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Keep an Eye on: Alyona Surzhikova & Sergei Trofimov

Alyona Surzhikova and Sergei Trofimov are developing Not My Land, a documentary project about the clash of infrastructural expansion in contemporary Estonia and the community of ethnic outsiders taking care of run-down garden plots. There is, however, an even more serious underlying issue. The country stands on the rubble of a former superpower and the reverberations of unresolved past emerge right in the middle of a vegetable patch.


Currently, Not my Land is one of the three documentaries currently in development by the director/producer couple’s production company Diafilm. In 2011, the documentary project Not my Land was selected for the year-long documentary workshop Ex Oriente Film, organized by the Institute of Documentary Film. Jihlava hosted the last workshop session which concluded with public presentation at the East European Forum, providing Alyona and Sergei with co-production opportunities and valuable feedback. Although Not my Land seems to lack progress on the funding side, there is significant development in terms of the story and narration.

Gardens with Ghosts of the Soviet Past
An interview with Alyona Surzhikova and Sergei Trofimov 
by Ondřej Kuhn

After receiving funds from EFF (Estonian Film Foundation) and ECE (Estonian Cultural Endowment), you have pitched the project, seeking international coproduction. You told me Estonians often rely on Scandinavian partners, like YLE and SVT. How is the funding situation today?

At this moment, we don’t see any real changes on the production side. After the first pitching of our project we received one letter of interest from Polish channel Kultura. Back in Jihlava, STV from Slovakia promised to help us, but now nobody has answered our letters yet. The story is the similar in other cases. To pitch is not enough - you need to get some reactions after you pitch.


Not My Land deals with municipal development replacing old garden lots, the new era pushing off the remnants of the former one, unveiling the USSR past. Some commissioning editors who saw your pitch agreed that your theme carries universal international appeal, especially for Eastern European audiences, yet it seems other documentaries have already treated this topic. What makes Not My Land different?

One can find unusual historical background in our country. It is different than other European countries - in such small country like Republic of Estonia we have two completely different ethnic groups who maintain complex relationships.

Our main characters are really unique. Boris believes that nothing in this world really belongs to us, while Valery is into all kinds of disasters. We compose a microscopic picture of our history through the eyes of different people.


The literal misunderstanding between Estonian authorities and people inhabiting the farmer houses is one of the central motives in your documentary. You relate to this issue, but it concerns also you personally. How specific is the production of such a documentary for you, Russian Estonians?

I think the main topic of the film is “we sold what one cannot buy.” Instead of a small garden you get a piece of land in another area, but it is not your land. You didn't work on this land for 30 years, your children didn't grow up there... This film is about memories, feelings for Russians. And it is shame for Estonians to have such strange, dirty area of illegal lots right next to an airport.

The motivation to share such stories to international audiences is much bigger to us. Because of our background we have keys to people from both sides, from both ethnic groups, which provides us with much more options to create a strong story that could be understandable for everyone.


In October, you claimed you were waiting to shoot the most important scenes of the film – the actual destruction of the vegetable farms – which was supposed to take place in December. Did everything go the way you expected?

The officials, who have always played a strange game with us, chose unusual strategy. In December we did not a catch a single moment of tractors or any other construction machines coming in the fields. What we found was a huge group of workers who were preparing the site to build fortifications around the future airport expansion area. It seems that no one wants to share their real plans with us and to show how is the end of the planned story going to look like.


Both the winning and losing side of the conflict seem to be outlined in advance, based on outspoken symbolism. Is your film concerned about what happens to the people after the farms are cleared away? Or it is rather interested in the progress of the modern expansionism?

After the area is destroyed we plan on continuing to shoot one of our characters, Boris, who will go on living in this land. He thinks all he needs to do is move one or two kilometers away from this site. Nevertheless, everyone else has just gone away.


Did you experience any unexpected twists that diverted the original idea in a new direction?

We decided to follow Boris’s story after the pitching in Jihlava. He is really strong and extra original character who portrays strong power of will and strong belief in God. His example shows that everyone is free. His example proves that freedom is an internal state and does not depend on external factors.


Not My Land

Producer: Trofimov Sergei
Production company: Diafilm

Suur - Sõjamäe , Estonia, 70 min, 35 mm, Creative

You are at home, but you are homeless, your plot belongs to your State, but your State no longer exists. A new power could arise at any time and destroy your cottage. The conflict is between the communist and capitalist systems, between the poor and the rich, between the young and the old.