Turning a Blind Eye
An Interview with Marianna Kaat about children left to fend for themselves, immature Ukraine, and self-reliance
Pit No. 8 immerses deeply into the lives of Jura, Julia, Uljana and Dima. How did you find these kids, what was the research process?
We started with quite another story. Our character was a senior citizen who had his own pit but who did not want to pay more bribes to the militia and so has doomed himself to war with the authorities. Unfortunately, when we were ready to go ahead with principal shooting, he died of lung cancer. We had already received some money for our production and visited Snezhnoye and knew many locals so I was absolutely certain that we would find a compelling story and interesting characters. However, I didn't imagine they would be children-protagonists, or rather - I did not imagine that the children can work in the mines. Already on the spot, I learned about a 15-year-old boy who was working at an illegal mine. We went looking for him, but he was not at home. Later when we were filming a street that caved in because of all the tunnels dug under it, a boy on a bicycle stopped by and it turned out that this is the very same Jura who we were looking for. And once I talked to him, there was no way back. Jura’s grandpa was the director of a large manufacturing plant in Soviet times - he was kind of equal to a celestial person, and his grandson, to feed his family, is working today - in the period of capitalism - in some illegal mine – no documentary filmmaker would have passed by such a character.
You see only glimpses of the adult generation in the film – the voice of the absent mother, teachers, miners are just a background of the totally adult life of the kids. How much is it the result of your focus while shooting and how much does it reflect the real separation of the two worlds?
On the first evening of our acquaintance with the children, Jura, seriously looking into our eyes, asked – are all people this nice where you come from? Then he sighed and added with regret - we have none of such kind. We did not even understand what he meant. For these children the norm is that it is necessary to cope with life all by themselves, that the interest of adults may be only of formal or punitive nature. So, I’ve just tried to show cinematically this separation of the two worlds - the world of abandoned children and the adult world but I can say that the reality is probably much harder.
We met in Riga in 2008 when you already had much of the material in place. How did the overall film structure evolve during all the years of shooting?
Altogether, we shot this documentary for two and a half years, although, one year is taken as the basic time period of the film. There's always something happening, as Jura calls it - Santa Barbara, and I’ve learned the news from him over the phone. The difficulty for me was that we could not just slip out at any moment and fly there. I worked on this project with cinematographer Rein Kotov, who is spiritually very close to me, and with sound engineer Ivo Felt, and I just could not replace them. It is very important, when you shoot an intimate film, where all depends on mutual trust, to share the same values in life. Although we made ten sessions in total, some of them were rather short - two days on the road and three for filming. During this time I had to browse through all the events in my head, and to compare them with what has already been filmed, and to anticipate what might still happen, and to abandon some dramatic lines, which broke off in our absence, and to focus on others that were just emerging.
At one point you secured the new home for the protagonists. How were you deciding about your own involvement?
Throughout the period of filming, all the time, we were engaged in "social" work, as no one apart from us could do this work. I simply could not just watch and enjoy what a wonderful material all by itself is falling into my hands. I was taking care of these children and I continue to participate in their lives. These children, as my own, were sent to me by God. Now, I am somehow responsible for them. They know for sure that they can contact me at any time and I'll help them as I can.
Shots in the mines – so iconic in communist propaganda and so pertinent for the description of the recent decay of the region. How did you manage to shoot so much underground?
Our cameraman was the first to go underground - it was a test shot, with a small camera, without any additional light but, in the end, I also included this material into the film because it feels so spontaneous. Afterwards he was silent for almost a day and we did not understand what happened. And it turned out that he was just in shock. And not because of what this pit looked like, but because the adults knowing that children are forced to work in such conditions, are turning a blind eye to this. By the end of the filming period, staying underground was something ordinary, familiar and even routine for us. Although, the most difficult issue was to make arrangements on filming in the illegal mines. A lot of times the shooting was cancelled at the last moment. We had no problems with the state-owned mines and we filmed there too. Somewhere in the middle of the filming period it became evident that working underground is not the worst thing in the lives of the children. The worst is the absolute indifference of the adults and society, which schizophrenically cultivates the myths of the heroic past, scares people with the future (Ukraine's accession to NATO) and does not want to open the eyes to reality.
You are an Estonian director and producer and the film was co-produced by a Ukrainian company. What are the possibilities for documentary filmmaker nowadays in Ukraine?
This is the saddest answer. I’ve worked on this project together with my Ukrainian co-producer Olena Fetisova. This is our second co-production. If you need a reliable partner in Ukraine, you won’t find better than Olena. As for financing, the only source of support for film production in Ukraine - the Ministry of Culture - has not supported us even with a single hryvnia. First, there were promises but the crisis changed everything and then there was a change in political leadership - a new president was elected - and we were told that this subject cannot be supported by Ukraine in principle. For reference, the current president of Ukraine hails from the Donetsk region, where our film was shot. Our every arrival was monitored both by the city authorities and criminal structures, and we were followed, the militia was warned, criminal leaders were warned, etc. But despite this seemingly “criminal” subject of our film, during the filming we felt quite safe, which I cannot tell about shooting in Russia, where I was filming a documentary on the topic that seems fairly safe – about ballet fans.
At East European Forum 2008, the Sundance Documentary Fund expressed an open interest right on the spot. Pit No. 8 was one of the two most attractive projects. However, except for the Sundance Documentary Fund, words and promises didn't turn into specific agreements.
Well… We pitched this project four times – in Riga, Nyon, Jihlava and Amsterdam. And always with great success. The result was zero. I received money only from Estonian funds (all three national sources backed the project), then the MEDIA Development Programme, and the Sundance Documentary Program. That’s all. And a lot of my own and co-producer’s investments. But I take the pitching forums as self-control opportunities where you can feel the audience reactions, clear your story, clear your own thoughts. And the last most important reason is that when your film is finished, it is much easier for the sales agent to offer your film to the buyers thanks to your own activity at the pitching sessions. So I consider forums mostly as a pre-promotion and marketing activity.
What is happening with the film now?
The film is finished and we are in the mastering stage. We already signed the contract with the German sales agent Deckert Distribution – that took place after the presentation Docu Talents from the East you organized in Karlovy Vary.
Looking back, is there something you consider to be a mistake or something you would like to avoid next time?
Never believe promises made by commissioning editors, never, even if they list all the numbers! Take it as a compliment. They are all extremely lovely people who want to be nice. As your point of departure, work only with the money you actually have. The most reliable sources of funding are the foundations, provided that you will certainly be ahead of the competition, which is very difficult in our time. Never spend more than you really have, unless you are 100% sure that you will get your money back. And don't promise your employees that their fees will be like the ones discussed by the CE's. Then you will feel more comfortable if one of the CE's finally decides to sign a contract with you. Rely only on yourself!
The interview was first published in the 1st issue of Industry Reel, our industry bi-daily for film professionals in Jihlava.