• Golden Globe Awards

Atlantis (Ukraine): Interview with Valentyn Vasyanovych

Much like the mystical island the film shares its name with Atlantis is a feat of cinema that is hard to come by. The story takes place in 2025, one year after the end of the devastating war in eastern Ukraine. The region struggles to return to a sense of normalcy, as the lingering effects of the conflict continue to poison the soil, water, and people. Bodies of nameless victims are abandoned in former battlefields and survivors have little to no motivation to continue living. Sergiy, a former soldier, is more ghost than man. Having lost everything in the war, from his family to his humanity, he finds a new purpose in life after meeting Katya, a young volunteer who identifies and buries corpses in efforts to give them peace after death. Their newly kindled love serves as an act of rebirth for Sergiy.
It’s a tale as old as time but explored in a totally new cinematic language. Combining modern and classic methods of filmmaking, the film is bookended by scenes shot with infrared cameras and is mainly comprised of static wide shots, allowing the environment to speak for itself. The film switches its rhythm halfway into its running time, as the camera finally begins to move, weaving in and out of bombed out apartment buildings and burning cars. Composition and lighting bring the great Tarkovsky into mind, especially the beautifully dreary Zone of Stalker (1979.) Its symbolism is poignant and hard to ignore, as light and shadow reflect life and death. Despite the film’s bleak subject matter, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s compositions are indicative of the story’s overall message: there is beauty in despair, hope in tragedy.
Valentyn Vasyanovych is a free-spirited artist, letting his work take him on a journey rather than planning stories or shots meticulously. Atlantis is the auteur’s brainchild, he is the director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and editor. His background in photography is evident in his cinematography, and even though he believes in the power of structured narratives, he prefers to construct his stories on the basis of emotion rather than formula. Vasyanovich is a cinematic poet who creates images that are unique, but universal. No wonder Atlantis was critically acclaimed and won Best Film in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival in 2019.
We met on Zoom with the director, who had just returned from a long night of shooting his next film, Reflection, a continuation on the theme of war which could be the prequel to Atlantis. It is already a part of the Les Arcs Coproduction Village Work in Progress Selection.
How did you get your start in cinema?
Like all good things in my life, it was purely accidental. My father is a conductor and composer and I studied music, although I didn’t really have musical talent. I studied classical piano and, in my dreams, saw myself as Chopin. In reality, I preferred to take pictures of the girls in class than actually play piano. I learned how to take pictures from my dad, who was also an avid photographer. He developed prints with his friend and loved to hide in the dark room, drinking cognac together. There was a special atmosphere, although the smell of cognac irritated my mother.
Do you remember your first camera?
I even remember the smell of it, it was a Kiev Ten SLR and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Most of all, during my studies at school, I liked to photograph girls and print these pictures in a way to give people joy. Again, by chance, by the end of music school, my dad brought me a piece of paper, where the rules for joining the photography faculty of the theatrical institute were written. Well, I thought it was a good idea and applied. The knowledge about art theory from music school helped in my interview.  
What attracted you to photography? Besides the girls.
I wanted to do something with the image, not with the sounds. It gives me great joy, this process of forming a frame and defining a limitation in order to achieve a composition in this reality, as it were, into this flat wall with limited edges and with an aspect ratio. I liked it, and this is how I perceive the world, through this lens.
In other words, you’re a typical introvert?
Yes. For example, I’m completely comfortable in quarantine, turning off all my devices and diving into myself. I almost forgot how wonderful solitude is, how happy I am to be alone. To lie on a couch and daydream. After all the craziness of production, it was interesting to rediscover this old feeling, something I haven’t felt since I was a young man.
How do you come up with ideas for films?
My very first film, a short documentary, I came up with from start to finish while lying on my couch. At that time, I squatted in an abandoned building in Old Kiev with other young artists, and we were completely free there. So, it was around that time that I came up with and did a full storyboard for the film, which was about my family, called Keepsake. For me, emotional experiences are always important. I make sure to write down powerful moments or I take a photo. And then over time, it pops up in my films. When there is a need for a scene, such an experience gives me an idea and I write a ready-made scene. Therefore, I never initially have a good script, it exists, at best, as a first draft, which I write within a month or so. The scripts are usually voluminous and will require lots of editing later, depending on the progression of development, research, and location scouting. I need background, structures that carry a certain energy, which dictate the development of the story itself.
What inspired you to make Atlantis?
Firstly, the need to speak on the war that created such a huge impact on our lives. And secondly, the wonderful industrial landscape of eastern Ukraine. I have been there many times; I know its splendor and how mesmerizing it is. I will never forget my trip to a metallurgical plant, I had the impression that I flew to Mars and back. There I saw thousands of pipes, with diameters ranging from a few millimeters to several meters, which were quite ornate and unexpectedly interwoven. All of this created an incredible atmosphere with crazy colors. I felt like a little man in the midst of something great. And thus, this location has merged with the theme of war. That is, looking at this whole picture, as a documentary filmmaker, my own story was born. That is, it is very important for me to get into this visualization of the environment in order to push off of and move on. I don’t like creating a story on paper. This is my weakness, but when I get to the filming location, I very quickly get a sense of direction.
This story takes place in 2025, one year after the end of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Do you have hope that the war will end by then?
Well, now I’m afraid that I was a little too optimistic, unfortunately.
Atlantis is full of symbolism. Sometimes there are even references to Tarkovsky’s compositions.
Honestly, I don’t try to make any special references when I shoot a film. I just try to be a person with open eyes and ears. As for symbolism, it appears at some point by itself, I just capture it. That is, I do not design it on purpose. In fact, it is much easier for me to work when half of the film has already been shot and all the material begins to guide me. The logic of the place itself determines the further course of events for me. I feel the story develop itself this way, better than when I try to prepare in advance and think things through.
So even the fact that we can only see the protagonist’s fully illuminated face for the first time when he drinks tea with his love interest, Katya, that wasn’t intentional?
The feminine theme in the film is extremely important to me. Already in the first scene of the film, when two men gather to shoot, one can recognize that their ambition and inability to compromise leads to the fact that they almost kill each other. That is, it turns out that male ambitions lead to conflicts, wars. They are actively showing their destructive beginning. And only a woman can come and structure this world and give it the opportunity to live. Of course, this topic is not accidental, but regarding the lighting in the frame, it is rather an organic decision.
And the idea to shoot infrared, was that also by chance?
Of course! I say that all good things come by chance (laughs). When the film was almost ready, I realized that I was missing a few key scenes for the relationship of Man and Woman, and Life and Death, to work. I thought about this for about half a year. At this time, my friend got an infrared camera and once at a party, I had fun filming guests with it. I thought it would be nice to use this in a movie. At first, I decided that I would use it on the set of a sex scene. I even googled it and realized that I might be the first to shoot an infrared sex scene in a movie. But later, this scene was transformed into two scenes. One scene of the death of a person, which opens the film and another scene of the birth of love, which ends the film. Basically, sex is death and rebirth in one.
Why did you decide to cast non-professional actors in the film?
That was the original concept. Since the film was about people who survived the war, I immediately decided that no professional actor who had not been to the war could convey the full range of those emotions that I needed. Especially because I myself have no traumatic experience. Therefore, we purposefully conducted the casting among the war veterans. Andriy Rymaruk (Sergiy) exudes both tragedy and hope. I continued to work with him, he stars in my next film. Working in cinema even became a kind of method of dealing with his own post-traumatic syndrome.
This film won the prize for Best Film in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival in 2019. Do you remember the moment when you won?
It all started when Alberto Barbera winked at me on the red carpet. I realized that we weren’t going to leave the festival without a prize, I just couldn’t figure out which one. The biggest prizes are handed out towards the end, so when we still hadn’t won anything, I got nervous. It was then when Andriy [Rymaruk], who plays Sergiy, pulled out his phone next to me and said, “Listen they released Oleg Sentsov!” He is a Ukrainian director who was imprisoned in Russia for his protest in the Crimea. That news gave me the inspiration for my acceptance speech, which I usually never prepare. By the time I got on stage, I was genuinely happy and shared the news with everyone in the audience. It was unforgettable. For the first time at the Venice Film Festival, the Ukrainian flag stood among others at the Cinema Palais in Lido. They had difficulty even finding one, because it’s never happened before.
As a winner you became one of the six participants of the second HFPA International Residency. Did you find the experience helpful?
It was interesting to understand how Independent Film Industry works, to meet with other directors and to have with them long conversations. But at the same time, I understood that for me personally, there’s no place like home to create movies as I see it, without any formulas or controls from outside. 
Fortunately, Atlantis had a wide audience, in Ukraine and abroad. It was especially warmly received in Japan. Why do you think that is?
I think it has to do with the fact that there are survivors of the atomic bombs alive today. For them, the subject of environmental destruction remains very prevalent in their lives. The fact that every Saturday there are Japanese protestors who gather in front of the Russian embassy for their occupation of the Kuril Islands also has something to do with it, I think.
When can we expect to see your next film, Reflection?
We’re almost done with filming and will begin editing soon. Although it’s a very different film from Atlantis, it deals with similar themes of war and post-traumatic stress. We plan on submitting it to different festivals so that we can reach the same widespread audience we did with Atlantis. Like any other filmmaker, the most important thing for me is that the film isn’t any award or gala, it’s that the film is seen by as many people as possible.