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BERLINALE 2021 Generation

Kateryna Gornostai • Director of Stop-Zemlia

“Each of the characters deserves their own movie”


- BERLINALE 2021: We talked to the Ukrainian director about her feature debut, created with the collaboration of teenagers who then appeared in the film

Kateryna Gornostai  • Director of Stop-Zemlia
(© Oleksander Roshchyn)

Ukrainian writer-director Kateryna Gornostai made her first feature film, Stop-Zemlia [+see also:
film review
interview: Kateryna Gornostai
film profile
, by working on characters with 25 teenagers who previously did not know each other. As the film premieres in the Generation 14plus section of this year’s Berlinale, we talked to her about this creative process and about developing the film’s story and visual style.

Cineuropa: How did you develop your approach to the story and this teenage world?
Kateryna Gornostai:
From the beginning, it was an experiment for me, because it wasn't the classical way of telling the simple story through the eyes of one character, and I was aware that it would be hard to balance between the two storylines — they shouldn't be equal. But it appeared even harder when we gathered the whole class around two main figures. A new desire appeared: to give voice to as many heroes as possible. 

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There were a lot of characters in the script at the beginning, but during casting, I started to realise that I was looking not for the characters from the script, but for interesting personalities that could form a group. When they appeared in a film, they turned these schematic characters from text into three-dimensional full-blooded people. Each of them deserves their own movie.

How did you pick the young actors and work with them?
To recreate the school life, we needed to gather a class. I wanted to have a feeling of familiarity and even closeness among all of them. We had an open call that received more than 800 applications, and looked around Kyiv schools because we realised that a girl with "Masha's traits" could be shy enough not to apply to casting. Eventually, we made interviews with more than 200 young adults. That's how we gathered 25 young people and started the nine-week "acting laboratory," as we called it. It wasn't a conventional preparation for the film — they didn't know the script and we didn't rehearse it there — but we spent that time getting to know each other better and actually falling in love with them all.

During the lab, we practiced body movement, voice opening, and had different theatrical exercises. We worked a lot with autobiographical stories and applied the rules of dramaturgy to them. After the lab had ended and everybody received their role and the script, I created a dossier of characters — the background stories of each person of our class, based on my imagination and their personality traits. Sometimes they were helping me with that. When the shooting period started, it was easy for them to navigate this recreated world so similar to their own, with this knowledge of where the character enters the story and where their endpoint is. 

The interviews that intercut the story are very interesting: would you say these are interviews with the actors or with the characters?
Because our friendship began with interviews, I wanted to end the shooting process with another round of talks. We talked a lot with our editor Nikon Romanchenko about how to implement such diverse material into the film’s structure, but we decided to do it anyway and then play at the editing table.

My approach was to talk with them through the prism of their characters, but to have a candid conversation – like two close friends talking. It was “real” — we didn't have any written lines or more takes, just a conversation. I can say that all the things we have in these interviews are both fictional and true. It was the actors’ decision to be honest or not about what exactly the true parts were. But I'm grateful to them that there is, in the end, a lot of truth in these interviews.

How did you develop the visual style of the film?
First, we started to look for “our school.” We researched Kyiv and its suburbs, but eventually we decided to combine different places to create our own school. We talked a lot about differences in interiors we wanted to implement: classrooms that are a bit blank and neutral, as opposed to kids’ colourful bedrooms. Production designer Maxym Nimenko was working on finding as many details as possible to fill in the spaces.

Our costume designer Alyona Gres had been attending our lab to meet the future actors and to see what they looked like in real life. Her wardrobe is based on that knowledge and, I believe, on her experience with her own kid of that age. Before every shooting day, she was suggesting a few variations of outfits for every actor, and all of them were different but accurate so it was hard to choose sometimes.

As for the camera work — Oleksandr Roshchyn became my film partner a long time ago. I trust his taste, I love the way he sees the world. Although we planned the whole film on paper beforehand, most of the responsibility for its visual side laid on him. I felt very lucky to work with this crew.

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