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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Roman BALAIAN: “The main thing now is to shoot as many films as possible”

26 December, 2013 - 10:37
Roman BALAIAN / Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

I met with film director Roman Balaian at the House of Cinema. Almost at once we were joined by film critic, Chairman of the National Union of Filmmakers of Ukraine Serhii Trymbach. Balaian, apparently violating the law on smoking ban, was smoking one cigarette after another, and, as usual, answered the questions in a calm and ironical manner. To be more precise, self-ironical. By all appearances (and judging by his films), he wants to start every “revision” from himself and not to blame other people. As a result, the interview turned to be a talk about who we are and what is the reason for this.

Serhii TRYMBACH: “As far as I know, a delegation came to you in 2009 – I don’t know who its members were – with a proposal to head the Union of Filmmakers of Ukraine. You would have been elected. I wanted this as well.”

“Serhii, don’t be offended, but I replied then: ‘Are you crazy? This office is humiliating for me’ (laughing). They could not believe for a long time; they thought I was trying to enhance my reputation. You know, when I am nominated for some positions at some assemblies, I come up to the outermost microphone and say: ‘I’m an idler.’”

S.T.: “You have said many times in interviews and in private conversations that you don’t like to work. But I heard Bohdan Stupka say something different: ‘Work, work, until you die’ (a phrase from Ivan Franko’s work). Apparently, it is not about you, isn’t it? So, Oleg Yankovsky’s hero in Flying in Dreams and in Reality is your alter ego, a character which is between works rather than working. I think that playing an unbusinesslike type is one of your roles in life. Is that so?”

“I rest between the films I shoot once in five years. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet, but lately these five-year-long periods have been okay. In 1979 I lost this ego of a film director. Since then I have been a normal person. I have found my niche. I have never felt envious, I felt only ‘white envy’ to several world directors – this is a different thing. But meetings with friends are more important for me than any work.”

Viktor HLON: “Have you seen the Russian film Geographer Drank His Globe Away, which is often compared with Flying…?”

S.T.: “It uses quotations from Flying.”

“There are similar scenes. After all, apart from misery and unsettled life of a person, I have seen no common features. Maybe also the fact that director Veledinsky in every small episode constantly zooms in the actor – as if he is here and not here at the same time. I used this manner in my film. My cameraman regularly asked me: ‘Why do you need this close-up?’ ‘I don’t know: I simply want to.’ Geographer is a good film, it has been made in an American-like quality way. Whether I like it or not is a different thing.

“I don’t understand the adversaries of this film. There are films and there is moviemaking. This is a film. It is not without a reason that previously they wrote ‘director-stage manager.’ There are directors and there are stage managers. I would like it to be screened in the House of Cinema, so that our youth could learn the profession, so that they did not go to work in art-house right away. The innuendos in their works – not all of them, of course – is proof that they either despise the profession, or they are not professional enough, or this is the way they think. It seems to me we don’t have a young director who would shoot a film of this level, from professional point of view.”

V.H.: “So, you haven’t seen any films of this scale shot by Ukrainian directors?”

“There are talented works. Nuclear Waste by Myroslav Slaboshpytsky, for example. Pie by Yurii Koroliov – although it resembles Gaidai’s films, it is apparent that the person has an inclination for comic genre.”

V.H.: “Both films are from Ukraine Goodbye! almanac.”

“Yes. There is also Dmytro Sukholytky-Sobchuk; I was his art instructor when he was shooting Krasna Malanka. He is very stubborn – he did not want to cut the film, he did not agree until someone abroad told him to do so. After all, stubbornness is a good thing as well. I think he is talented. I can also mention So Beautiful People by Dmytro Moiseiev, although, in my opinion, this is a too much scrupulous screening of a script, which is not very correct. However, he is internally spiritual and apparently oriented at some special understanding of filmmaking of his own.”

V.H.: “After film directors take our advice into account, do their films improve?”

“I am often told, ‘This is a bad film, another bad film, and you were the art instructor.’ I reply that I told everything to the authors, but I did not insist.

“To those who are against numerous debuts I will say: every debutant has a right to make an artistic mistake, for governmental money. Everyone should be checked. Besides, there is an egoistic factor: I want something to make me angry, so that I woke up and became a director again, to feel envy, to see something like Emir Kusturica’s Underground and almost faint because of such bold freedom.

“Humiliating young directors, like some directors of my age do these days? I am not fond of Mudaky. Arabesques or Ukraine, goodbye!, but it does not matter. Now it is time of medical examiners, social analysts, and boys are doing precisely this. In our time we were digging in the same way and were banned. But to speak out against them and forbid them to shoot cinema? This is nonsense.

“Recently critic Dmytro Desiateryk was expelled from the Filmmakers Union. Is this 1937? A person shared his thoughts on Facebook. I received a call from Yerevan: ‘Did you hear? He said we all must die.’ What’s the big deal? (Laughing.) Many people think that we all should die, what’s next? But expelling a person from the Union of Filmmakers? I immediately recall that we were created by KGB – all the artistic unions – to keep an eye on the state of affairs in these branches. How can they do that? I am against this.

“I remember they wanted to expel Oleksandr Muratov from the Union. Many years ago he wrote an article to some newspaper, harshly criticizing the Union of Filmmakers. At that time I was one of the secretaries of the board. I don’t want to offend Muratov, but I said then: ‘Are you mad? Who is Muratov? Do you want to make a hero of him?’”

S.T.: “That’s not true about the Union of Filmmakers. It was created at the initiative of filmmakers in late 1950s. The Central Committee and KGB were against this, because cinema was already working on a ‘factory,’ on a ‘collective film farm,’ why did they need a union? The same is true about Desiateryk: after all he felt a hero.”

“Why did they need to expel him? All young people will defend him like on the Maidan. Why should the matter be brought to this condition? He said what he said. I doubt he thinks so. It was a momentary thought.”

V.H.: “He said this in certain context.”

S.T.: “Yes, in reply to speeches of several elderly directors during the Union assembly, when the films of young people were called crap.”

“I remember, I was present there.”

S.T.: “The thing is not about that. An elderly director (Roman, you know whom I mean) in reply to a letter in support of Head of the State Cinema Agency of Ukraine Kateryna Kopylova, which was signed by over 90 filmmakers, wrote a letter to Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykola Azarov which starts with the words: ‘Ukraine has no more than 90 functioning filmmakers.’ Did he mean that the rest are professional invalids?”

“This is what Desiateryk said.”

S.T.: “That’s right, practically the same. However, he did not generalize. He could have said this in a private talk or even wrote – but not to prime minister. Moreover, it’s not true and it’s against the unwritten laws of corporate ethic. Further he writes that young directors financed by Kopylova from state treasury shoot anti-governmental cinema. These are his direct words written to prime minister. This is really 1937 year – a squeal to a top-official against ‘enemy attacks’ on the state. However, such behavior of a filmmaker does not evoke any resistance in those who were outraged by Desiateryk (of course, Roman, I agree, not without a reason: his reaction was inadequate). Because the filmmaker was one of their own kin.”

“Anti-state cinema? Do we have a state where we cannot shoot an anti-state cinema? If it is allowed, we have some freedom then.

“Again, I am not fond of those films (Mudaky. Arabesques; Ukraine, goodbye! – Author). I was terrified by the film where the heroine works as a call-girl (A Date. – Author). I have never heard the words which were used there, although I like to use foul language. And the film started quite normally. Or the film about how a Ukrainian literature textbook is dirtied (a short animation film Ukrainian literature: a textbook for f***ers from the almanac Mudaky. Arabesques. – Author). However, writers are outraged by this more; I did not understand a thing about the film. Of course, they are trying to show – and it is true of yesterday and today – that a classic is being mocked at, it is clear. But it seemed to me those films are too direct. This is opinion-journalism, except for Nuclear Waste.

“In a word, my main idea is that every year there should be a hell lot of debutants in short films. There are lots of young people who have to work as assistants, pull cameras – give them a job. Someone may have luck.”

S.T.: “They are giving – the number of debuts has sharply increased over the past two years.”

“They gave it to 10 people. Give to 50. My peers should not get offended, but if they were given a job along with debutants, they would not be against debuts as much as today. For me it would be humiliating to speak publicly both against the young, and against the old people. This is an indecent behavior. I am attentive to both sides.”

S.T.: “There is a complicated situation in cinema, and no less complicated in literature – you write a book and you know for sure that it won’t sell, and if it will, the print run will be miserable. But there is the Internet, where even the film festivals are held now.”

“You know what I would have done if I were an influential Ukrainian? I would build, let’s say, for state money, a movie theater or two, with a capacity of 300, where only Ukrainian films would be screened – old, new, different. Or lend three or two screenings in commercial movie theaters for state money.


“Or offer to some oligarchs, who build those architecture horrors, to give ground floors for movie theaters. They would agree, if the price for land was lower. However, to reduce this price, you need to pay this million to someone. They don’t do this even in Yerevan.”

S.T.: “Olena Fetisova offered to you to direct the film about Parajanov and you refused. Why do you think it is harmful to the film when personally know the hero?”

“By the way, many viewers liked the film.”

S.T.: “It was accepted very well at the screening at the House of Cinema.”

“So, this is more of an audience film – for those who know practically nothing about Parajanov. For those who know I would have shot a legend. I refused right away, I said it was not my kind of thing. Besides, I think it is too early to shoot films about Parajanov. The memory about him is still too fresh. However, I was not against Fetisova’s shooting the film.

“The film seems to be biographical, bound to certain earthy facts, but Parajanov was a person who invented from morning till night. He was not living on the earth, he was flying above it. He did not understand in what country he was. A legend about a person who always flutters and never goes down to earth – this is what I would have done. I have nothing against the film, and one of the reasons is that I am involved in it [Balaian is the creative producer of the film. – Author].

“I have one remark. For Serge Avedikian who played Parajanov’s role. His Russian language is inorganic, he says ‘iziashny’ instead of ‘iziashchny,’ as a result he overplays. They say the Ukrainian copy is much more interesting, because Bohdan Beniuk lent his voice to it, I think he has improved many things.”

V.H.: “As for biographic films, you once wanted to shoot a film about Taras Shevchenko.”

“Yes. But I invented everything about Shevchenko! I’ve written 17 short stories – pure fiction. I read the first page of Shevchenko’s Diary and stopped. I continued after I wrote the short stories.”

S.T.: “Are those the stories about his stay in Kazakhstan in exile?”

“Yes. I later gave them as a present to Oleksandr Denysenko [director who wants to shoot a film about Shevchenko in exile following his own script. – Author].”

S.T: “Do you have any more copies? Can I read them?”

“Yes, I do. I just need to find them. When I cannot continue to work with something, it disappears. I had a wonderful Armenian script Buffalo based on Hrant Matevosyan – I don’t have it anymore. I used to write scripts on my own – that was a mistake. If I did the same with Flying, that would be a different kind of film, which would be difficult to watch. But when I shared my idea with Mikhalkov, he recommended already experienced then screenplay writer Viktor Merezhko. Otherwise nothing would have come out of it.”

S.T.: “Was the film about Shevchenko supposed to consist of 17 short stories?”

“Yes. They were supposed to be 1.5-hour long. In one of them he receives a letter from his friend that the emperor amnestied him. But it is a private letter, there is no official notification. And he hides from everyone that he is practically free. He starts to say ‘hi’ to everyone, help everyone with something – and totally changes.

“In another short story Shevchenko teaches to the daughter of the prison commandant, whose Ukrainian wife arrives – she appreciated his creative work. Another one tells how he started to paint a Kazakh boy and saw that he was from a poor family. Shevchenko gave him food, but the boy did not eat it – he brought it home. Shevchenko gave him more and saw the kids eat, and then the boy licked over the plates, because he was the oldest in the family.

“Or how he had a dream that he hears a Ukrainian song: many voices sing it in his wagon at dawn. He comes up to the wagon and sees a Kalmyk sleeping there. Shevchenko asks him: ‘Don’t you hear the song?’ ‘Yes, yes,’ replies Kalmyk. Shevchenko goes towards the sounds, because it seems to him there is a caravan far away and people are singing Ukrainian songs there. Later he understands it is a mirage and goes back. He asks Kalmyk, ‘Did you hear it in fact? Did you remember the song?’ And Kalmyk starts singing his folk song.

“I wanted to show a kind-hearted man, fascinated by the people surrounding him, because they were all in exile, even the officers serving there. Clearly, Shevchenko is the pain and sorrow of Ukraine, but I wanted to show a different kind of Shevchenko, because I was inventing.

“I shared my idea with Dmytro Pavlychko. He seemed to be interested, he said he would go to the Secretary of the Central Committee Kapto, but later disappeared. Three days later I met Pavlychko by accident and he said, ‘I felt embarrassed to call you, because Kapto said that this film should not be made by an Armenian.’”

S.T.: “Kapto was a secretary on ideology of the Central Committee. This is what the rhetoric of party bonzes about ‘friendship of people’ was in reality.”

“In the 1990s Mykola Mashchenko, the then director of the film studio, offered me to shoot a film about Shevchenko, but the idea was dead in me by that time. Armenians regularly offer me to shoot Buffalo. But I am a different kind of person now.”

S.T.: “Whom did you want to invite for Shevchenko’s role?”

“Moscow actor Nikolai Gubenko, he worked at the Theater on Taganka. It was in 1979. I turned against this idea, when I was made understand that Armenian cannot make films about sacred things. Since then I haven’t read anything Ukrainian with a purpose to make a film.”

V.H.: “Are you working on a new film?”

“I am working on two scripts simultaneously, but I cannot finish them because of my laziness. I should be sent somewhere, far away from the city and the car, so that I didn’t want to go out of the house.”

V.H.: “What prevents you from doing this?”

“I simply don’t like cinema much. This ego has disappeared in me. I understand that when I will be shooting the film, it will be interesting, but I procrastinate.”

S.T.: “You shoot once in five years.”

“I have four more months left (laughing). I hate heat and cold. If I shoot, I will do this in May and June.

“Maybe, if I were poor, I would have finished those scripts long ago. This matters as well. Having a studio and making TV series, I have become a kind of wealthy man. But I need to do something, because I can run out of money.”

S.T.: “What needs to be changed for Ukraine to become a different country?”

“There is no any consolidating idea, not a national idea, but a unifying one, which would stimulate the east, the south, the north, and the west to move in a single direction. In my time I thought that the language could be a unifying factor. In 1992, when they wanted to make all schools Ukrainian, I told one member of Rukh: are you mad? This will split the country. I offered an edict which would oblige the first forms to move to Ukrainian in a matter of seven years. Even a person who hates Ukrainians and Ukrainian would understand that he has seven years to prepare for changes. A state is a single language, a tenable army, and clearly defined borders. This is a formula from the 1st century. They did not listen to me, they wanted to jump over these problems in one leap.

“When I came to Kyiv for the first time in February 1961, we were laughing out loud. Can you imagine how the words ‘yidalnia,’ ‘laznia,’ ‘rechi naprokat’ sound for a Russian-speaking person? We were giggling, we thought it was a lame Russian language. But in a year I made my peers speak Ukrainian to me. Ukrainians, you have a brilliant language. The most tender and polite one. Even when Oleh Tiahnybok quarrels, his words sound normal except for the word ‘bandits.’ It is the language of dinner parties and diplomacy. It has no categorical ‘no’ and ‘yes.’ It has no brutality; it’s a language of poetry. That is why there are so many poets in Ukraine and so few prose authors.”

Interview recorded and transcribed by Viktor HLON
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