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Ukraine

Olga Semak • Director of Demiurge

“This peaceful story can resonate with international audiences just as strongly as our war stories”

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- The Ukrainian director regales us with more details on her tale of a Kyiv stage artist who returns to his home village in an attempt to revive the theatre scene there

Olga Semak  • Director of Demiurge
(© Vitalii Panasiuk)

We caught up with Ukrainian director Olga Semak, whose first feature-length documentary, Demiurge [+see also:
film review
interview: Olga Semak
film profile
]
, was filmed six months before the start of Putin's full-scale invasion of her country, and tells the story of a Kyiv stage artist, Petro Panchuk, who returns to his home village in the north-west of the country in an attempt to revive the theatre scene there.

Cineuropa: How did you come across Petro, and why did you decide to tell his story?
Olga Semak:
Almost ten years ago, a colleague of mine, a theatre critic, told me about Petro and his village theatre. I revisited this topic in 2018, and we travelled to Volyn for the first time to meet the characters. When we saw the interior of the village community centre and the first rehearsal with the actors from the village, we realised that this could turn out to be a compelling story.

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The very idea of a village theatre implies contradiction and conflict, which is strange, as only 100 years ago, there was a real boom in this region. It was the period of the formation of Ukrainian identity and national theatre. Amateur folk theatres played a prominent role in this phenomenon. Today, non-professional artistic activity in the Ukrainian countryside is limited to singing and amateur music. Theatre is the highest form of self-discovery and a rather eccentric activity for a rural person. I was eager to explore this rural theatre. It has everything: charismatic characters, the human mentality of a small community, and the social landscape of a Ukrainian village that had been under the rule of Poland, the Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union at different times. It seems to me that this peaceful story can resonate with foreign audiences just as strongly as our war stories.

The film is almost fully observational, and it doesn't have a musical score. Why did you opt for such an approach?
The diegetic sound in our film is very rich and varied. The characters communicate with each other and say stage lines, as well as singing and playing on stage, in church, at a wedding and during public festivities. All of this is a true manifestation of Ukrainian popular culture emerging at the grassroots level, preserving tradition yet imbued with a modern twist. We felt that adding background music to all of this sonic splendour would have been inappropriate. We wanted to preserve the authentic atmosphere of the rural culture and immerse the viewers, especially foreign ones, in it. We chose the method of observation because the story, in general, did not require our intervention.

The camera work in the film is very rich, and you worked with some excellent cinematographers. How did you build the visual language?
We wanted to film this story truthfully, but also in a beautiful and metaphorical way. Petro is, in a sense, a genius loci, a cultural hero and a trickster all in one. A man with a huge actor’s ego, he either acts in the setting of these rural landscapes or manages the process from the director’s chair. The villagers, on the other hand, are confined to their homesteads and barns with small windows that barely let any sunlight through. There is an old village community club where the rehearsals take place. The camera follows this process from the apron or from the backstage area, or is concealed in the wings so that the viewer is always on the same level as the actors. During filming, I enjoyed capturing visual rhythms and images, combinations of similarities and differences. The unusual camera angles emphasise the overall ironic and comedic mood of our story, either reducing the pathos of the protagonist or, on the contrary, glorifying humble rural labour.

Where are Petro and the other main characters now, and how are they doing?
Just like all Ukrainians, our heroes are going through the traumatic experience of the ongoing war. Almost every week, this community has to bury its fellow citizens who have been killed on the frontline. The locals are supporting the Ukrainian army as much as they can, in particular by raising money and delivering large quantities of food they have produced themselves. As a secretary on the village council, our heroine Sveta has a tough job – she delivers draft notices to her fellow villagers. Petro is still working at the Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre in Kyiv. The village theatre has been closed for an indefinite period.

What are you working on next? 
Currently, our team is working on a project about a small, residential neighbourhood in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, which was damaged during hostilities in March 2022. A year after the tragedy, the local authorities decide to demolish the burnt-out, nearly destroyed high-rise buildings. Excavators quickly dismantle floor after floor while another team of workers tries to carefully cut out a giant concrete slab with artwork by Banksy on it. Tourists seize their last chance to take a selfie in front of the popular graffiti. Meanwhile, residents watch their homes and past lives fade into oblivion. We are currently searching for European partners to implement this project.

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