Zhanna Ozirna presents her debut feature film “Ground Zero”
Zhanna Ozirna is a Ukrainian director. Her debut feature film, Ground Zero, focuses on the way in which inhabitants of a Soviet era mono-industrial town have had their collective memories controlled by propaganda. She is supported by the Institut francais’ La Fabrique Cinema 2022, which offers young directors and producers support tailored to their specific project and level of professional experience.
Updated on 02/11/2022
What first made you want to become a filmmaker?
I have a journalistic background, I don’t have a proper film-making education. At some point I felt that journalism wasn’t suitable for my nature because I’m a slow thinker. Then I volunteered at a contemporary art centre, met artists and became commissioning editor of an online magazine of contemporary art. I discovered that there was an area that suited my way of thinking. You can create something meaningful, and you can take time to do it.
When I moved from Kyiv to Lviv, I became part of the team of a film festival there. It was very interesting because it was right before the revolution in 2013. At that time we didn’t have a film community at all in Lviv. I was running the festival with my ex-partner and a friend and we began to think that we could shoot something on a low budget. We contacted Lviv City Council and they gave us some small grants. Step by step we started to create this small circle and make films by ourselves. I thought of it as a kind of university, working on a project every year.
Then I started going to film festivals to show my films and it was the beginning of my filmmaking career. After a big change in my personal life I went back to Kyiv. On the journey I started to think about making features. But what sort of feature? And I decided it should be about my hometown.
The post-colonial trauma of Ukraine and the historic influence of the Soviet Union are particular themes that interest you. In what ways have you seen this affecting life in Ukraine, both before and after the invasion?
My hometown is situated in the very heart of Ukraine. Until 1943 there were a lot of smaller ancient villages there. One of the largest was called Horishni Plavni. Then during World War II a major, very brutal, battle, took place.
The Soviets had a strategy to throw the villagers in front of them, like a shield, like cannon fodder. The official photographers only took photographs of the soldiers, not the villagers that had been killed. So for a long time nobody knew about the scale of the massacre and the truth about it. At the same time the Nazis burned all the village buildings and so the memory of about the local people and their life was obliterated. About 15 years later the Soviets started to build a mono-industrial town. The official history of the town, which can even be read in books, says that it was nothing before the Soviets arrived.
When I was growing up there we knew nothing of the tragedy. It was only in 2019 when I went to shoot a teaser there and started communicating with one of the local super-rebellious historian who showed me all these old maps and discovered the truth for me. It was such a shock. I realised even I had been brainwashed and that was the starting point for this project. The roots of our current war can be seen in this kind of situation. We didn’t know our history properly. We didn’t explore enough what the Soviets did to us. We don’t even understand the influence of Russian culture on us right now. Some younger people don’t understand why they speak Russian. They don’t understand that their ancestors couldn’t have a career, and could even have been imprisoned, if they spoke Ukrainian. This war is actually an existential war, it is about identity.
Your debut feature film, Ground Zero, is inspired by your upbringing in a Soviet mono–industrial town (a town specifically built to serve local industry). Can you explain what it was like to grow up in such a place and how that has influenced the story you want to tell?
It was an interesting situation because the town itself is super nice. There is this really rich factory, everything is very nice and clean, the schools are really well equipped. But on the other hand, there was this very Soviet identity, although on the outside it seemed very contemporary. You live in a kind of golden bubble, in very good conditions but you have to speak Russian and you have no knowledge of the real history of the place.
During the de-communisation period it was the only settlement in the whole of Ukraine that didn’t want to change its name. Residents associated it with a time of Soviet glory. The town actually became a meme – the only proud Soviet town in Ukraine. It’s sad and funny at the same time. Eventually they had to change the name because it was the law to do so.
My story is about a girl who thinks she knows everything, but knows nothing. In general I tried to create a story about the nature of collective memory and historical memory and how difficult it is to catch hold of it. The story asks why we want to forget certain things, even if it hurts our sense of identity.
How has the Russian invasion affected the production of your film?
We should have shot the film this August. Hopefully we will shoot next August/ September but before the rockets stop falling we can’t, it’s impossible. The factory itself is an important part of state infrastructure. Before the war it was pretty hard to get permission to film there and right now it’s even harder. Documentary film makers are still able to do their job, but dramatic films can’t shoot. It’s a shame because it means that in a couple of years we won’t be able to show our narratives on international platforms.
You and your film producer, Dmytro Sukhanov, have the support of the Institut francais’ La Fabrique Cinema 2022 for your project Ground Zero. Can you share with us your experience with La Fabrique Cinéma?
We were in the process of looking for French producers because the first 10 – 15 minutes take place in Paris as my heroine lives there – she moved to France when she was 16 or 17. When we were selected for La Fabrique it was as if the whole world opened up to us. It’s a brilliant programme and they gave us all the tools we needed and opened all the impossible doors. We had a couple of really interesting meetings with French producers and met a French composer who we had a great connection with. One of the most interesting things for me was meeting the selectors from different programmes at Cannes as they really explained the inner workings of the festival. Being involved with La Fabrique means you can still feel like a filmmaker even if you don’t have the chance to shoot. When you’re in this community and you’re recognised as a filmmaker you can feel that you are still a professional and that you have a future.
You have been invited by a partner of La Fabrique Cinéma, the Sorfond Pitching Forum, to participate in the South Festival in Oslo, Norway in November. You will have the opportunity to present your project to Norwegian producers there. How difficult is it to find partners to produce a film?
It is difficult because obviously everyone asks us what our plan is. We have to answer that we have multiple plans – to shoot next year or to maybe shoot a part in Paris. We still don’t know if the festival is going to be live or online, but we have already had a couple of really good meetings with Norwegian producers via La Fabrique.
Russia has been accused of deliberately destroying Ukraine’s cultural heritage during its invasion. Do you think filmmakers can help preserve a sense of Ukrainian identity in the face of such brutal destruction?
I think we are already doing it with a number of documentaries. My friend Yulia Hontaruk has been working since the war started in 2014 on a film about Azov (a famous battalion, the defenders of Mariupol and Azovstal). And right now there is a surge of interest in her project. It’s the same with Ground Zero. I started to develop it three years ago and it’s not just topical right now, it’s super topical.
There is this new spotlight of attention from the European community, and I think we should use it in a very practical way. There has always been this idea of Russia as a great producer of culture, but they have always appropriated smaller voices as their own. For years Kazimir Malevich was referred to as Russian, but he was born in Kyiv and his work is about Ukrainian identity. Europeans have tended to think if it’s Soviet it’s Russian. It’s time to be accurate now.
With Ground Zero I want to help Ukrainians understand things that are not obvious to them and encourage them to think about their history and daily habits. I really hope the film could be used for international diplomacy too. It’s a way of providing a clearer understanding of what is happening here that you can get from the news. When a film is good it stays with you for much longer.
Zhanna Ozirna is supported by the Institut francais’ La Fabrique Cinema 2022. It offers young directors and producers support tailored to their specific project and level of professional experience.
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