The Ukrainian director’s epic has become a hit in its home country, selling more than 277,597 tickets in its first 25 days to overtake Fury at the box office.
Oles Sanin talks to Jeremy Kay about the Pronto Film story of an American boy who acts as a guide for a Kobzar — a blind minstrel — in Soviet Ukraine during the tumultuous and genocidal 1930s.
Tell us about the significance of the Kobzars in Ukrainian culture
The Kobzars were the carriers of Ukrainian oral history, language, tradition and culture. They were traveling minstrels who sang about freedom and fighting for independence.
Why did Stalin perceive them as a threat and how did he deal with them?
Stalin first destroyed Ukrainian intellectuals, religion, middle class, finally the farmers in the Holodomor Genocide of 1932-33. Stalin then targeted the Kobzars as a last stronghold of Ukrainian culture and national identity. Stalin outlawed their traditional songs of freedom, their instruments, tried to make them paid performers of Soviet propaganda. When everything failed, he decided to simply kill them.
How vibrant (and numerous) is the Kobzar community today?
Some Kobzars escaped and kept the tradition alive. These survivors have nurtured a new generation of Kobzars who have been embraced by the Ukrainian public. During pre-production, I visited several schools for the blind. Almost all the blind Kobzars in the film are non-actors who learned how to sing and play traditional Kobzar music. Many have become Kobzars in real life and now continue the tradition.
Have you received or do you expect to receive any grief from Russia over this film?
The regime of Vladimir Putin won’t like it and won’t allow it to be shown. Inside Russia many people want to see it. It’s important that viewers understand that the film is not anti-Russian; it’s against the totalitarian regime that wanted to destroy the culture of the people. Russians want and need to see the film.
Tell us the story of how you wanted to make this film. I understand you yourself were a guide for a minstrel.
As a child I was interested in folk music. I collected songs. I met an old Kobzar and wanted to write his songs down. I was his guide for one week as he sang songs on the street, at the market, outside the church. It’s a form of street music. I never thought to make a film about the murder of the Kobzars. In 2004 I met the actor Jack Palance and told him several stories I wanted to film. Jack told me this was a very important story, one the world needed to hear. The world needs to understand that Ukrainians are people who love freedom and refuse to be broken, even at the cost of their lives.
Where and when did you shoot it?
In 2011 I finally got funding for the film. We shot for 82 days, all over Ukraine, finishing in October 2013. We planned to release the film in January 2014, but the Euromaidan protests erupted in November. We realised that the film was more relevant than ever, and delayed release to November 2014.
Are the actors well known in Ukraine?
Stanislav Boklan, who plays Ivan, and Oleksandr Kobzar, who plays Volodymyr, were stage actors in Ukraine. I looked at more than 2,000 actors before finding Michigan-born Anton Greene, who plays Peter. I wanted someone who though he had learned Ukrainian, didn’t understand the world he was seeing, and as he was introduced to it, would act as “Guide” and introduce it to the world-wide audience. Jamala, who plays Olha, is a popular singer of Crimean Tatar descent. I felt she had the look of the 1930s and I wanted someone who could sing - I didn’t want to dub her with another voice. American actor Jeff Burrell, who plays Michael, also had the 1930s look I wanted. The morning after The Guide premiered, as the Ukrainian saying goes, ‘They woke to find themselves movie stars.’ Now they are on the cover of every magazine and everyone in Ukraine knows who they are.
The production values are terrific. Who funded the film and what was the budget?
The film cost $2m, the standard funding given by the Ukrainian Ministry Of Culture to any film of any size. But people donated costumes, props, sets, cameras, equipment, work, food, anything you can imagine. People believed in the film and wanted it to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
What will you make next?
The Guide has proven that Ukrainian films can appeal not only to film festivals but to a mass audience. I want to work with European and American producers and actors because I want to help orient Ukrainian cinema towards world cinema and away from the old Soviet model. Most importantly, I want to make films that reflect themes relevant to my people today, because during the past year, everything has changed: the people, the government, the country.