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VILNIUS 2022 Meeting Point Vilnius

Ukrainian filmmaker Maryna El Gorbach talks through the making of her war drama Klondike


- The Meeting Point case study delved into the creative process behind a “hand-made” film which aimed “to bring a world war to the audience”

Ukrainian filmmaker Maryna El Gorbach talks through the making of her war drama Klondike
Maryna Er Gorbach and Marta Bałaga during the case study

On 30 March, Meeting Point, Vilnius International Film Festival’s industry strand, hosted a talk to delve into the making of Klondike [+see also:
film review
interview: Maryna Er Gorbach
film profile
by Maryna Er Gorbach, who wrote, directed, edited and co-produced the film. The event was moderated by Cineuropa’s own Marta Bałaga.

The feature, winner of the award for Best Director in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance and later presented at the Berlinale, revolves around a Ukrainian family living on the border of Russia and Ukraine. Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) refuses to leave her house even when the village gets captured by armed forces. Shortly after, they find themselves at the centre of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17’s air crash on 17 July 2014.

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After Balaga’s introduction, Er Gorbach touched upon the “hand-made” quality of the film and explained that it entered principal photography in Summer 2020. The idea came about following the 2014 air crash, which coincidentally took place on her birthday but, despite the wide initial coverage, in 2016 the story had already disappeared from the media. This reticence pushed her to think about a story linked to the air crash, but told from a local perspective.

Er Gorbach explained that the “realistic goal” for Klondike was “to bring a world war to the audience,” since it didn’t start just one month and a half ago but already back in 2014: “We created a teaser, which I personally financed. I told the co-producers that even if we weren’t going to shoot the film, we would have attended different industry events to show it to people and reminded them about the catastrophe and the war in Ukraine.”

In terms of financing, she revealed that the team applied for national funding in 2017, but at that time the Ukrainian State Film Agency did not grant its support. In the meantime, they set up their own company, appointing the DoP Svyatoslav Bulakovskiy as the main producer. Then, they applied for funding again, this time successfully. She also highlighted how the tensions and the war in Donbas were ignored by Western media throughout the years and that no European bodies backed their project, with Turkey ending up as a co-producing country.

The process became so challenging that it forced the team to think whether to stop working on the film or move ahead and find “their own special way of telling the story.” To find her own voice, Er Gorbach explained that she had been watching possibly all war films – not just about Ukraine but also about countries such as Bosnia and Georgia – with a very critical approach, to find out what she didn’t like and what she would do differently. She pointed out how she disliked narratives promoting, more or less subtly, “imperialism” and “representations of Russia as strong and Ukraine as weak.”

Moreover, the production phase required a high level of flexibility. For example, while the country was in lockdown in March, the DoP himself drove around the country to do location scouting. The “handmade” approach was also reflected through the team’s distribution strategy, since it had no sales agent attached. The choice of titling the film Klondike was highly symbolical, and it was intended to connect with viewers from the States, having already in mind a possible premiere at Sundance. The team was constantly in touch with the festival staff to keep them posted about the film's progress and urgency. Despite receiving an invitation from another big festival unspooling later this year, Er Gorbach somehow felt there was no time to wait and pursued her initial strategy until the end, showing Sundance a cut without finalised sound editing and colour correction.

In the last part of the talk, Er Gorbach explained how the “handmade” approach also required an intense preparation work involving the actors in long rehearsals, the building of sets as well as the careful choice of their clothing and make-up, inspired by the observation of real villagers. “Characters [come] before the set. This [approach] brings a very special atmosphere,” she concluded.

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