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Fire and Water in a Film and in Life
Mykhailo Illyenko, a director, has recently made a film, FireCrosser. The film is based on a story about Ivan Datsenko — a Ukrainian air force pilot who is believed to have survived a direct hit to his bomber and made his way across the ocean in America to become chief of a Native American tribe.
The film, which at the screening was titled FireCrosser, was shown within the framework of the Kyiv International Film Festival at the end of September 2011. Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor, talked to Mykhailo Illyenko about the film and about the story on which the film is based. Mykhailo Illyenko is a brother of the famous Ukrainian director Yury Illyenko and a movie director in his own right. He is a follower of the trend in Ukrainian cinematography which is usually referred to as “poetic cinema.”
— Mr Illyenko, what kind of film is it? A thriller? A swashbuckler?
— No, not really, but I can assure you that the makers of the film have done their best to stir interest in all sorts of viewers. The film can be described as a romantic story with elements of a thriller and of a melodrama too. It can make you laugh — and cry too.
— Is the film based on some real facts?
— Yes, to a certain extent, it is. Once upon a time there lived a Ukrainian named Ivan Datsenko… Actually we know when he lived and where he came from. He was born in the village of Chernechy Yar in the Land of Poltavshchyna. During the Second World War — that’s the time reference for you — he was a soviet air force pilot and distinguished himself to such an extent that he was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. This honorific was awarded for exceptional bravery.
In one of the dogfights his plane was shot down. He bailed out of his burning plane and parachuted to safety but was captured by the Germans. He spent time at first in a German concentration camp and after the war in a soviet one.
I know people who actually saw him in the 1960s. It was a Ukrainian actress, Natalya Naum, who after a visit to Canada, brought back to Ukraine an incredible story — during a visit to a Native American settlement, the chief of the tribe who, in Indian, was called The One Who Has Gone Through Fire, addressed the guests in Ukrainian!
— How true this story is?
— There is some documentary evidence about the soviet air force pilot Ivan Datsenko but it is not enough to build a coherent picture. His name is on the list of the Heroes of the Soviet Union. There is a photo of Datsenko, or his lookalike, wearing a ceremonial dress of an Indian tribal chief, there are some of his relatives still living. But Natalya Naum and some other people who talked to Datsenko are no longer among the living.
But we did not give the protagonist of the film the name of Datsenko. Our film is not a documentary and we felt free to present the story the way we thought fit. I imagined our hero in these terms — if a hero is rejected by the kingdom he fights for, he leaves the kingdom to become a king himself — but elsewhere.
There are very few heroes in Ukrainian movies but those that do appear in Ukrainian films are persecuted, unfree, dependent, often overwhelmed by circumstance or enemies at the end. A Ukrainian hero is supposed to weep, sing a sad song, admit his defeat — only if he does that, he is a true Ukrainian hero. But Datsenko is surely a hero of a different sort. He epitomizes an American sort of hero, a hero that is produced by a culture where there is a cult of heroes, a culture that is vastly different from the Ukrainian culture.
— But why is it that we don’t have a cult of heroes in our culture?
— Because Ukraine was far too long a part of an empire, and in empires only those that belong to the titular, central imperial ethnicity have the right to be heroes — the rest of ethnics only supply material for snide jokes.
We, in Ukraine, need heroes who are winners not losers in the end.
— Where did you do the actual filming?
— In the Carpathians in Ukraine — and in Argentina. We wanted to but did not manage to make it a joint Ukrainian-Canadian project. A group of mock Red Indians from Kharkiv provided advice. Those people are in fact Ukrainians who are very deep into the Native American way of life, traditions and culture, who study all these things in depth.
— Who financed the film?
— Some private producers and the Ukrainian government did give us some money too. There were a lot of problems to deal with and hurdles to overcome. We were supposed to complete the filming within eighteen months — and it took us four years to do it. All the filmmakers in Ukraine face similar problems.
— Was that trip you took on the yacht Kupava an attempt to run away from the problems?
— Maybe you could put it that way… There were several breaks in the filming, and during one of them a friend of mine, a yacht skipper, who had already been involved in filming of one of my earlier films, offered to take me on board of his yacht for a voyage around the world. I accepted the offer — and took with me movie cameras and other movie paraphernalia to shoot whatever could be useful for my film FireCrosser. And some of that footage was indeed included into the film.
— In which part of the globe was that footage shot?
— In Argentina. I wanted to do some shooting in Antarctica, at the Ukrainian Vernadsky South Pole station there, but it turned out, because of the weather conditions, it was too late to go there — and we wound up in Argentina. So we went to the Andes instead of Antarctica. We traveled over 700 miles along the winding narrow roads, and I did shoot a lot of footage but there proved to be only one short sequence that was included into the film. It was when the sun broke through the clouds and provided a magnificent illumination of the mountains. I consider it to be the best visual image in the movie. I am very grateful to all those who made it possible.
— Was it a big yacht? And how many people were actually aboard?
— No, it was a small yacht and there were only four people on board. We were hit by storms many times in many latitudes and longitudes, but mostly in the inland seas. It took a long time afterwards to clean the mess in the cabin. By contrast, in the open ocean, we, for example, navigated the stretch of 1,600 nautical miles from the Republic of Cape Verde to Brazil “on the one tack” with no rough waters to speak of.
— Did you meet any people of Ukrainian descent on your globe-circumnavigating journey?
— Oh yes, we did! In Argentina, for instance, we were welcomed by many people of the Ukrainian diaspora. Ethnic Ukrainians there provide good Ukrainian education for the young, they maintain traditions and culture. They advised us where we could go to find the kind of landscapes we wanted but one of the places, The Moon Valley, proved to be off limits for us — only Hollywood filmmakers have enough money to film there.
— What did you do on board the Kupava when the going was smooth?
— We had books and films that I brought with me. We had time to watch dozens of movies, mostly Ukrainian. It kept us in touch with Ukraine…
Incidentally, it was during that voyage that I learnt about my brother’s terminal illness. When I came back, we still had time to take a walk to the Dnipro River — and a week later he died. (Yury Illyenko (1936 -2010) was one of the most remarkable figures of Ukrainian culture in general and Ukrainian cinematography in particular; he worked both as a photography director and as a film director; he authored many screenplays; he was known for his active pro-Ukrainian views – editor).
— Going back to your film FireCrosser — does it target mostly high-brow audiences? Is it one of those films which are usually described as “poetic cinema”?
— I hope yes, it can be described like that but it does not mean that poetic cinema is only for the high-brow esthetes. FireCrosser targets all kinds of audiences; I hope it will have a wide popular appeal.
Unfortunately, the companies that run movie theaters and distribute movies tend to choose foreign films rather than those that are made in Ukraine. Ukrainian filmmakers have no control over the film market in Ukraine.
— But are there filmmakers who can make movies that will attract large audiences?
— Yes, there are. I am absolutely sure about that. Ukrainian directors show their films at all sorts of film festivals and win prizes — the latest was the Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival which was won by a young Ukrainian filmmaker, Maryna Vroda.
The moment Ukrainian films will begin to be shown in theaters and on television in Ukraine they will win the audiences over!
The Black Sea gave the yacht Kupava with Illyenko on board a tough time.
At the set during the filming of FireCrosser.
Mr Illyenko plays the dombra while the yacht is sailing towards the Canary Islands.
The sequence that Mykhailo Illyenko considers to be very special, was shot in the mountains in Argentina.