In 2004, Hanna Polak received an Academy Award nomination and numerous awards for her documentary film The Children of Leningradsky, a stark 35-minute observation of destitute Russian children surviving on the streets of Moscow. Polak's latest documentary Svalka - Yula's Journey, currently in post-production, follows 11 years in the life of Yula who grew up with other mostly young people at a landfill near Moscow. The project received the 2012 East Doc Platform Award given to best presentation at the East European Forum 2012.
Learn more about Hanna Polak's projects on her website.
How did you prepare each time you went out to shoot at the landfill?
I would take medicine for the people of the dump -- bandages, antiseptics for handwashing, vitamins, antibiotics, painkillers, disposable gloves, etc. -- anything and everything that might be needed to fight infections or to be used in an emergency. These things are as good as gold there. I would also bring pepper spray to use against dangerous dogs. It is a must-have item in the dump and it saved my life more than once.
I would wear plain clothes and leave my tripod at home, so I would not be easily spotted at the dump, which is a military area called a polygon. It is absolutely forbidden to be there, and of course, absolutely forbidden to film there too. Shoes are critically important. In the winter everything becomes very slippery, with the ice and snow -- the mountain made of trash is over 70 meters high! Added to this is the fact that during every season nails are everywhere and even if you are wearing shoes with hard soles you will be surprised; nails go through them like a knife through butter. Clothes have to be practical and warm. I worked out my own dress code depending on the time of year, in order to stay warm enough to function. Of course you have to carry your own water with you.
Did you have Yula in mind as the main protagonist early on in the project or did you follow the whole group at first?
Not from the beginning, but it was quite soon into the filming that I realized that I wanted to shoot Yula more than the others, and focus on her. I have to say, after I was around Yula enough, she became quite an outstanding figure. Of course I didn't know that she'd become pregnant, or that everything would be very successfully resolved for her in the end. And finding her in the dump every time I went there was not an easy matter. The problem was that the dump is such a huge place (60 hectares) and people and trash move all the time -- today they are in one place, the next day somewhere else, so it was often not possible to find her. And because filming was forbidden, I couldn't just traipse through the dump
searching for Yula. I had to sneak in and hide. So I would stay around with other characters, filming what was possible. It was very difficult to chronicle all of the things that happened to Jula in the dump. Also, when she gave birth in the hospital -- that was very difficult to shoot too. Because Yula was terrified and lonely at the hospital -- she was only a 16 year old child who had just delivered a baby -- the doctors finally decided to let me in the maternity ward. They asked me to pacify and comfort Yula, and they overlooked the fact that I was filming. They realized that she would be able to handle this situation better in my presence, since she knew me and she trusted me -- I came from her same world. Otherwise no one would give me permission and it was uphill all the way.
How many hours of material did you end up with?
Around two hundred hours of film.
With so much material, work in the editing room will be crucial. How has the editing experience been so far? What has been the most difficult thing about it to date?
Because it was forbidden to film in the dump, I couldn't just set up a tripod and film when, where, and who I wanted to. I couldnt document the life of Yula and other dump tenants as I really wanted to. So in many regards this footage is very difficult and broken and thus the editing is not that easy. At the same time, given this, it is also very exciting. Its a very interesting process to build a movie with so much material, not just about Yula, but about this excluded place, the dump – where there is of course a story of Yula -- but also where the drama, beauty, and horror, is revealed through the other characters in the film, and also through a depiction of the dump itself.
Andrzej Juraszczyk (the editor's) response to the same question:
Editing was difficult mainly because of the amount of raw source material. The complexity and "broken" character of the footage was, for me, the last thing to worry about. Very rarely do editors, especially in the documentary world, get dream footage, where everything is shot as it should be. With over two hundred hours of film that we had at our disposal, it was not possible to keep it all in my head, all at once. Given this, the basic process was to filter the material. By that I mean finding the scenes, shots, and interviews with the dump's tenants that were useful in building the story. After that was done we had to sort the material in the proper manner. This process (of selection and sorting) took about two months. Because I don't speak Russian this was difficult for me, and we ended up spending weeks translating the material from the Russian so that I could understand what was going on in any given scene. Hanna did the translating and together we created a voice over, by her, of the translated material. The major difficulty of the editing task, overall, was to find the right balance between telling the story of the main protagonist (Yula) and that of the dump Svalka itself. It's a very interesting and horrifying environment that the characters live in and it became a real struggle to get this through-line right. It meant letting go of a lot of the extraordinary events and people that Hanna had filmed. Some people say that editing is an art of resignation. When applied to the editing of Svalka: Yula's Journey, that saying is very, very true.
Do you work with or consult multiple editors?
So far I have worked with only one editor, Andrzej Juraszczyk. I am also an editor, and given that, I am contributing to the editing process. Editors such as the acclaimed Stan Neumann of France and Grazyna Gradon of Poland have offered to give their input to the movie. I had a series of beautiful and absolutely inspiring meetings about the editing of Svalka with Stan Neumann during the East European Forum in Prague in March. I am very much looking forward to our next meeting, when I will be able to show him the rough cut of the film.
Did you have any ethical concerns when following the story of the homeless young people? Did you ever have to abandon your filmmaking perspective to get involved in their lives, in order to intervene, to help them or to nudge them in the right direction, etc.?
Documentary filmmakers face ethical concerns all the time through different challenges that consistently arise. Primarily I was in the dump to help the people who lived there, in as many ways as I could; the movie was secondary. There are so many issues that people who live in the dump deal with on a daily basis and when trying to help them, the depravity of their individual and collective plight became almost too much to bear. Even when I was trying to help them, others, such as trained medical doctors, were not. When people were dying there was no place they could go, despite my best efforts to find some place where trained medical personnel would care for them or where they could even have simply a roof over their head and the warm food they needed to regain their strength. As you might imagine, this became quite overwhelming. Trying to overcome these challenges was a very very difficult experience, and it made me more clearly understand what these homeless people were going through and how impossible it was and is for them to get out of this
never-ending cycle of homelessness and of being condemned to such a destiny. Typically I would become very directly involved with these people in trying to help them, and often there was no second camera, so a lot of the particulars of any given dilemma or situation were lost. This is too bad because if I had been able to capture more of the complexities of any given situation, people watching the film would more clearly understand what the people who live in the dump are up against on a daily basis.
What feedback did you get from professionals at the East Doc Platform in March or, later, at the Hot Docs Forum in Toronto where you received the Cuban Hat Award?
Yes, we are very happy that we won the Best Pitch Award in both Prague and Toronto. The East Doc Forum was an overwhelmingly great experience for me in so many regards. I received a lot of professional advice from many people, including staff workers and tutors; everyone took a lot of time to help me in any way they could. Ivana Milosevic, Marijke Rawie, Mikael Opstrup, and Tue Steen Muller all helped me prepare my pitch and gave me a lot of professional advice pertaining to the film's budget, production issues, content issues, etc. Claudio Pazienza tutored us by showing us his own work, which was a real piece of art that gave wonderful inspiration as to what a documentary could be. Again I have to mention Stan Neumann, who spent a few days with me looking through my footage and discussing the film in detail with me, and talking about editing in general. Additionally, the forum's editor, Ondrej Vavrecka, helped me re-edit my trailer and I really liked the changes he proposed. I met many nice filmmakers. In Prague I also met Jan Rofekamp, with whom I had worked before and who is now both the distributor and the executive producer of the film. Having Jan on the board is wonderful. All these people made this experience really, really special. I got a lot more out of the East European Forum than I had been expecting, and for that I am most grateful.
Have you made any progress with funding since the East Doc Platform?
We have made some progress, but it is a tough question in that we are still searching for funding.
How long will you be editing? When do you plan to release the film, and where do you plan to release it?
We certainly need quite a few months of editing time for this movie in order to make a feature-length film, which is what we are planning to do. Before, we basically worked on preparing materials for various submissions and sorting the materials for editing. Only recently have we begun work on the rough cut of the film. Finally! The postproduction depends on the funding, which, quite frankly, we were hoping to be a little further along with by now. But the process of obtaining funding is very competitive and even though we are winning numerous awards, our funding requests have been rejected a few times. Hopefully we will manage to get the necessary funding soon, which we will apply to the postproduction process. We are aiming to be able to release the movie in the beginning of the next year.
Do you still see Yula? I presume it's one thing you get asked a lot: How is Yula doing now?
I visited Yula a few weeks ago. I stayed in her apartment in Russia, as her guest. She is doing well, as she herself told me; every opportunity that comes her way she is quick to take advantage of. Of course, nothing is ever perfect and she has her own struggles too, but these are very different from her struggles in the dump.
Have you thought of linking your film with some sort of outreach campaign (about homeless youths, etc.)?
Absolutely. We are planning a cross-media platform campaign and are currently identifying and reaching out to various organizations that would be a thematic fit with the film. If there are some readers that want to get involved or have suggestions, we're open to hearing their ideas. They can contact me directly at hanna(at)hannapolak.com.
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Zvałka , Poland, USA, 70 min, HD, Creative, Human Rights, Social Issues
This is an 11-year odyssey into the harsh realities of Russia's underclass, it's a homeless and poor who live at a garbage dump on the outskirts of Moscow. We follow Yula from age 11 to 22, from her childhood to her pregnancy at 16, until she is 22 and finally realizes the need to prevail and escape Zvalka. Yula's story is one of countless tales that haunt Russia's as well as the world's garbage dumps. Yula has ''been there, done that, seen it all and is done''. Most importantly, Yula's life is a story od change, of ability of the human spirit to rise up and prevail from a heap of degradation and shame.