Akhtem Seitablayev, a Ukrainian director of Crimean Tartar origin, born in Uzbekistan, presented his new film, “Chempiony z Pidvorittia” or “Backstreet Champions”, in the Ukrainian pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival
U.W.: Social films are not as popular in Cannes as they are at the Berlinale. What was the reaction to your film?
I didn’t go to the premier. I had to give away my invitations because too many people wanted to see it. At the press-conference, though, I received many compliments for the way the film was made and for the concept, as well as for the end where the Ukrainian anthem is played. One thing that was extremely important to me was to keep everything tasteful without plummeting into pseudo-pathos and remain at the peak of emotional tension, which any tiniest little thing or controversy could easily turn into failure.
U.W.: Your film is about homeless people playing football and winning. Some can see it as being overly ambitious, others see it as a social film. How did you view the initial plot and why did you choose this concept?
I’m sure that breaking point situations and how people survive all circumstances that are against them are the most interesting plots for theater and films. When I read the news about this match, where a Ukrainian football team, made up of homeless people won the game, I immediately wanted to make it into a film. “We will now be proud of our homeless people,” a journalist summarized the film at a press-conference before we went to Cannes. But in fact we urge the audience to be proud of people who found the strength to rise from the bottom and win.
U.W.: Does it feature any references to your family, which was forcibly resettled from Crimea along with other Crimean Tartars?
I really appreciate this question. Tartars have never actually been vagrants, but they have experienced this kind of life, the feeling of being kicked out of life. They were not even in the list of former USSR nationalities. Sevastopol was liberated on 9 May 1944 and my people were deported on 18 May, all accused of treason. Yet, statistics prove that all Crimean Tartar men aged 18 and older fought in the Red Army. Indeed, my film has references to the history of my people, but it hurts when I see homeless children. I’m a father of four and I know what it’s like when kids are three years old and searching for their own identity in life.
U.W.: The message in your film is similar to that in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”: everyone is able to achieve anything in life. Or is it more of a patriotic concept where even homeless Ukrainians have talents?
My priority is to show more than a social message or problem, especially with a film that asks questions and does not offer solutions. I wish life was as simple as showing people what they could do to live happily ever after. If that were possible, someone would have come up with a recipe for a happy life a long time ago. The guys in the film won the championship. What next? Nothing. That’s what matters. The government is not interested in putting the homeless on a pedestal, even if they won a world championship, unlike Manchester United or Real, for instance. UNESCO also deals with the homeless and has statistics showing that 70% of people taking part in such championships change their lives for the better.
U.W.: You appear to be quite ambitious. When asked “Who is your director” in a questionnaire you answered “Me”.
(Laughing) It was a joke, actually. I’m very critical of myself and I can say exactly what I can and cannot do. The guy that answered “me” as “my director” can forgive me many things, understand me and calm me down. Meanwhile, he can tell me “you’re nothing” at night. I’m my own biggest critic.
For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners