Film director Taras Khymych talks about documentaries and his film about Zakarpattia in 1919-1939
In early March, Taras Khymych presented his documentary ‘Silver Land, The Chronicles of Carpatho-Ukraine 1919-1939’, in Uzhhorod, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil. Critically acclaimed in Western Ukraine, the film got a standing ovation from the audience in Zakarpattia. The Ukrainian Week talks to one of the most innovative directors in the Ukrainian film industry.
U.W.: How did your study in the US affect your professional growth?
When I went to college in Minnesota, students often met with teachers. They explained to us what problems we had with creativity. I was surprised when they told me that my works revealed a psychological problem and a sort of insecurity. That was when I began to change completely. All I had done before was okay, but limited. I was told that I had to start thinking out of the box, to loosen my mind, to shed my insecurities to fully discover myself. That’s when changes began in my work.
U.W.: Why did you go back to Ukraine after your experience as a designer in the US? Didn’t you want to continue your creative career abroad?
My stay in the US encouraged me to return to Ukraine. A creative person should not be tied to circumstances, life troubles or some sort of planning. If I had followed the main stream, I would no longer be an artist. True artists should be in a state of permanent searching and development. The best option for me at that point was to go back to Ukraine and revise my creative capacity, in other words, find myself at home. I had a promising job back in the US, and still I made this decision. Ukraine is developing while the US is already developed in all respects. This is what American teachers used to tell me, by the way, that I would have better chances to implement my creative ideas in Ukraine.
U.W.: You started your career as a painter. Were you successful?
I arranged a few art shows when I studied in Ukraine and even sold some of my paintings abroad. I entered a US college as a painter. But everything changed when I tried shooting videos in 1994. I felt right away that camerawork, together with the sound and 3D artwork, is a complete art that expands creative limits.
U.W.: After working with many Ukrainian bands, what can you say about the music video industry in Ukraine?
I can’t really talk about specific formats. A music video is a short film for me. I started making them right after I returned to Ukraine. I had a dream to shoot a video with a Ukrainian band. My friends helped me. They were also interested in music video making and we created a concept for the video of Broken Wings by Skriabin. I really like working in different genres, including film making. The basic principles of music video and film making are similar: you have to keep the audience interested all the time. Content is what matters in a film while aesthetics is what matters in a video. The latter is a format that plays with associations, images and improvisations rather than an ad for a band.
U.W.: What is your approach to creating documentaries?
Structure is what really matters, apart from the creative part. That’s what they taught us at college: to describe things and put them in a structure. Documentaries should be based on a careful design of a variety of information, that’s the foundation of a documentary for me. The genre is a great opportunity to practice systemizing information. It’s interesting to combine creative details with facts and layer one over the other. The way I see it, a documentary has the ground, let’s say historical background, on which I can layer my artistic interpretation. This ground somehow brings an artist together and inspires him to search for, reflect on, and shape his artistic vision. Documentary is not a popular genre; it is oriented at a specific segment of the audience. Documentaries are much more intense than popular films; therefore people often need to watch them over and over again.
U.W.: What message did you want the audience to see in your Silver Land, the documentary about historical developments in Zakarpattia before World War II?
It was an exotic story for me. I knew nothing about it before I began working on the film, and I was impressed by the developments in Zakarpattia at that time. We’re talking here about a phantom country that emerged out of the blue and disappeared from the map of Europe as unexpectedly as it had appeared there. I felt like a foreigner when I worked on the film, as if I had discovered a new part of the world. This tiny place went through extremely intense and turbulent changes over 1938-1939. It was hard to fit them into one logical frame. This encouraged me to take a deeper insight into what was going on in order to understand the developments better and present them to the viewers in a comprehensive format. The film taught me how to fit this huge amount of diverse information into one framework.
The film has three lines. The first is the dry unemotional part: the facts presented by a narrator and visually backed by archival sources. The second is a live part that is comprised of stories from eye witnesses and participants of those historical developments. It creates the effect of presence in conversations with them. The third is the artistic side, aesthetic and emotional. It is based on associations, not fully confirmed and supported by documents. It largely contains artistic interpretation of historical developments. It helps people feel the atmosphere of that time, see the routine, the clothing and the lifestyle of those people and hear their language. It’s sort of a soft version of the first two parts that makes it easier for the viewers to digest the film as they relax before the new flow of structured information. Yet, it also sharpens emotional perception of the film. The film gives the feeling of the drama that the Silver Land, a poetic name for Zakarpattia, went through.
U.W.: Actors and historical characters speak six languages in the film. Is this an attempt at political tolerance or the historical diversity of the Silver Land?
I’d say it’s the latter. To feel the true spirit of Zakarpattia, you have to hear the languages spread among its multi-ethnic population. At that point, Carpatho-Ukraine was inhabited by various nations and peoples. We wanted to show that in the film by portraying the common human factor rather than showing a conflict of one nation against another. People from one village would go to different churches yet helped each other in the meantime, appreciating a good attitude to work most of all. I think this could be a good model for the modern Ukraine. Back then, ethnic animosity was exportedby external regimes who were preoccupied with the idea of conquering other territories.
The film Silver Land shows the interwar history of Zakarpattia as part of Czechoslovakia. From 1919 to 1939, Zakarpattia experienced a national and cultural renaissance that peaked in the autonomous Carpatho-Ukraine in the post-Munich Czechoslovakia Agreement. After the federation collapsed, the Carpatho-Ukraine ‘Seim’, the parliament, declared its independence and approved Ukrainian national symbols, yet no country in the world recognized the newly-declared republic, while neighbouring Hungary launched an occupation of Carpatho-Ukraine. The resistance of Carpatho-Ukraine defenders was the first armed revolt against the Hitler coalition’s plans in Central and Eastern Europe.
Ukrainian painter, film and music video director
Born in 1976 in Lviv, Taras Khymych went to Lviv Academy of Arts. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the College of Visual Arts, Minnesota, and later worked as a free-lance designer in the US. In 2001, he returned to Ukraine to work as a music video and documentary film director. He has directed over 50 music videos for some of the top Ukrainian bands, including Skriabin, Tartak, Haydamaky, TNMK, Fleet, Motor’rolla, The Telnyuk Sisters, Ot Vinta and many others. His documentaries on some fragments of 20th century Ukrainian history include Under the Framework of Destiny: The History of the 1st Ukrainian National Army Division, 1943-1945; The Golden September. The Chronicles of Galicia, 1939-1941, and SilverLand. The Chronicles of Carpatho-Ukraine, 1919-1939.