Sergei Loznitsa, a Ukrainian filmmaker, has always been a regular at the Cannes Film Festival. He might not have been a frequent guest at BFI London Film Festival, however, whenever he attends the event, you know you will always be in for a treat with his new work. Sergei has been making films since 1996 and, apart from a few features, he has already directed over twenty documentaries, including Maiden (2014), Austerlitz (2016), and Babi Yar. Context (2021). On top of that, the filmmaker has won over 20 awards for his work. Throughout the years, seven of Sergei’s productions were presented at the Cannes Film Festival, winning him FIPRESCI Award for In the Fog (2012) and Un Certain Regard Award for Best Director for Donbass (2018). This year’s London Film Festival invited Sergei in person and showed his latest documentary, Babi Yar. Context, a powerful film that depicts the mass murder of Jews in Babi Yar [Former Soviet territory – now Kiev, Ukraine] in September of 1941.
I met with the filmmaker and his partner, Maria Choustova, at Mayfair hotel for a one-to-one chat about Sergei’s career and his project, Babi Yar. Context. While I thought Maria would translate our conversation, Sergei surprised me with his fluent English. We sat at the hotel’s empty restaurant and I began my interview by asking the director about his approach to the story and the documentary itself.
“For years, I had been thinking of making this film. I was raised close to that area, that’s why I was interested in the topic of Babi Yar,” says Sergei.
When it came to this particular project, Sergei wrote down his ideas and the things that he wanted on one page, and then gave the proposal to the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre, which agreed to finance his concept without hesitation.
“I didn’t even write the script for this project. Normally, I don’t do it, but this time I just did it. I knew [at that time] how the film must begin and how it would end. I knew these two points and everything begins with the German intervention in the Soviet Union, because the Holocaust started with mass killings on Soviet territory…” I decided not to transcribe the director’s full answer as it would spoil the film for those who wish to watch it.
During the pre-production, the director looked through the Krasnogorsk Film Archives and the Bundesarchiv in Germany, as well as some private German archives. And step by step, while doing his research, he found interesting footage that he later used for the documentary. In addition, Sergei had to show and develop the relationship between the German authorities, the locals and the Jewish community.
“I also had to show what the Soviets did at that time. In general, I was obliged to demonstrate what both countries’ troops did to the cities. And throughout the research, I found a way to develop the script. But you know, I made many documentaries and none of them had a proper script. In all honesty, it’s hard to write anything if you haven’t seen all the footage,” confesses the filmmaker.
While chatting to Sergei about Babi Yar, we also discussed the role of a documentary filmmaker and their responsibility to be historically accurate. The director elaborated on the subject passionately and ended it with a summary: “We must do it. It is important to come back to history and tell the truth, whether we like it or not.”
While doing the research, Sergei went through hundreds of hours of archived footage. After choosing the right footage, the filmmaker went on to work with his editors, Tomasz Wolski and Danielius Kokanauskis. As editing always brings some difficulties during post-production, Sergei confidently admits that working with Tomasz and Danielius was a very good experience.
“Tomasz Wolski is not only an editor, but he is a good documentary filmmaker too. He also works in archive films, he helped so much with my film’s edit. For me it is easy, when I know what I want and what footage I want, editing goes smoothly. It is like a puzzle sometimes, but we did it. [That said] I stayed in the editing room to make sure everything was the way I wanted. Sometimes, I looked at my editor’s computer, then I looked at mine, then I looked back at his. I was multitasking, and told him ‘no, no, no, change this a little bit, and go’,” Sergei admits with a chuckle and adds “I also edited myself.”
While explaining his collaboration with the two editors, Sergei confirmed that when working on Babi Yar. Context, he was occupied with another project, a 4-hour documentary called Mr. Landsbergis, a film about Lithuanian people who fought for independence at the beginning of Perestroika. As you can see, there is no sign of the filmmaker slowing down.
To those who are not aware of Ukrainian history, Babi Yar, during the German occupation, was a place that was used for executions, and the location of a concentration camp. On top of that, Babi Yar was used by the NKVD during Stalin’s times – the authorities first fenced the area and then covered it with construction waste. This led to another tragedy. In the early 1960s, a great flood occurred and the surrounding residential areas were flooded; thousands of people died…
Jonas Zagorkas was responsible for the restoration of the images. I was really interested in how that process looked and the order of restoration. “First, we edited the film and then Jonas took care of the restoration of the footage. With him, we have restored, I think, five films already. With new programmes available for filmmakers, it is easier to create fresh images and to restore the old ones,” Sergei tells me. “It is incredible how quickly film technology/tools have changed over months and years,” he adds.
Sergei often chooses political and historical narratives for his films. But what really attracts him to such topics? His films have never been an easy watch, so why?
“I never ask myself why I choose and have chosen topics like that,” admits the director. He further comments: “To me it is absolutely clear, when I have a certain topic that I would like to discover, to talk and propose to the audience, I just do it. One of those topics is the power and attraction of death.”
As an Eastern European, I know the history of WWII well, or I thought I did. While we studied that period of time extensively, I now realise that there were many tragic events that we have never learnt or read about in our history books, and one of those moments was the genocide of 33,771 Jews in Babi Yar. However, with that in mind, I also wonder why such a hideous crime was hidden for such a long time.
“As I mentioned before, I lived in a neighbourhood which is close to Babi Yar, and remember this place from my childhood. When I was young, I read the book Babi Yar by Anatoly Kuznetsov. I was very interested in the book. At that time, I wasn’t striving to become a filmmaker, but I dreamed about how I could turn the story into a film,” Sergei tells me. “So, [years later] in 2012, we started to work on the project. In 2013, I wrote the treatment and throughout the years we worked hard to find finances for the production.”
As the pandemic hit back in 2019, not many believed that filmmaking could carry on. However, in the most challenging times, Sergei was contacted by the artistic director of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who also turned out to be Sergei’s friend since 1992, and suggested to make something for the Memorial Centre. Without hesitation, Sergei agreed and started the production of Babi Yar. Context. Although he thought of Babi Yar’s story as a feature narrative first, the film ended up as a documentary. Having said that, as the film director mentioned, he would like to make a feature as well.
Babi Yar. Context is a film made of 100% authentic materials, both from the war and post-war times. During the interview, Sergei also mentioned that he wanted to show how the Soviet Union’s political history functioned. Although the crimes of Nazi Germany were known, Sergei also touched on the topic of how discussion of the Holocaust itself was often avoided during the rule of communism.
“Even today, 80 years after the tragedy that took place in Kiev, there is no consensus, there is no historical narrative that would involve the society in naming, understanding and preserving the memory of this tragedy,” says Sergei.
We spoke for over 50 minutes and I wished it was longer than that. Undoubtedly, Sergei is a fascinating filmmaker that truly understands how to bring past historical events onto the big screen. And, while concluding our conversation, he said that his films are never about the past but “they are about the way the past is connected to the present.”
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
The interview took place during the 56th BFI London Film Festival.
Featured image © Courtesy of Sergei Loznitsa
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