Cannes: In His Feature Debut, Ukrainian Director Nairman Aliev Seeks Out A Universal Story With Homeward

Armed with a master’s degree and memberships to the Ukranian and European Film Academies, Nairman Aliev now represents his native country Ukraine in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes. 

In his feature directorial debut, Homeward, Aliev explores the relationship between a father and son through an artful and subjective lens. Since previously working on short films with relatives, Aliev reflects on working fast and smart with a larger crew, getting constructive feedback and advice, and pushing himself to intertwine his personal experiences with the topics that perplex him the most.

Amir Ganjavie, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What is the source of your inspiration when you have an idea for a film?

Nairman Aliev (NA): I really like the French new wave but I can’t say that in this film. The French new wave is more about the person, like Godard or Truffaut, and how they were doing cinema. For this movie I got a lot from Iranian and Turkish cinema, especially Abbas Kiarostami, and I even have some little quotes from these directors in the film. Some of my inspirations were Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return.

MM: When you mention Abbas Kiarostami, do you mean that the driving scene and the search for salvation came from him?

NA: One of them, yes. It’s Taste of Cherry. Yeah, of course. It’s wonderful. I was studying and had some kind of idea like Taste of Cherry, but when I saw the thing I just said that I don’t have anything to say. He will say everything about this when the guy wants to commit suicide but he wants his body to be buried so he makes his plans in the desert when the cars come. Of course, I took it for my film and this car was a reference to the Kiarostami film.

MM: Can you say a little bit about the screenwriting process? This movie deals with a couple of issues and there are several layers to the film. How did you try to make it a coherent or unified story?

NA: We worked on the script for a year and a half. When I wrote the first draft it lacked some kind of conflict between father and son because I love my father and it’s really hard for me to think of that kind of conflict. Then we asked my friend Marizi Nikita from Ukraine, who is a director and screenwriter. If I’m some kind of conservative then she is very open to the world and she said that there must be conflict in this film. She said that she hated the father because he wanted to make the son do things that he didn’t want to do. We had very polar thoughts about the material and this really helped us to see that situation from different sides. We also had to think about when we would go out of Ukraine and show our project to the professionals from Europe and the USA and how to make the story more universal and understandable for everyone.

MM: So that’s the second part of the process, where people give you advice?

NA: Yes, feedback and advice from a very good script mentor. It was Paloit from the Czech Republic who is now a professor in California. He’s a very smart guy and we had the first draft of the script and we just talked about it. He asked us about what we wanted from this project and how we saw it. He never told us what would be right for this project or how he would make it. It’s very helpful when you start to just talk about what you need in this film to make it more universal and understandable for everyone.

MM: The theme of a father and a boy is something that has happened in other Russian movies like, The Return. Is there a specific reason why Russian directors from that region are very interested in the father-son relationship? Is it something cultural?

NA: I don’t know because it’s a very universal story, you know. When I thought about my project, I really wanted to make it a universal story that is understandable in any country. This relationship between father and son is universal. I try to make my films about some kind of personal experience that I’ve had and the topics that bother me.

Akhtem Seitablaev and Remzi Bilyalov as father and some in Homeward (Evge). Image courtesy of Limelite

MM: I especially like the father’s performance. As for the child, how did you direct him and decide that his acting was good?

NA: It’s a hard question. When you do a film you don’t know where you should have stopped. It’s just about your taste, about what you like, and when I see that I like it, then for me it’s good. I don’t know how to explain it because it’s not objective. It’s subjective.

MM: But do you decide about good performances on set or during the editing process?

NA: Of course on the set, but when we start editing, sometimes the scenes and how I wanted them to be do not appear to be correct for the film. So we know when we start to edit and have the whole concept, we try to make it this tempo rhythm of film and not everything that you thought was good will be good for the whole concept.

MM: So you mean that there is a pattern you want your film to follow and then based on that pattern you decide about which takes you want to have in your film?

NA: Yes, when I wrote my film, I tried to make the father character tougher but the actor always tried to bring it down a little bit. I asked him to be tougher, but then in editing, I saw that while I wanted tough, he was kind of smooth and it turned out to be a cool concept. It was not expressive and not without the passion. We helped to find something in the middle of this range.

MM: As for the son, how did you cast him? Was it through an audition?

NA: Yes, it was an audition, but he’s my cousin. I worked with him in my short films since I shooting a lot of my relatives in those. So I took it to him first because he was really doing what I wanted. He never asked why I wanted something. If I said we need this then he said, “Okay.” Also, he never wanted to be an actor and he never thought about how he looked on screen. He is just like some kind of very pure and sensitive guy. I really liked how they looked together.

MM: This is your first line feature. Was it easy to find funding for the film?

NA: We got lucky because when we were pitching in Ukraine one source provided 80 percent of the whole budget. Then we made it a co-production with Germany to help with the rest of the financing so it was not very tough.

MM: How many years did it take from start to finish?

NA: I started to work on the concept of the film in 2016, we started working with the producer in 2017, last year in the summer we got the financing, and then in September we started shooting.

MM: How many days was shooting?

NA: Eighteen.

MM: How did you manage to do it in just 18 days?

NA: Of course it’s not easy, but I have a very good crew. It was one of the best crews in Ukraine and we had a very quick pre-production. With production, sometimes we got lucky and when we finished the shooting, the only thought that I had in my mind was that everything could be worse. I felt a rhythm when we were shooting and the crew was very fast there. Everyone was really passionate and nobody was lazy. We even had the opportunity to shoot one scene two times.

MM: Do you mean just two takes for each scene?

NA: No, not two takes—we shot the whole scene two times in case something was bad the first time and the second one was a little bit better. I can’t explain how we do this but when we were in pre-production I was kind of an optimist in our scheduling.

Homeward tells the story of a father and son who go on a journey to bury a body in Crimea

MM: So how many takes did you usually do per scene?

NA: It was different but I tried to do more takes. Sometimes it was 18 takes, sometimes 10 takes.

MM: So does that mean you were working a lot each day?

NA: No, not really. We actually finished two days ahead of schedule because we did a lot of preparation. Our pre-production was one and a half months.

MM: So it was intensive sessions of working with actors, with the DP going to the location, visiting, and shooting?

NA: Yes, I think it was done quickly, in parallel, but I really knew my script.

MM: So you had already planned out the scenes exactly? The cameras, rotations, camera angles, everything?

NA: For everything, we knew how we had to do it. I knew from shooting my short films that I work very quickly. I was afraid that the big team would work slowly but it was actually incredible.

MM: Did you have sessions with the actors explaining the script and what you wanted from them?

NA: It helped us that I explained the script to them and we took the most important parts of the script to have a rehearsal so that everyone knew what to do. It’s very important when you’re making a film.

MM: What was your approach to music and sound design?

NA: I didn’t want to have music in the film at all because of the concept from the Muslim tradition of having 40 days without music after someone dies. I didn’t want to push it with the music but instead to have space in our film. However, this story is intensive so we didn’t have this even opportunity to bring some words. We had some kind of sound design for the free scenes, but it’s very smooth and not everybody notices that it’s there in the film. We tried to make everything smooth and our sound designer did a very good job.

MM: How was your collaboration with your editor? Did you give the film to him or her and then come and see it or did you work together on it?

NA: I had the best editor in Ukraine, Alexander Chutney, who is a very nice guy. At first, he didn’t see the material but just read the script. It was very interesting because before this I had edited my short films myself. I tried editing a couple of scenes when we were shooting in the playback. I also tried to add in some scenes myself and a lot of the times I just didn’t understand how to make what I wanted in my head. But when Alexander was doing the editing himself, I came and saw how he looked for the material from the other side. It was very interesting. Then when he had a first rough cut we started to work together. We were sitting and talking about the scenes that we wanted and I really liked that he was trying to put in emotions with the material while trying to understand the characters. It’s a great pleasure when you’re sitting with the editor and you just talk about the characters and about the sense of the scenes. It’s not about cutting or needing specific shots. We talked about the emotional aspects of characters and the whole concept of the film. It was very interesting. MM

Homeward premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 22nd, courtesy of Limelite.

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