Deciphering Death: An Interview with Kateryna Gornostai

by Sofie Topi

The Sarajevo Film Festival has built a tradition of picking up strong upcoming voices from South-East Europe and providing a solid network for promising talents and established film professionals. During a quick peek at this year’s CineLink Co-Production Market (the generous platform for projects in development) my eyes caught the name Kateryna Gornostai, the director of Stop-Zemlia, which won the Crystal Bear after its premiere at the 2021 Berlinale. Kateryna is now working on an idea for her second feature film, Antonivka, while in Ukraine. 

There is something charming and mystical about deciphering a film in its pre-production phase. Before our call, Kateryna shared her synopsis, a mood board for her future film, and her director’s note. All of these are subject to change; it is about a film begotten amidst war. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kateryna is ready to confront the passing of life. That is the anticipation of death: her story follows a young couple taking care of an 88-year-old blind man awaiting his end. During our conversation, Kateryna shared thoughts on her working process as a filmmaker, the notion of collective grief, and the current state of the Ukrainian film industry. It goes without saying that the interview which follows is driven primarily by the urgency to address the impact of warfare on culture in the long run; ultimately, there is far more at stake than the halt of artistic production. 

Kateryna Gornostai

After an artful examination of adolescence in Stop-Zemlia, Antonivka shifts your focus to a story about waiting for death. You are following major life events. How do you build your filmmaking interests?

The initial point both for this film and the previous one is a personal experience. Antonivka comes from a story I have witnessed in my life. You go through life, you see things and they have some impact on you. These are usually topics worth presenting to audiences. Besides this, the most appealing aspect of making fiction films is that the story begins to shift in different directions because of the reality of different people. I like to combine all these realities. I like to let the film grow, after the script and while producing it. I think this will be my recipe for making films, at least for now. 

Death, or the anticipation of death, is a subject of universal interest, from a personal perspective. In your description, you introduce the idea of ‘fear of death’, which seems to be cultivated within specific cultures, and it is tied to the collective experience of death. Especially in the West, we don’t speak about death openly; at least we don’t do it very well. Could you share some thoughts on the perception of death within the context of Ukraine? 

My grandfather died three years before the invasion. It was a striking experience. His passing away was prolonged. This is not how I imagined death. We have this stereotype that death is really quick—it comes, and everything ends. Sometimes in films, a character dies within days or minutes. My grandfather had a strong heart but his body was in denial. It was a contradiction within his being. When the invasion started, I thought that, in a way, dying of [old] age in a peaceful country was a luxurious way to die.

I don’t know how the experience of war is influencing us on this matter right now. I don’t have the distance to see it. The war for us started more than 8 years ago. From time to time we had the fear of an invasion, but while it hadn’t happened, it felt like a threat. It was a strange moment when it happened. [In] the first two weeks, everybody felt the terror of being mortal. The possibility of being dead at any moment. You need to get used to it. Gradually, you get it, that you are mortal. Statistically, it is not common that a rocket will kill you, in particular. But perceiving your mortality shifts your vision of life as a whole. I am really curious how it will be afterwards.

When we speak about the fear of death and the culture around it, inherently we also speak about faith, with all the concomitant references to religion. I was wondering if you have this connection mentioned in your script and what are your thoughts on this.

In Ukraine, we have a lot of rituals connected to death and, in a way, they are religious. They date nearly as far back as when religion got established in our society, and when it absorbed a set of pre-existing rules. Although they are not particularly religious, they are rooted deeply in the tradition of praying, influenced by the Christians living in this area. I have witnessed many traditions at funerals in my village. The most powerful traditions are in villages, not in the big cities. I see some kind of logic and a therapeutic aspect there. That is why I am interested in showing them in the film. Maybe from a larger scale than the religious perspective. 

In my script, I have some moments with ritualistic references. For example, when the grandfather is praying, his neighbour (resembling an old witch of the village) is guiding him to open all the doors and cover all the mirrors. These rituals are not at all related to Christianity. They come from the fear of being the next one [to die], and they are meant to support you in how to manage the fear. 

Hearing you explain rituals in this way sounds like you are addressing collective grief. Why did you choose to work on it and speak about it now?

I think this will be the big topic after the war. I don’t know anyone who is not in grief at the moment. This year I lost my brother, my colleague, and a classmate because of war. Not to mention the stories of war victims you will read in the news. You live each day with death all around you. We live in the condition that death is very near us. Yet, it is a taboo. We should speak about it. 

Through your own experience, you have of course processed death and grief in many ways—foreseeing the loss, demystifying and normalizing what is actually normal, through the power of the screen. But what does it entail for a film to be in development while war is ongoing?

We live in uncertainty. We do not plan things in the long-term. It is even strange to speak to you about a film that I don’t know when I will have the possibility to actually shoot. We are trying to plan (as it is demanded by the European [film] industry) and think of it as realistically as possible, but it is more like dreaming. Right now, I can only write scripts or produce documentary material. But here we don’t have any big productions for feature films. 

Stop-Zemlia (2021)

Thinking back on the technique you developed for Stop-Zemlia with your actors, you conducted condition-based, instead of script-based, rehearsals, which had refreshing and rewarding results. Is this something you want to keep developing?

I want to keep the most significant feature of my preparation with the actors, what I call ‘laboratory’. Stop-Zemlia was very script-based in events. But in terms of language, it was improvised. For educational reasons, we didn’t rehearse it, as usually happens. We were doing many activities, like singing, dancing, and studying dramaturgy. This made a big difference. On some level, I felt that the laboratory was complete by itself, something aside from the film. In this new project, this isn’t possible. We don’t have this ensemble structure of the classroom setting. I still want to do the laboratory, but on a smaller scale, as part of the casting period and only for the two main roles (for 10 people). With a stipend, because not all of them would end up in our film.

For me as a director, working with the actors in this setting helps me to communicate what kind of reality I am trying to create. These are constructive times for the kind of film I want to do. I am also intrigued by the people I can find during this process. I want to be influenced. Right now, many personal things are in the script, and in terms of events they will remain. But in terms of characters, it will change. I think it is cool to change the personality features of my protagonists to be closer to real people.

It is quite generous to open up the individuality of two characters and share them with more actors. It can also be perceived as a reciprocal support system. Similar to the one of Sarajevo Film Festival, which is basically the biggest gathering for film professionals in South-East Europe. How did you get connected with the festival? What are your hopes and expectations?

Actually, someone from the SFF team found us. They were searching for projects under development. We had a small development grant from Netflix last year, and we were one of the few projects in development from Ukraine. So they reached out asking if we had a script. We thought of it as a good opportunity. I heard a lot about this festival. They supported a number of Ukrainian films last year, so I consider them friends of Ukraine. It is important to gather friends around you, especially in these uncertain times. Professionally, I haven’t been to this part of the world yet, so I am very excited and curious to see it. 

Stop-Zemlia (2021)

It is indeed important for film festivals to reach out by themselves and initiate dialogues. Do you think Ukrainian cinema has been represented enough in the European context?

I remember quite vividly after the revolution of 2014 in Kyiv how suddenly everyone got interested in this small country and what is happening here. It was this window of possibilities, primarily for documentary makers, obviously because they were doing the biggest work of depicting the revolution for example, and the war that came. We had the feeling that the world was looking at us. Last year, obviously, it was the second run. Finally, for the first time, the process of decolonization started working. Previously, we were perceived as a territory of a bigger region. Like the small border of Russia, or part of the Eastern bloc. For someone like me, who lived only for 3 years in the Soviet Union, it has been really strange. We have our own country, our own culture, and our own film industry. Many interesting things are happening here. 

We have always been struggling to respond to our relationship with Russia or to accept being part of film retrospectives where we were blended together with filmmakers from the wider region. Currently, all of my colleagues are doing big diplomatic work to explain that any dialogue is not possible as long as the war keeps going on. For example, big companies would only sell a film to Moscow and then Moscow would sell it to Ukraine. We are trying to separate ourselves, and work directly with the big distributions. Ukraine is big enough, not only for the film industry but also for literature and many other fields. Fortunately, many film festivals are interested in Ukraine now; for instance, Berlinale last year wanted a Ukrainian film for each program. 

Right now, I am afraid our industry has basically stopped. We only have some small productions that operate on private money. Although we do have a lot of documentaries going on, next year (or the year after), there will be a gap in film premieres. We really have a lot of stories to tell. It is an inner problem that we need to think through, manage the available budget, and keep working. Also, since we have a big industry, I am afraid that if we don’t give out jobs, let’s say to set designers or costume designers, they would just flee to other countries or professions. We are aware of this, and we are trying to change this. 

Now that you speak about these politics, I am starting to connect the pieces of your background in documentary filmmaking and journalism. How do you think the teachings of these studies and that mindset have influenced your stories and narrative style?

I started as a documentarist, and I am also doing it right now, as it is the only thing I can do. I am fascinated by reality as well, and I see documentary-making as an opportunity to observe closer. My fiction films are a bit hybrid, many documentary methods are there. I am grateful that I started like that. I have always thought that it is better to start with documentary making, to see how the world is working. To learn how to construct a film, and learn dramaturgy in real-life situations. Then you can better review the world with imaginative ideas through fiction films. At the moment, I am observing what is happening within the educational system during the war, with a more artistic documentary approach. 

Sofie Topi is an editor, designer, and media storyteller from Greece, living and working in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She has been writing about cinema since 2013.

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