've become very close to the protagonists and the dramas in their lives. The mother of Alina, in Home Games, died while I was filming. In these moments, you have to make quick decisions, and I realized that I couldn't stand aside. I've been thinking a lot about it and my role as a person and a filmmaker, but I still don't have the right answers. I assume this very strong personal relation with characters, this intimacy, that's how I film, but sometimes it's exhausting, because you also have your own life, with your own problems, and it's hard to separate this… Time has passed, but I'm still in contact with the people from Home Games. Alina's stepfather died one and a half years ago and she became the legal guardian of her brother and sister. She wrote me recently. Sometimes I help them. Responsibility is one thing, but you cannot live with the problems of your film characters for your entire life because when you finish one film, you start a new one, with new human beings. And when you carry the pains of so many people for too long, you risk overloading. You feel like your heart is going to explode, and that puts your ability to make other documentaries at risk. So, you have to be careful.
What do you learn about yourself from filmmaking?
A: We learn to know ourselves through the world around us. We see the reflection of the world in ourselves. Coming into contact with something new, with a new experience, with a new world, always opens something in you, expands your inner space, and opens doors to new rooms. You watch and feel others, but through them you begin to better feel yourself. You learn to listen to others and, at the same time, listen to yourself. Because documentary filmmaking develops in you a unique ability to listen and see more, a capacity for supersensitive perception, it fills and opens up new meanings. We reveal ourselves through the world. The world does not exist without an observer. And it’s incredible how you can be an observer of two worlds in documentary films, the outside-world and inside-world, at the same time. While learning about the world, you always learn about yourself. That's why documentary filmmaking is the best way to meet and have such an important dialogue with yourself.
Beautifully said… Let’s go back to Expedition 49. Where are you? Finished shooting?
A: I have just returned from Nepal, where I have finally filmed the incredible expedition of the five teenagers I have been following for two years for Expedition 49. It was a tough travel. We climbed up to the Annapurna basecamp, but we were also stuck in Kathmandu in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown. In any case, in the end it was a wonderful journey that changed us all. We have started editing with my editor Marina Maykovskaya, and I feel a bit overwhelmed because I realize that I've been filming five different personalities. Now I have to assemble different lifelines and narrative lines into one, but it’s a good challenge! I will keep filming a bit in Donbas while I'm editing, to show how this expedition has affected my characters and which turns their lives take. The expedition itself is only a small part of this teenage adventure documentary, which takes place mainly on the Donbas steppe, in these dying frontline coal-mining settlements. It's not a mountain film or a typical coming-of-age movie, but a multi-layered story touching upon a generation of children who have spent half of their lives in a war. It's the story of working-class kids, which I also consider myself to be.
S: As for me, I am still working on the international part of the production of Expedition 49, in connection with the Ukrainian and Polish co-producers. We participated in the CPH:FORUM, and we are preparing for the last year of production and post-production. I'm also very happy to participate in the Ex Oriente Film with another Ukrainian project, Shut the Fuck Up!, the first film of Taisiia Kutuzova.
So when will we see Expedition 49 on screen?
S: We will probably have the first rough cut in January, in order to continue the discussion engaged with the industry stakeholders. Then, during winter and spring, we will continue to fine-tune the film, between Kyiv and Warsaw, with our production partners from HAKA Films, since we received the minority co-production grant of the Polish Film Institute. We are very excited to go back to work with our many good friends in Warsaw, among them Kasia Boniecka, who's going to be a supervising editor. We hope to have a world premiere during the second half of 2022 or early 2023, but, of course, it will also depend on the strategy we develop with a sales company.
You've both participated in different activities of the Institute of Documentary Film, with different projects. What did you gain from it?
S: Prague has been an instrumental place for me. We were talking about France, which is not the easiest place to become a documentary filmmaker. There are resources, but the positions are very fixed, the hierarchies established. There is a lack of fluidity and a problem of legitimacy for atypical profiles and new entrants. However, now I live and work in Central and Eastern Europe where everything feels more fluid, more accessible. When I came to the East Doc Platform for the first time, it felt like a breath of professional fresh air. People don't look at where you come from or what you have done, but at which project you want to do and what you have to say. It also feels like entering the Central and Eastern European community, or family, which is smaller, but also more united than elsewhere in Europe. I think that the people who run the Institute have a special talent for creating bonds, conviviality, and often friendships. Not all documentary markets or workshops have this special attribute. I think Prague is really the center of Central and Eastern Europe for documentaries! I also want to say that the IDF is doing a remarkable job of representing Eastern European films and promoting them on the world market. I am very grateful for the unwavering support the IDF provides to all its films.
I would like to go back to your multicultural partnership. What language do you speak at work and at home?
A: "Russglish"! We often start sentences in Russian and finish in English, or the opposite!
S: Actually, we have four languages at work and at home: Ukrainian, Russian, French and English! In the Ukraine, I first learnt Russian because it's a lingua franca, and I was covering the war. I don't speak Ukrainian yet, but hopefully soon. I listen to the radio and TV in Ukrainian and I understand Ukrainian, more or less. Now, Alisa and I speak in Russian, or in English, depending on the moment. Alisa speaks to our 4-year-old son in Ukrainian, and I speak to him in French, so, Theo now speaks mainly Ukrainian and French, but sometimes also Russian. As a journalist, I often work in Russian now, but as a documentary producer, I still prefer working in English.
Does Theo understand what you do?
A: The first time I went to film Donbas for Expedition 49, I left Theo for a few weeks. I drew a little comic strip for him that explained in a simple way what I was doing and why I was going to be away for such a long time. I drew myself with a camera, the coal mines’ towers, and the slag-heaps, and then I drew the Himalaya mountains and told him that I needed to film there. It was two years ago and he was still a baby. Now, he's 4 years old and I can almost talk to him like an adult. We sometimes watch footage together. Once, he saw beautiful shots, with a golden light, and children playing near a destroyed house. "Mum, what beautiful light! How beautiful it is over there", he said. Last winter, before taking a night train to Eastern Ukraine, we found Theo near the door sitting on his little suitcase: "Mum, I'm going with you to Donbas!" And yes, I want to show him this place. Maybe it sounds weird to bring your 4-year-old son to a frontline village, but I want him to see this place before it dies out. Theo knows that there is a war in the Ukraine and he knows that I've been there. I try to explain this to him very carefully, but I think that this is important for him to know. Last winter, I became programme director for the new documentary competition of the Kyiv Molodist International Film Festival. When Theo was sick and couldn't go to the kindergarten, he watched some films with me. Once, we watched a film about Malian migrants in Switzerland, which showed how difficult it was for them, sleeping outside on the streets, or waiting for new identity papers. Theo kept asking: "Mum, what happened in Mali? Where is Mali?" Stéphane and I gave him a simple explanation about the situation there. A few weeks later, Theo sat at the breakfast table, twirling a little globe, and he found Mali on the map by himself, even though he was just learning to read. He shouted: "Mum, Mum, look, I found Mali! Mum, tell me more about Mali and let's go there to make a documentary." It touched my heart. I felt it was important for him to be in the context of what I'm doing. I love my job, but sometimes I'm sad that I can’t spend so much time with my son. Since the beginning of the year, I've spent three months on set in Donbas and Nepal. Still, as much as possible, I try to share everything I do with him.
Home Games is available on Netflix from December 23, 2021.
The interview is part of series of talks with European documentary filmmakers marking 20 years of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague.