“I have set a line for myself beyond which an honest discussion of complicated matters turns into propaganda”
Director of The Cyborgs, Her Heart and Haytarma, speaks about contemporary Ukrainian film, about propaganda in movies, about what unites Crimean Tatars today, and about Crimea House in Kyiv, which Seitablayev has been running since early 2017
You acted in Mamai and Bohdan-Zynoviy Khmelnytskiy, names that immediately tell us these were concept films that are significant for the historical thinking of Ukrainians. You also directed Haytarma and Her Heart [A Foreign Prayer in Ukrainian -- Ed.], films that look at key events in Crimean Tatar history. How much impact have the first two had on discourse on Ukraine’s history? What messages about Crimean Tatars were you hoping to get across in the other two?
— First of all, it’s no secret that Crimean Tatars or Qirimli—I like that name a lot better—and Ukrainians have rubbed shoulders together for several centuries and they have many common events in their histories. And not only that, but we’ve taken a lot from each other, both in our way of life and in our language. Secondly, in terms of films and their subject matter, I’m a Ukrainian of with Crimean Tatar ancestry. I’m both a Ukrainian and a Crimean Tatar, so for me it’s normal to at in movies about Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar historical events. I dreamt about the film Haytarma for a very long time. When we found financial backing, we did it. The same is true of Her Heart—this was my tribute, mine as a Qirimli and as an individual whom the Universe has given such an instrument as cinema. I wanted to scream out loud about the tragedy of my people, but also for basic human values: about the safety of our children, the health of our parents, about rights and dignity, in my own language and living in my own homeland. That’s why these movies are interesting to viewers in many different countries.
How much do you have to explain to foreign viewers when Haytarma or Her Heart plays abroad?
— Basically, I don’t, although most viewers do ask, “Surely it wasn’t like that?” When you start to explain to them, saying look, close to 30 different peoples were deported under the Soviet Union, 10 of them completely—among them the Qirimli. Then you turn around and ask them: “Do you understand what kind of country that was, if the foundation of its existence was built on the humiliation or destruction of entire peoples?” At The Hague viewing, with quite a few diplomats in the audience, the US Ambassador said that he had heard about this story, but long ago, and now, after watching my film, he understood the scale of the tragedy. I’m hoping that the film The Cyborgs, which will also soon play in a number of other countries, will be understandable to viewers. We have built the artistic structure of our story so that even foreign audiences will be able to understand clearly what was going on. So that they understand that we have an ongoing war with the Russian Federation and with some of the representatives of the occupied territories, yet it’s not a civil war, but a war of the soviet past with the civilized future. At least that’s how I see it. Maybe we will have to make some kind of prologue to The Cyborgs, to extend the titles, so to speak, so that people see what it started with, what kept it going, and what keeps it going, unfortunately, to this day.
Since Ukraine became independent, only the truly lazy had no complaints about Ukrainian filmmaking. When Ukrainian-made movies came out one or two a year, many were very disappointed both in its quality and its quantity. After all, we’re a big nation and we don’t even have our own film industry. The situation is now changing: more movies are being made and the quality is much improved compared to those made even in 2012. How much is this a reflection of state policy and financing or are there other reasons?
— A mess of problems made it difficult for Ukrainian cinema to even exist, never mind be of good quality. And now there is a series of things that are helping us feel that Ukrainian cinema has begun to take steps to a rebirth. Of course, funding is a very big factor. People, including creative individuals, live every day and have to resolve everyday issues all the time. Not that many people go into the arts, because they knew that they needed to put food on their tables every single day. Slowly but surely, projects began to appear and funding was found. Gradually the state began to understand that culture is the backbone of a nation, the thing that keeps it all together. The products being made are more and less high quality, which is completely natural. Even with Hollywood, we only see the stuff that has made it through a series of filters, films that turned out to be interesting to viewers all over the world. It just doesn’t happen that only super high-quality movies are released. People need to understand that, on one hand, it’s very important that the state is supporting cinema, but on the other, it’s important to be prepared to accept that money is not the only question. One of our big problems is professionalism: there aren’t enough professionals because there was a huge failure in education. That’s why any attempt to improve Ukrainian cinema needs to be a set of solutions that includes professional development and expanding cinemas. There should be at least three times more than what we have today. After all, 60% of Ukrainians don’t have the option of seeing a movie in a theater. There aren’t enough in major cities, while in towns like Konotop, with a population of nearly 90,000, there isn’t a single movie hall.
Is it time to talk about some uniquely Ukrainian feature in our contemporary cinema?
— Hard to say. In the sixties and seventies, the films that were being made wove together the notion of “poetic Ukrainian cinema.” Maybe our modern movies have something of that tradition about them. Sometimes people tell me that in Haytarma and Her Heart I supposedly continue this tradition. If that’s really true, that’s a real honor for me. I have watched a lot of Ukrainian films and quite a few are world-class masterpieces. I’m a Ukrainian of Crimean Tatar ethnicity and it’s natural that my orientation is, possibly even unconsciously, towards my Ukrainian heritage.
Have you determined for yourself that there is a point at which a film becomes propaganda? Are you worried about crossing that line?
— For sure, that worries me. Somebody once said that taste is a category of morality. That makes it hard to say where propaganda starts. I have set a line for myself beyond which an honest discussion of complicated matters turns into propaganda. I’m categorically against rah-rah patriotism, because it does a lot of harm to concepts like your flag, your homeland, and the country as a whole.
Does Ukraine have a lot of rah-rah patriotic films?
— A few, and they’re pretty bad. When people ask me, “Don’t you think your film is propaganda?” and I answer “If popularizing common sense is propaganda, then yeah.”
Do you consider yourself a maker of patriotic films?
— I don’t care to talk about myself like that. Maybe it’s just my own internal state and my need: to make movies about historical themes or about contemporary socio-political events. Thanks to the Almighty and my team, I’ve been able to make only those films that interest me in the last few years, films that I really want to make. I’d like to make a variety of films and I’ve worked in very different genres. I really love comedy, fantasy—and basically any quality movie. Movies in general. But it happened that Backstreet Champions was about social issues, then came Haytarma, Her Heart and The Cyborgs—and these are the themes that echo inside me the most right now. God willing, the next one will be Zakhar Berkut, and my dream is to do TheBattle of Konotop. But I also really, really want to do a comedy.
What is it that unites modern Qirimlis? What is the basis of their identity?
— There’s lots there. We have a common history—I prefer not to use the word “tragedy” here, but all the vicissitudes that we have undergone and are still going through. And a common language...
Most of us understand Crimean-Tatar and many speak it in their daily lives. Of course, if schooling took place in Crimean-Tatar in kindergartens, schools and universities, it would be fully functioning among us. Otherwise, it’s just a language spoken at home. What also unites us is customs: the Qirimlis, If I may say so, have a strong tradition of upholding traditions. That’s true of everyday life, such as in our cuisine, and in celebrations, both religious ones and folk feasts. A common struggle also unites us: unfortunately, the Qirimlis have had to prove their right to live in their homeland and their dignity for several centuries now. This has formed a very strong background for Crimean Tatars. It lives in every family and in every Qirimli.
The British writer Lily Hyde, who wrote a novel called Dream Land about the repatriation of the Crimean Tatars, once said in an interview that oral history kept the Qirimlis together for a long time. What role has that played in your family?
— Actually, quite a serious role. I heard about Crimea constantly, and about how we would return there one day. There was never any doubt when my grandparents or parents spoke of it that this would happen. No one ever said “If we return,” only “When we return.” Now I wonder where that confidence came from. But my parents believed it and we returned.
You are now director of Crimea House, a state enterprise that began to work after the occupation, meaning not that long ago. What would you like to see Crimea House develop into, in time?
— I’d like to see it turn into a cultural hub where new meanings can find life with doors that are open to all, regardless of ethnicity and nationality. Mainly I’m thinking of young people and we’ve already achieved something in this direction. Every week, there are presentations of books, lectures, exhibitions and conferences. Sometimes we even put on a play. Moreover, it’s all being born right here, not brought in from elsewhere. In addition to that, we are able to teach children: they can learn choreography and English, for example. Once we finish renovations, Crimea House will be able to offer a lot more options.
— It was set up to work for the cultural aspirations of the displaced people. But I always make a point of stating that Crimea House’s doors are open to everyone. It’s there to tell everyone about Crimea, to raise the blind and to remind both those who are from there and those who are not Crimean about it. For the first time in history, on Independence Day last year, we had a Crimean open-air event in the center of Kyiv, on Poshtova Ploshcha. When you think of it, it’s rather strange that this was the first time in 26 years. It just goes to show how little was being done so that we would know something about each other. This is a real problem, because in all the years of independence, up until the second Maidan, everything seemed calculated to prevent us from knowing anything about each other. All this fear-mongering about Crimea and its never-satisfied Crimean Tatars, that they wanted to cut off this territory, to join Turkey... that Western Ukraine was filled with separatists, banderites, while the North was all Russian-speaking and wanted to join Russia, together with the East. We live in fear, one of the most powerful human emotions. And when a person is constantly in that kind of emotional stress, very little time and strength is left to think what kind of roads we’re driving on, whether we live in a society that is based on the rule of law, or whether our parents are going through a dignified old age. Against this background, whoever is in power can take care of his own business without worrying that the public will start questioning why we are living like this. If our kids live next to each other all their lives, go to the same schools, then to the same universities, sometimes fall in love with each other, and we keep telling them that Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country, that everyone should feel part of the whole, if every day we do something to uncover the beauty of this variety, then maybe there won’t be any war. Perhaps the Almighty needed us to go through these tragic events so that we would finally learn to open our eyes, to hear and recognize one another, and tell our stories. This is one of the purposes of Crimea House and we are now doing what we’re doing, engaging in the arts, for this to become possible. Culture is a powerful toolkit for stitching a country together and for us to tell each other about ourselves.
When Crimea House opens in Warsaw as planned, will it also be this kind of cultural hub?
— Definitely. The Poles have enormous institutional know-how and experience developing organizations. What’s more, they are our nearest neighbors—possibly our most important ones—, and we have many common plans. I was at viewings of Haytarma several times in Poland and right now we’ve shared some dreams and plans for movies with our Polish colleagues. If something were to come up in the way of a joint project with Crimea House, that would be great.
Now that you’re in charge of a government institution, how difficult is it to combine your creative side with being an official?
— Indeed, combining the two isn’t easy. But it’s mostly a question of your team, and in that sense I’m a very lucky guy. Both in filmmaking and at Crimea House, I have a terrific team. People’s eyes are on fire and they’re bubbling with creativity. At the same time, they understand not only WHAT’s worth doing, but HOW to do it as well.
Where will The Cyborgs be showing in the next while?
— The Ministry of Information Policy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our production team and the Verkhovna Rada Committee for European Integration have put together a program. Plans are to show The Cyborgs in Turkey, Poland, the Baltics, in France at Strasbourg, in the US and in Canada.
Akhtem Seitablayev is a Ukrainian filmmaker of Crimean Tatar descent. Born in 1972 in Uzbekistan, he came to Crimea when he was 17. He then studied in Kyiv, performed in a theater in Simferopol, and made his film debut in 2003. He has played roles in films about major historical figures such as Mamai and Bohdan-Zynoviy Khmlenytskiy and has made films about events in Crimean Tatar history, the best known being Haytarma and Her Heart. Seitablayev admits that historical and social themes that lie buried in the heart of society have interested him more than anything in the last few years. In December 2017, his latest film, The Cyborgs, about the defense of Donetsk Airport in 2015, was released.