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Oles Sanin — a film director, a biker, a traveler and a follower of kobzar traditions


Oles Sanin is a Ukrainian film director, producer, actor, musician and traveler into the bargain. He was interviewed by Yevhen Budko, Mizhnarodny Turyzm magazine senior editor


Mr.Sanin arrived at the office of the magazine on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The powerful and handsome bike seemed to be the right kind of vehicle for him. It was raining but he did not seem to mind. When he walked into the office, his biker’s leather outfit was all wet.

Riding a motorbike in the rain seems to be a defying thing to do…

You see, I’m filming a commercial outside of town with foreign stuntmen taking part. My outfit and my bike made it easier to establish a good rapport with them. They saw I was one of their ilk.

I understand you travel a lot, and not only on the motorbike. Where did you go on your more recent trips?

Germany, the Netherlands and Georgia. In Georgia I assist in making a documentary about Georgian martial arts. They have a long tradition of martial arts, Georgian style. The documentary is not so much about the Georgian martial arts as it is about Georgian young men of today who may be living in different countries of Europe and America but who are training their skills in these arts.

Let’s go back to your travels.

I resent physical borders between countries for me. I believe that real borders are in the people’s hearts, not between states. I find all these check points, passport and customs control humiliating and offensive to human dignity. I don’t think these border restrictions can really stop the terrorists. I do not travel to buy anything or sell anything. Wherever I go I find people who share my ideas and views.

Can we say that cinema is your central occupation?

At the moment — yes. Making movies is a sort of an industrial art, it takes a lot of money, a lot of equipment and a lot of people to create it. Whenever I come across a cinema project that can be carried out, I do my best to it. So far, I’ve made only one full-length feature film, Mamay (general symbolic name for the Ukrainian Cossack). It was nominated for Oscar, it got a good press but it was shown only in a few theaters in Ukraine, and for a short time. There are some projects which I failed to carry out for a number of reasons but I accept failures philosophically and move on. The road to a destination is more important for me than the destination itself.

I’m working on two documentaries now. One, documentary comedy, is called Salo (hard pork fat), and the other one is Ostriv svobody (Island of Liberty). It’s about Cuba. The film will reflect changes in the political and everyday life that are occurring in Cuba. Incidentally, we filmed one of the last public appearances of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s aging leader. Our film is designed to assess the “price of freedom” that the Cubans have had to pay. I came to like Cuba very much.

Any other projects besides cinema?

There are quite a few creative things that I do to express myself. One of such outlets for my creative energies is making traditional musical instruments, but because of the other engagements I’ve had a break in making them, and now I’m eager to get back to the instrument making shop. I collect ethnographic materials, I’m planning to write books, I meet interesting people — I wish I had much more time to do all that!

At present, I’m involved in finding sponsorship and support for my next feature film, Kvity mayut’ ochi (Flowers Have Eyes). The journalists who have learnt what the film is to be about, refer to it as Kobzari (kobzar — a singer who sings traditional Ukrainian songs to the accompaniment of the traditional Ukrainian instrument kobza – tr). The plot of the screenplay is like this: an American boy named Peter comes to Ukraine in the early 1920s with his father and becomes a povodyr (a blind man’s leader) for a kobzar. In 1934, this kobzar goes to Kharkiv to attend a convention of kobzari — and gets arrested and executed with hundreds of other kobzari. The boy survives as the only witness of this vile — one of so many! — crime of the heinous soviet regime… The screenplay was written two years ago and ever since I’ve been trying to find financing for the film based on this screenplay. I thought it could be a joint project which would be carried out by Ukraine, Great Britain and the USA. The British seemed to be more interested than the Ukrainians. (Feature films in Ukraine are made only at the state-run studios but the Ukrainian film industry is underfinanced — there’s not enough money in the state budget for film making – tr). But recently, things seem to have started moving, so the project may yet have a prospect of being carried out after all. The Americans and British are patiently waiting.

Waiting for what?

For the film to be made so that they can screen it. Also, the foreign partners in the project are expected to provide some actors and other kinds of support. Their support may help get the film shown in a greater number of theaters in Ukraine. Ukrainian film distributors are mostly foreign and are picky, they prefer to screen US-made films rather than the home product…

Paradoxically, there are Russian films that are made in Ukraine and then they are widely shown both in Ukraine and Russia. Russians pay for that. Say, a film about Russia is made in Ukraine — then, the Ukrainian license plates on the cars that get to be seen on the screen are changed for Russian ones, signs and streets names and everything else are also Russinized. Ukrainians play mostly silent roles or are engaged as extras. Under such conditions, Ukrainian actors, directors and screenplays will never have much chance. But I do believe that a breakthrough will come and that the Ukrainian film industry has a bright future. It will take a lot of effort — but it can be done. The main thing is to preserve the Ukrainian spirit in the films that will be made. I do my best to have it happen

One of the things that needs a lot of improvement is efficiency, isn’t it?

Oh yes. A situation for you — a scene with say, someone called, say, Mykola hammering a nail into the wall is to be shot. The actor who plays Mykola is there and ready but at the last moment it turns out that there is no nail. When the nail is delivered, it turns out that the hammer is misplaced and cannot be found. When the hammer is rediscovered, it turns out that Mykola who got tired waiting, has left… That’s what often happens on the set.

All right, suppose we manage to deal with this problem and with many others and Ukrainian films are made — will they be interesting enough for the world audiences?

National cinemas seem to be on the rise in the world. If the message is universal but the garb is national, the film will be accepted. It’s not a matter of translation or dubbing — it’s a matter of the message. The soviet regime has done a lot of damage to the Ukrainian cinematography as to so much else. There were very few films which had the universal message and universal appeal. We have to get rid of the soviet legacy and develop our own message.

The prominent Ukrainian film director Yury Illenko says that the situation in the Ukrainian film making is bad and the state does not do anything to improve it, and Oles Sanin says that there’ll be a breakthrough and the situation will greatly improve.

I respect Mr Illenko greatly and I also think that the situation in the Ukrainian film making is bad, but you know, after watching my film Mamay, the great Ukrainian poetess said to me, “Oles, you’re an incurable optimist.”

The film director is a sort of a Columbus who wants to discover a new America for the viewers of his films. He has to have a devoted crew and if there’s a mutiny, the ring leaders must be executed. The film director must inspire confidence and respect. I hope that the new generation of Ukrainian cinematographers will create films which will be good not only to be seen by restricted audiences of high-brow cinema lovers, or which will be made for Russia, but which will be able to compete at the international level for recognition. It’s very hard to achieve this goal. The problem is Ukrainian film makers of my age were taught by the people who were burdened with the past, and we had to learn a lot of things the hard way. But we possess great energy and enthusiasm. So far this energy has been dissipating into the void, but it’s not a black-hole situation, and there’s a new, albeit dim yet, star that is being born in the void.

I know you’ve been active in making documentaries. What is it that you are working at now?

Jointly with the American film director Marc Harris we are making a documentary about Volodymyr Kravchenko, a soviet diplomat who asked for political asylum in the USA in the 1940s. I hope this film which I think will be called Perebizhchyk — Defector, will be shown in Ukraine some time soon. In the film, Kravchenko’s son who was born in America, travels to the places which were described to him by his father to see them with his own eyes and try to understand whether it is worth devoting one’s life for the freedom of others.

Any other projects?

I’ve directed quite a few documentaries for the Internews Network, and I also produced many documentaries about nature and history of many parts of the world. I work a lot in European countries — and I do my best to learn more about the craft of film making from top film making professionals with whom I work.

I made a lot of commercials and videos for the Eurovision Song Contest 2004, which was held in Kyiv, and recently I developed an original idea and made a video based on it for advertising Ukraine and Poland as host countries of the European soccer championship of 2012. The Ukraine in the video is a dream land but I do hope it’ll become one by the year 2012.

Doesn’t filming videos and commercials make you feel you’re wasting your talent on something that is sort of below your ambitions of a feature film director?

I’ll tell you this. Back in 2004, during the Eurovision Song Contest, the chief director of the contest praised my videos, and I thanked him but said that my ambition was to make big films. And then he said, “How many people, do you think, saw your film Mamay?” “Well, may be several dozen thousands,” I said. To which he replied, “And your videos will be seen by millions. See the difference?” I see the difference but I still want my great film which I am still to make to be seen by hundreds of millions.

Why not make a blockbuster based on a story about the Ukrainian Cossacks of the old times?

Oh, I do want to make such a film! The history of Ukraine is packed with cinematographic material! It’s too bad this rich history is not quarried for stories for great-action films! Unfortunately, the present-day producers in Ukraine do not seem to be interested. There are several reasons for that. They buy new cars but they live in yesterday. One of the reasons is Russia’s domination of Ukrainian culture. The Ukrainian culture market is firmly in the Russian hands, and the imperial Russian thinking propagates very low standards in pop culture. But we, in Ukraine, have to develop immunity to such influences. We must not accept what we have — we have to struggle. Even if nothing much is achieved at the initial stages of struggle, struggle is good for struggle’s sake. And then the victory will come. It’s what the history of the human spirit teaches us.

Are you a cosmopolitan?

No, I am not. I carry Ukraine in my heart and I believe that there should be no borders for art, literature, music and cinema.

When did you realize you love traveling?

Oh, quite early in life. As a kid, I enjoyed reading books about travels to distant lands. Incidentally, one of the probable reasons why I am so interested in kobzarstvo (the occupation of kobzari) is that kobzars were itinerant performers, moving constantly from place to place.

But most of the kobzari were blind, were they not?

Not necessarily, but those who were could see, as it were, with their hearts. They could not be deceived by appearances, their senses, other than the sense of sight, were very keen, they could easily tell the good from the bad, and their message was the truth, no matter how bitter or hard.

Do you consider yourself to be a follower of the kobzar traditions?

Yes, to a great extent so. It was thanks to Mykola Budnyk, a kobzar and maker of Ukrainian traditional folk instruments, that I got interested in kobzari and traditional folk music. He taught me a great deal. Among the kobzars of Kyiv, of whom he is the honorary head, are people of various occupations — medical doctors, artists, historians, but they are united by the desire to tell people in their kobzar messages about love, goodness, hope and truth. I’m not blind, as you see, but I want to deliver my kobzar message.

Doesn’t your image of a biker who rides a Harley-Davidson contradict the image of a kobzar?

My bike is an excellent vehicle for moving around fast. It gives me a feeling of freedom. At the same time, when riding a bike like that in town, your head is cleared for one thought only — how to stay alive in that traffic of ours with motorists ignoring traffic rules. But also, there’s something romantic in riding a fast bike — the wind in the face on a highway.

Is it a substitute in some way of a horse for a Cossack?

Yes, it is. Incidentally, I own several horses. There’s something very aristocratic in horses. Now it is a Crimean medical center for children with cerebral palsy that has my horses. Horses, as it has been discovered, are very good at helping the doctors to deal with this problem. Unfortunately, I do not see my horses too often, and when I do turn up at the center they do not show any signs of recognizing me — but when I give them the food they like they do!

People say you like extreme sports and seek dangerous situations.

Well, yes, I enjoy the situations which produce the great adrenalin rush — I find it in underwater swimming, fast driving, in fencing. For me, it’s a great way of tempering my spirit. When I was a kid I imagined myself a hero — and probably psychologically I remain a kid. I dreamed of taking a ride on a motorbike — and now I have two excellent bikes. I dreamed of riding a horse — and now I own horses. Incidentally, I bought them to save them from being slaughtered.

Did you in your childhood dream of any specific place to travel to?

I did — Africa. And I did go to Africa and I did like it immensely. I’m proud to say that I visited some places where no one before me was likely to have been… Frankly, I don’t like casual tourists and the usual tourist attractions, and I don’t like being taken for a tourist. Tourism is hazardous for environment and for fragile indigenous cultures. Being a guest is all I can accept. When I travel with my friend Serhiy Mykhalchuk, a photography director, we try to find places where we can talk to ordinary people, be they porters in Egypt, or fishermen elsewhere. Then you start feeling what life truly is there.

I’ve been to many places on earth and I’ve met many ordinary people. They share a lot in common, they have similar values, they are close to god, to nature, and they harbor no ill. They are part of their peoples, they make history…

Many of the ordinary people want to know more about the places they’ve never been to. I once told a group of Eskimo children that I live in a country where I can pick an apple from a tree in an orchard, and then lie down on the grass, wearing very little and not being cold at all, and eat that apple looking into the blue sky, and enjoy the warmth of the sun… In Sahara, I told the locals about our rivers, and they told me about surviving in the desert…

To change the subject — do you know of any Ukrainians who made it real big in Hollywood?

I do! Take Jack Palance, for example. He was of Ukrainian descent, and his real name was Volodymyr Palahnyuk. He was nominated several times for Oscar and he won one Academy award for best supporting role. He had some other awards behind his belt. I had had the honor of meeting him and talking to him before he died in 2006…

Did you meet any other celebrities?

Yes, I did. Several years ago, I was introduced to the Brazilian writer Paolo Coelho. I’m of the opinion that he is a great writer, he writes wonderful fairy tales. The Portuguese spirit of traveling lives in him. Coelho does a lot of traveling and it gives him material and inspiration to write. His royalties make it possible for him to travel. My meeting him took place at one of the book fairs in Lviv. I asked what he had been shown in Lviv and it turned out that he had not gotten to see very important things and places in Lviv. I told him about sculptures of Pinzel, about Sacher-Masoch, about some historic features of Lviv, and he said that when he’d come to Ukraine the next time, he’d ask me to be his guide. Apparently, it is advisable to read something and learn more about the place you are going to visit…

My travels have taught me to love my native land stronger than ever. I realized that you don’t really have to go far — there’s so much to see and explore in Ukraine. Ukraine is a country of a long and exciting history and most scenic nature. I’m afraid many of my fellow citizens do not even suspect how rich their country is — rich in culture and wonders of nature.

Photos are from Oles Sanin’s archives.


Shooting of Cossack Mamay film.


In Alaska.


Oles Sanin with his wife Iryna watching the sunrise

at Mount of Moses in Sinai.


Sanin’s Harley-Davidson — a vehicle for moving

around and a steed of freedom.


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