MovieMaker‘s weekly series “Foreign Contenders” features interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.
When documentarians venture into capturing a story that is still unfolding, the variables that reality throws at them can critically affect the outcome and transform the film into an entirely different artistic exploration. That’s exactly what Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Bondarchuk confronted when attempting to make a film, Ukrainian Sheriffs, about Stara Zburievka, a curious town near the disputed area of Crimea.
Initially, Bondarchuk wanted to focus on an annual automobile race that put this community on the map one day a year. He came across two sheriffs, Victor Grygorovych and Volodya, who didn’t have any legal authority to act as law enforcement, but who were well-liked and respected. Though the film he eventually completed kept these two figures as its core, the unraveling of the advance of Russian forces into Ukrainian land gave the film new relevance. It was not longer just about a charming duo in a tight-knit village, but about patriotism, disenfranchisement and the overwhelming feeling of having good intentions with limited resources.
With the help of his producer and wife, Dar’ya Averchenko, the director infiltrated the heart of this beautifully desolated place marked by abandonment from the central government and corrupted officials, and found two men who embody the best aspects of what national pride can be. The eponymous Ukrainian Sheriffs are symbols of the hope that honor, legality, and the good guys can sometimes win, and that national pride lies more in tiny gestures than in big battles. MovieMaker sat down with Bondarchuk during his recent visit to L.A. to discuss the origins of this luminous documentary, and the two sheriffs, who are now celebrities in their homeland.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was your first connection to this town? Is this place very different from the town in Ukraine you are originally from?
Roman Bondarchuk (RB): The village in the film, Stara Zburievka, is 2,500 people. I was born nearby in the regional center of this area, the south of Ukraine, next to Crimea, which is now annexed by Russia. The city where I’m from is about 30,000 people. Dar’ya’s patents own a summerhouse in Stara Zburievka where they spend holidays, that’s how we became locals. That’s also how we met the major and discovered the sheriffs. We had another project first—it was a series of short documentaries called New Heroes, and they were about people who were strong enough to overcome this corrupted system and who succeeded in their jobs or businesses. One of those short documentaries was about the major of this village, who stood against corrupted officials. The village used to have a coast on the sea, but officials started to grab that land illegally to sell it to rich people. The major started to protest and to write petitions to the government in Kiev, the capital. They offered him a $1 million bribe to stop him, but he refused and they took him to jail. Our story was about this fight, and luckily he was eventually released. This short documentary that went viral on YouTube and helped him get out of prison. That’s how we became friends, and that’s how he introduced me to the sheriffs and everyone else. That’s how people started to trust us and believe in our film.
MM: Tell us about these two sheriffs and how they became important figures in Stara Zburievka. How did your idea for the film change as the conflict with Russia developed?
RB: They have no legal right to act as sheriffs, but the town doesn’t really have access to police. When people call police they never come, or sometimes they come but they can’t do anything. There are many villages like this one on the coast, and it’s about 80 km from one village to another, and no one can recognize a specific street or building, so it’s sort of a wild place. That’s why they decided to establish their own police.
In this village they have a town hall meeting each week and they vote on all significant decisions like a democracy. Once they decided to establish their sheriffs, they chose the smartest and the strongest guys, and, like in a fairytale, they gave them the power to be the sheriffs. After we finished the film they were officially elected as local deputy members, since now they are sort of celebrities in Ukraine. Now they at least have official IDs saying they are elected people, but before they acted on their own.
We started this film in 2011, and this was a remote village without any connection to the capital. My idea was to make this movie about this freaky place where people are absolutely separated from the state, yet connected to it for only one day a year. The president’s son used to be a big fan of racing and he many luxury cars, so he built a race track through this village and once a year there was a big race. On that day all the TV channels and celebrities would come to this village and it was a day of celebration. The idea for the film started with this fun intention to tell a story about this race, but then the revolution started, Russians took Crimea, and then they invaded from the East, and things became heavier and more serious.
MM: The sheriffs’ banter and distinct approaches to deal with the town’s problems resembles American cop or buddy comedies, in an interesting manner.
RB: The senior sheriff, Viktor, the one with the mustache, he is a former policeman, but he was fired from the police force. I’m not sure why, but probably because he didn’t agree with corruption. But the other sheriff, he is just a local driver. His official position was driver for the village council, but of course what he really is is a junior sheriff. They are aware of their responsibilities and they play their roles, Viktor, who is the smart guy, tries to work with his words and tries to talk to people, and Volodya embodies physical power. It’s a good duo.
MM: Tell us about the process of following your subjects around and capturing important moments, given that those events were unfolding as you shot.
RB: It was very difficult, because for the first two or three days the sheriffs were so open and so happy that we were filming them, and I thought, “Finally, I can make a film in two weeks.” But after two or three days they started to close themselves, because of this strange feeling you get when a camera is following you all the time, as well as a very visible microphone. Of course, in a small village people talk about each other, so we decided to go to the village council every morning at eight o’clock, just to sit there and wait—because they would never call us back. They would never tell us in advance what they were planning to do on a particular day. It was like going hunting. We’d put up the microphone and just listen and wait. Several times they would just jump in the car and drive away, then after a few hours they would come back and say, “Oh, it’s a pity that you weren’t there. There was a big fight. It’s such a pity that you didn’t film it.” After that, we started jumping into the car with them without any permission, just to capture their lives. After one month of this hunting, they gave up and they said, “OK guys, we can’t avoid you anymore. You can do whatever you want.” They had many other stories—for example, they told us that they had discovered a dead body buried under snow in wintertime, and there was only a hand sticking out of the snow. They put the body in the trunk of their car, but the frozen hand wouldn’t close, so they had the dead guy waving with his hand sticking out of the trunk as they drove. This black humor is a bit weird when you are here [America], but when you live there, it helps you overcome these difficulties.
MM: Did you always know that you wouldn’t use talking heads or more traditional interviews as part of the film’s construction? How did this more fluid form come about?
RB: We started with traditional interviews, just, of course, to understand how they lived, what their views were, how they did their jobs, and to collect information about when to come and what to capture. It was also good for them to relax, because if some stranger arrives with a camera and follows you, it’s a bit scary. That’s why we started with interviews and long conversations. We had probably about five hours of interviews with each of the sheriffs and the major. Later I realized I wanted to make the film in a more direct vein, when we started following them. We were filming them for three and a half years, but it wasn’t every day; sometimes we would be there for 10 days in a row without turning on the camera, waiting for things to happen.
RB: It was Canon C100 with Ninja-2 external recorder, which does ProRes422. We started our filming back in 2011—at that time this camera really impressed and inspired me! Very sensitive, nice filmic grain, ND filters, nice handle with joystick, possibility to zoom and check focus without stopping the camera. And it’s really solid—wind, rain, snow, sand—doesn’t meter. It just works.
RB: I always had a set of Zeiss Distagon with me, but most of the time I used Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. When you work without an assistant and have to follow your characters without knowing their plan, you lose important moments while changing lenses. But having a stabilized zoom allows you to jump into the car, enter people’s houses, official buildings and make wide shots and close-ups very fast.
Film v.s. Digital
RB: We had more than 150 hours of material in the end. For observational documentary, film is not what I’d love to use.
RB: One LED panel only for dark interiors, like the village council or culture house, when I had an opportunity to be on the set in advance. In small rooms we used it as reflection from the ceiling, and in big halls, as backlight.
RB: Together with Latvian colorist Krišs Roziņš we wanted to support this comic tone of fairytale exposed in the film. Our intention was to add colors to this gloomy reality and create a subtle surreal shift, but not very visible. We used Davinci Resolve for grading and finishing.
RB: About 70 in total, but stretched throughout the period of three to five years. Sometimes we had 10 days in a row spent with our characters, waiting for some events, without turning on the camera.
RB: We started with zero budget, invested our own money and shot initial footage for the first trailer. The project was selected to the first pitch we applied, the East Doc Platform in Prague, where we won two prizes and met our first financier—people from the IDFA Bertha Fund, Netherlands. They supported us with 5,000 euro for development and later 15,000 euro for production purposes. With this money we could invite a professional soundman, stay on the set and continue our shooting. Later we pitched some episodes at DocsBarcelona and met someone from German TV’s ZDF ARTE. With that channel on board, we appeared on Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Swedish TV and obtained 142,000 euro in kind. MM