Filmmaker Mykhailo Illienko has been working on his latest movie for four years. The story of Ivan Datsenko is the perfect cinematographic tale: a man captured by the Germans in WWII is supposed to die in a Russian concentration camp but, against all odds, crosses all front lines to end up in Canada and become an Indian chief who preserves his Ukrainian culture. When renowned soviet dancer Makhmud Esambayev saw Ivan in 1967, he spoke perfect Ukrainian and sang “Rozpriahaite, khloptsi, koni…,” “Unharness the horses, boys,” a Ukrainian song.
UW: Reports say that this is a tragicomedy.
No. From the very start, we saw it as a romantic ballad with a twist, where a fantasized event in one scene suddenly becomes real in the next—just like my film “Fuzhou.” You could say I was asked to shoot another Fuzhou, with a similar fable and subject. And if I get a third proposal like, I’ll do it. I love the story of a person who overcomes space and time, who overcomes the insurmountable. The only difference is that Fuzhou has a fictional character, while this one is based on a documentary running like a dotted line through the entire movie.
UW: Where did you find information about such a mysterious, little-known character?
I’ve found many investigative reports online. Some confirm his story, others deny it. That’s why we put a caption at the end of the film saying, “The story is based on the life of a real person.” We are not recreating Datsenko’s life, not least because we don’t know the whole story. This story exists at the level of a village pupil, a student at a military college and a pilot who fought in the war, became the Hero of the Soviet Union, and was shot down. We know that the Germans captured him after his plane crashed and our soviet Hero, like all other prisoners of war, became a soviet antihero. So, Datsenko was sent to other camps, to soviet ones. He escaped. And there trail ends, so we changed his name.
Our character is Ivan Dodoka. We can’t use the name of a real person without knowing all details of his life. A branded man, Datsenko had a very simple relationship with society: as a soviet prisoner, a traitor and a runaway, he was on the run. Many years later, he meets a soviet delegation in Canada as chief of an Indian tribe. Nobody knows how he got there. This is our own version, the one I find the most convincing. And it satisfies the crucial impulse without which I wouldn’t have started the film.
My objective was to create a hero, a Ukrainian hero. I would say that, today, in the Ukrainian film industry and culture, a Ukrainian hero is taboo. This has to change because people are hungry for their own heroes, their own legends. Take the real Vasiliy Chapayev, what was he like? Nobody cares about that after the film by the Vasilyev brothers. And who was Rambo? He never existed at all. And what was Sukhov from “The White of the Dessert” like? He never existed, either, but all of them could get a passport today because they are real, much more real than many people who actually exist. When he saw the soviet delegation, Datsenko remembered what it was like, running from the NKVD, so when someone asked “How did you get here?” he said that he had been born “here,” in Canada, to a Ukrainian immigrant, and met a daughter of an Indian chief later. He married her and inherited the chief’s status. The tribe gave him the name, “He Who Went Through Fire.” Why would a migrant’s son have a name like this? What fire did he go through? Despite some assumptions we’ve had to make, the version in our film is clearly true. In the synopsis to my movie I wrote that a soldier abandoned by his kingdom has a right to choose another king—and this is the story of a soldier who became king himself.
UW: Why do some people not believe Datsenko’s story?
An American I know told me about his research on Datsenko. He explained that people in the US and Canada don’t like to talk about Indians. They realize they are responsible for the genocide of an indigenous population. Most of the First Peoples were killed and the rest were hooked on whiskey and herded into reservations. So, no one wants to talk about the heroism of Indians. This friend of mine also thought Datsenko was an inconvenient chief for the Government because he was once a soviet squadron leader.
UW: Which aspects of the film would you highlight?
Language. Datsenko was born in a Ukrainian village. Russian dominated in the soviet army. In the script, he marries a Tatar nurse during the war, so now he learns the Tatar language. In German camps, which were themselves like the Tower of Babel, he learns a little German, Polish and English. Later he runs away and God knows what other countries life took him too, but certainly many. Language is clearly his tool for building bridges. Today, language is used to divide, although it has a completely different purpose: helping people understand each other.
UW: What kind of budget did you need to shoot in different countries and use multi-lingual actors?
The budget was average, just the problems were bigger! There was an 18-month break and we had to stop filming several times. We had to pull together everything we had to shoot in Canada, Europe and the Soviet Union. Our movie is a joint project with the Insight Media studio, producer Volodymyr Filippov and the Ministry of Culture.
UW: A big name actor like Brad Pitt would bring money for the film in a flash. Did you consider that?
I had some ideas. And while I like our actors a lot, we have just three or four really popular ones and none of them is especially well known. Ukraine doesn’t have any system for promoting them to become household names. We have no film industry of our own, no heroes, no myths—and no celebrities. Moreover, I needed a 22-23 year-old. So, I had to look for good but unknown artists. Of course, I was also looking for someone who is a Ukrainian native speaker.
UW: But you said Ukrainian is heard only at the beginning, in Datsenko’s childhood.
No, that’s not true. I would say more that there was a language exchange going on. Ivan Dodoka borrows words and lends words that are native to him. He coins them. We started filming in 2008 in Kyiv and Rzhyshchiv. The war was shot near Kamianets-Podilskiy. Half of the movie – Dodoka’s birth, the army and escape from GULAG – is in Ukraine, followed by the Canadian period. We shot some of the Canadian episodes near Kamianets as well. Then the process stopped until the next summer. I was jobless for nine months and the crew of the Kupava invited me for a round-the-world expedition. Actually, nine months was not enough for this, but I got to Antarctica. I took the cameras, the character’s uniform jacket and sailed on the Kupava through Gibraltar to Antarctica, where I shot the key Canadian scenes. But we didn’t make it there during the summer period. So the crew—Yuriy Bondar, Andriy Zubenko and Valeriy Deymontovych—helped me out. Together we thought of where to go and moved to Buenos Aires. I did only one shoot in the Andes, but it was totally worth going to the end of the world for it!
UW: Where did you find the props?
There are no soviet airplanes in Ukraine that can fly today. They are either in Germany or in the US, as far as I know. But we have fantastic computer graphic designers. There was a big problem with uniforms and costumes as well. Technically, we can do anything we want, as long as there is money. But real props are a problem.
UW: Where are you at now?
We finished shooting at the end of the last year. We may have to do two more days of filming. Over the three years, we filmed 7-8 hours of digital video with a Red One camera. So, we have as many takes as we need. We expect the movie to be 100 minutes long and we’ve already cut 2/3 of the working print. Once we finish cutting, hopefully at the end of spring, we want to put the video on tape. Now, the most important task is to work on timing, space and plot inconsistencies: no matter how far away the hero is, he is always in Ukraine in his mind. So, the film has several threads winding at the same time.
UW: What do you want from this film?
I want the audience to believe in our story, although they know that it’s only one version. It’s a story of a person who was not broken or stopped and instead chose this fantastic path. For me, this is a real hero.