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A spoonful of vodka helps the festival go down

Trying to start a vodka empire and getting ready to premiere your film at the BFI London Film Festival is not on everyone’s to-do list, but for Dan Edelstyn, it is his current reality.

The director of the documentary How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire (which is debuting tonight at BFI’s London Film Festival), is trying to juggle a new vodka company, a movie premiere and not to mention a baby daughter.

“It has been like dragging an anchor across a continent, or something like that, a feat of incredible endurance, but it has been great,” Edelstyn said.

The Irish-born, London-based director is gearing up to premiere his new film about his quest to discover his family’s past, and in turn, discovers their rich history in the Ukrainian vodka industry.

After finding his grandmother’s diary in a suitcase in an attic, Edelstyn felt compelled to tell her story.

“When I first read my granny’s manuscript, I became totally obsessed with it. I really felt her story would be excellent, and I also felt weirdly called to make it because it felt like my granny sprang out of the suitcase like a jack in the box,” said Edelstyn on his first discovery of the papers.

The film first started out as a historical fiction feature that found Edelstyn transporting back to the past to discover his grandmother’s story. But after some filming, he realised that formula was not going to be sustainable, and the film transformed into a documentary.

But the transformation was not finished. Although much of the film tells his family’s history, the main focus is on his determination and struggles to revive his grandfather’s vodka distillery.

After visiting the town in Ukraine where his family lived, Edelstyn was determined to recreate the vodka empire that used to economically drive the small town.

“As part of the film, I felt like I took on the responsibility of trying to make some kind of difference to the vodka production in that village. I felt that is was very important and that it wasn’t a gimmick and that I try with all my heart and soul to deliver on that idea,” Edelstyn said. That inspiration led to the creation of Zorokovich 1917 Vodka.

But, as seen in the film, neither the vodka nor the movie making happened over night. The film follows the struggles of the filmmaker to establish the vodka brand, as well as maintaining his family’s sensibilities.

His wife, Hilary (who also plays his grandmother in the animation sequences in the documentary), was a major player in both the film and vodka endeavours. In a small but powerful scene, Edelstyn captures Hilary in a state of frustration at the life he has created for them.

“It is hard to see that bit with Hilary for me because I filmed her having a breakdown, and what kind of bastard does that? How insensitive is it for me to try and get that into the film? So I feel quite bad about that,” Edelstyn said.  And although the story of re-establishing the vodka empire is the main crux of the film, Edelstyn discovered the parallels between his grandmother’s life and his own.

“What really became important [to me] was that [the film] was about time and life and family, and the fact that you don’t have that long to live and we will all soon end up on a gravestone somewhere. It’s about the nowness of it all.”

And the now for Edelstyn is anything but dull. Hilary and Edelstyn attended the opening of the LFF last week .

“The excuse for walking down that red carpet was that there was a movie at the end of it, but actually they could’ve rolled that bloody red carpet down a blind alley in Soho and we would’ve gone onto it,” Edelstyn said of the opening night of LFF. “It was just a great feeling to finally have this moment of like ‘yes,’ you’ve done your film, it is in the festival now and it signifies not only the end of the process in some ways but also the acceptance of what you done hasn’t been a complete waste of four or five years.” 

How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire premieres tonight at BFI’s London Film Festival.

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