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LOCARNO 2022 Semaine de la critique

Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski • Directors of The Hamlet Syndrome

"Our protagonists are examples that it can take years to build a normal life again"


- The established Polish documentary directors discuss their new film shot in Ukraine, which shows how theatre and film can assist in dealing with traumatic events

Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski • Directors of The Hamlet Syndrome

Cineuropa chatted with Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski, directors of the documentary The Hamlet Syndrome [+see also:
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which celebrated its international premiere in Locarno’s Semaine de la Critique section. It was shot during summer 2021, seven years after the war in Ukraine started and a mere six months before the Russian invasion. The film follows 5 different characters as they take part in stage play rehearsals and open up about their traumas.

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Cineuropa: One of the themes of the film is how to live in a war zone. Was that something you had in mind while preparing The Hamlet Syndrome?
Elwira Niewiera: We had two intentions. The first one was to draw attention to this ongoing conflict, and the second and more general one was to show what it means to be at war and what havoc war leaves behind, how difficult it is to return to one’s life. Our protagonists are examples that it can take years to build a normal life again.

Piotr Rosołowski: When we were filming, the conflict was limited to the Donbas area and people could choose whether they wanted to participate in it or not, if they wanted to care or not. It was more comfortable, so to speak. Back then, life in Kiev looked pretty normal. Our protagonists were marked by conflict differently, for example, Oxana’s experience was much lighter comparing to other people’s. And of course, there are people like Slavik, who in a way will be forever marked by what they have gone through.

Now, after 24 February, it’s impossible to run away from war, even people living outside Ukraine feel strange being so far away from their country. So now every Ukrainian has a stigma caused by this conflict.

EN: I’d like to add that our film plays now an important role in keeping the debate going regarding what impact the war has had on Ukrainian people. The world’s engagement in the beginning of the invasion was tremendous, and now they slowly want to go back to normal.

PR: We wanted to show through 5 different protagonists how big of a wreckage war will leave in the heads of 40 million Ukrainians. Even if the war ends tomorrow.

You initiated a stage play and made the film that shows its rehearsal period. It seems like art can help in dealing with trauma.
Slavik said after the film’s national premiere in Krakow, that after the play, he felt liberated to the extent that it was possible. He also looks at his experience from a distance and can calmly talk about it. He even resumed his stage career and took part in “Voice of Ukraine” and was quite successful. But, as in Greek tragedy, the show and Slavik’s career were again interrupted by the invasion.

EN: We didn’t expect that film could be therapeutic. What was important to us was that every protagonist went to therapy first. And it helped them to get through the rehearsals, when sometimes very intense situations were happening. We were surprised that scenes that we shot outside the theatre, with our protagonists’ families, touched something deep. Katya and Slavik had never spoken to their parents like this before, and the camera helped them to open up.

The theatre in your film is a so-called documentary theatre. Is this a wider trend in Ukraine?
During our research in Ukraine, we discovered that documentary theatre came to being after Maidan. There was a need for artistic acts that would comment on what was happening then. The Maidan protests gave an impulse to something new. It was our starting point – since day one we wanted to portray the Maidan generation, marked by revolution and war. The theatre and Hamlet were a perfect way to give a frame to these stories.

EP: We really wanted to go to a deeper level of reflection with them. To give them space where they could go over difficult life experiences and observe them at the same time. The theatre stage in our film becomes a neutral ground for personal reckoning. 

What your film shows is that Oxana and Rodion have different battles to fight. She is a feminist, he belongs to the LGBT community, and war sort of eclipses their causes. 
We wanted to portray a generation. It wouldn’t be complete if we only showed people who were in the war zone. When the stage play was presented in Ukraine, it sparked a debate among the audience, who found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that there are more fronts to fight on than the one with Russia.

PR: The play titled H-Effect provoked an interesting debate. Slavik, who was a so-called cyborg – a soldier defending the airport in Donbass – suddenly finds himself in the company of Rodion, a gay man from Donetsk. For some people, it was unimaginable. And what was even more interesting was that Slavik, coming from a conservative Eastern Ukrainian family, made friends with Rodion, who had just started to learn Ukrainian and who didn't want to hide who he is – they became friends. And for me, it’s a phenomenon that happens in the theatre: two very different people meet on stage and really open up to each other.

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