Marysia Nikitiuk • Director of Cherry Blossoms
“CineLink, the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Eurimages Award have given me the hope and strength to continue making films”
by David Katz
- We spoke to the winner of the Eurimages Special Co-production Development Award about her film, which follows the meeting of survivors from the Ukraine-Russia War and the Bosnian War
A week after winning the Eurimages Special Co-production Development Award (worth €20,000) at Sarajevo’s CineLink Industry Days (see the news), we spoke to Marysia Nikitiuk, an already highly established Ukrainian screenwriter and director, about her next film Cherry Blossoms, which follows survivors of the Russian assault on Eastern Ukraine as they find themselves in an even more tragic predicament. As she says in our interview, “The more they try to become a family, the more their wounds bleed.”
Cineuropa: Could you give us a short plot summary of your project?
Marysia Nikitiuk: Thirty-eight-year-old Viktor has been living normally with his family in Eastern Ukraine. After the full-scale invasion by Russia, his daughter and wife are killed by Russian soldiers. By chance, he saves a little girl, 12-year-old Nastya, whose mother has also died. He pretends they are a family, and after a long time, they manage to flee to free Ukrainian territory, where they are helped by the authorities. At school, Nastya meets Maya (35), a Bosnian psychologist from UNICEF, who lived through the Balkan War in occupied Sarajevo. Maya adapted to life without war many years ago, but the destruction and death she witnessed as a child left deep wounds in her soul. Maya sees herself in Nastya. As a teenager, Nastya is burdened by the consequences of the war: she refuses to eat, brings a gun to school with her and falls in love with Viktor, who sees her as his lost daughter. All three of them have different traumas. The more they try to become a family, the more their wounds bleed.
You can already tell how emotionally charged the film will be. But when did you start planning and writing the screenplay, and what was your initial inspiration?
First of all, in 2016, I was amazed by child actress Sonya Khalaimova, who played one of the main roles in my first feature, When the Trees Fall [+see also:
interview: Marysia Nikitiuk
film profile], when she was just four years old. I started to think about making a film about a modern Lolita, from the perspective of the girl herself, with Sonya to play her. One year ago, I started working on a story about an adult man who saves a young girl in East Ukraine, replacing his killed daughter with her.
I live in Kyiv, so on 24 February, the big war started for me there. I was scared, with no idea of what to do or where to run to. My friends were taking their families to the small village of Smyga in the Rivne region; there was some shelter there, and I went with them. I thought it would be for two or three days, but I spent more than one month there, watching many people with families from all over Ukraine passing through our shelter to the border. I saw children and teenagers running from the war, and how they cope with fear and with such abnormal circumstances. At that point, my characters came to me again: the fragile girl, who desperately needs love and protection, and the grief-stricken father. I was only missing themother figure. But later in the spring, I met a journalist from Croatia, who, as a child, was evacuated from Vukovar, which was destroyed by the Serbs. Her motivations for coming to Ukraine were in her subconscious – I was amazed by her desire to help. I mean, a lot of Europeans came to help, but her connection was unique and personal; it was like she came to Ukraine to save herself in the past. This woman inspired me to create the character of the Bosnian psychologist Maya.
How are you planning to use the Eurimages award?
I will do some additional research in Kyiv and finish the script. Also, I want to do some pre-casting, and I want to try Sonya Khalaimova out in this role. We will conduct some video rehearsals with her. At the moment, she is only ten, but once we are able to shoot, she will be exactly the age of my heroine.
Are you also planning to take the project to other markets and schemes, for further funding opportunities?
Yes. First of all, it is very important for me to draw attention to the bloody war going on in Ukraine, and not to let the world forget that Russians are killing Ukrainian people right now just because we are Ukrainians and we want to be free. A lot of Europeans have asked me why we fight so furiously and whether it would be better to become one country with Russia and stop resisting. And I ask them, “Would you want to become one country with Russia? Would you want to go and live in Russia?” They answer “No,” fearfully. We have been at war with Russia for 300 years already, and we really need the world’s help to resist and to win this time.
Secondly, it is very important for the project to find partners and possibilities to enable the shoot, especially now, when the Ukrainian film industry is not functioning because of the invasion.
How was your experience at the CineLink Co-production Market? Did you receive any useful feedback or suggestions during the meetings you took part in?
It was very helpful. At the end of June, there were some CineLink workshops with European professionals in Sarajevo. I was at the early stage of my treatment. That feedback was very helpful and came at just the right time because I was so frustrated by the war; it was very hard to concentrate on one topic. I would say the CineLink workshops switched me on in terms of my professional duties.
The market was more about how to help Ukrainian projects find financing without local Ukrainian money. My producer, Igor Savychenko, and all the people with whom we talked were looking for different variants, so now we know there are several possibilities for Cherry Blossoms to be made in the near future. I would say that CineLink, the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Eurimages Award have given me the hope and strength to continue making films. Even in such extreme circumstances, there is hope for the Ukrainian film industry, and for me and my country.
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