Anything is possible here, in Ukraine. That’s the beauty! – Istan Rozumny
Canadian-born film-maker and actor Istan Rozumny offers his insights on working in Ukraine’s film industry and what makes it attractive internationally
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you our feature interview, followed by some new music from Ukraine.
In this episode Oksana Smerechuk talks to Istan Rozumny about working in Ukraine’s booming film industry. He explains why the industry is now producing more for the domestic market and why it’s so attractive to international clients. Have a listen.
Smerechuk: If you are living outside of Ukraine what comes to mind when you think about the Ukrainian film industry? Do you think of classic art films? The big names like Oleksandr Dovzhenko or maybe Paradzhanov’s highly awarded Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors? You may have seen something more recent. Perhaps award winning documentaries such as Winter of Fire about the events on Maidan or the documentary The Myth which has recently toured North America. But there is another world out there in the industry. You may need to live in Ukraine just to appreciate how much is going on, to see commercials on TV, the music videos being made, perhaps to watch local soap operas and maybe even then you do not get to see everything, as some of it is meant for international markets. I have someone in the studio who is in a profession some of us would envy and many are definitely are curious about. Istan Rozumny is a film director originally from Canada who has been working in Ukraine for over 10 years . I hope he will tell us today a little bit about what his work is like and for us to have a glimpse of what is developing in the Ukrainian film industry. Welcome to the studio, Istan!
Rozumny: Great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Smerechuk: As I mentioned you were born and grew up in Canada. You trained as a film director in Winnipeg. And then you worked in the industry in Toronto and Montreal. Then you decided to move to Ukraine in 2007, right?
Rozumny: Yes. Crazy story! What happened is, I was working in Montreal and Toronto as a cameraman, cinematographer, for a docudrama about WWII in Ukraine and this was 2004-2006. Basically, we were here about 8 months of that period. We would come for two months and would go back to Canada for another six weeks and this was going on for two years. I fell in love with the place. I was blown away and saw so much potential here. So in early 2007 I was working in Montreal directing and producing and I had a chance to come for three months and those three months turned into 10 plus years and I haве not looked back.
Smerechuk: Was it difficult to make a leap from working in the film industry in North America and then working in Ukraine?
Rozumny: Not as much as you think. The film business is based on people. It’s who you know and connections. Now the first thing when I got here was to go there and network and meet people. It was a bit of a slow start. But it is not that different.
Like anybody in the film business in the world, you’ve got to know what’s out there and who is out there. You have to meet the people. Seems like the biggest obstacle at the beginning, but it’s quite similar actually.
Smerechuk: You seem quite a multi-talented person because you work on different facets in the film industry in Ukraine as an assistant director, and producer of commercials, a cinematographer and an actor. It’s quite the list there.
Rozumny: You can add an editor and screenwriter too.
Smerechuk: Obviously you know all facets.
Rozumny: I’ve been around. I have done things. It’s the beautiful thing about film-making is that there are so many parts to it: behind the scenes, in front of the camera. There is a creative aspect. There is the administrative aspect. There are so many things to do. You just want to dabble in everything.
Smerechuk: You are acting in films in Ukraine. Coming from Canada was language an issue for you? I know you grew up speaking Ukrainian. That is one language under your belt. But you still sound a bit different from someone who was born in Kyiv?
Rozumny: Yes. I’ve got a bit of an accent. But actually that was not a negative, it was a positive because I’ve got a Type, a foreigner that speaks with an accent.
Smerechuk: What kind of roles have you played?
Rozumny: I played a detective, a musician who was held hostage during the war. Last week I played the American President. I played surgeons, diplomats, IMF representative, the list goes on.
Smerechuk: You’ve also acted in Ukrainian and Russian?
Rozumny: Yes. I’ve done a few parts in Ukrainian, a lot in Russian and that’s the toughest. I speak Russian but not really well and I have to memorize. There was a period when most of the roles were in Russian. I learned the text, memorized it. It’s tough to improvise because I don’t speak the language fluently and whenever I had a script in Ukrainian or English I was like, “ Yeah! Bring it on!” because I can improvise.
Smerechuk: So out of all those roles would you say your favourite is being a producer? Or is that most recent?
Rozumny: No, producing isn’t my favourite at all. It’s challenging and interesting. I think it’s a toss up between acting and directing. If it came down to it, it’s directing. That’s what I started in. That’s what actually gives an edge in producing and acting is that I come from a directing background. As an actor I know what the director wants or I assume to know what he wants, and I can see it from the point of view of the director. In a lot of cases producers are the money–counters and the administrators. But I approach it more in the big picture and for me, whatever you get on the screen is the most important. That where the focus is, and I can help the director and guide him to locations, actors, whatever.
Smerechuk: But you mentioned to me that you really engaged in being a producer of commercials recently. What surprised me is that they were not even Ukrainian companies, or Ukrainian clients. You are working with international clients here.
Hopefully listeners can also see this link on our website and you can follow to see what we are talking about. **
You are doing several commercials here for Hong Kong real estate?
Smerechuk: Could you describe this: you have locations here, you have actors…?
Rozumny: All actors are Ukrainians. That is the main reason why they come here because the actors are so talented and it’s cost effective. The sweet thing is that in Asia they like what we call the Euro-mix where it’s Asian but also elements of European exterior. Lots of women in Ukraine have a hint of the Asian oriental eyes from centuries ago. So the talent, the actors, the models are perfectly suited to the Asian market.
Smerechuk: And what else would attract these international clients that come to Ukraine?
Rozumny: Well the first thing is, it’s cost effective. I mean obviously, it’s much less expensive to shoot here than it is in Hong Kong. I mean, Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The real estate is the most expensive real estate in the world.
Smerechuk: Hence these sophisticated commercials.
Rozumny: Well yeah, they don’t come here to shoot toothpaste ads, you know what I mean? They come here ‘cause it’s cost effective, and they think big, they look big. They want to do big, huge jobs here, because they can afford it. And they experiment, and they can take chances, and I mean the stuff looks great. It’s not standard, and it’s kind of way beyond what’s usually being done for ads. I mean, I don’t really want to count commercials because a majority of the stuff doesn’t even make it to TV. It goes into show rooms, it’s theatres for clients. So it’s kind of a mix, I mean I’ve produced commercials that are for television. But the concepts, the ideas, are mind blowing, and it’s great.
Smerechuk: And what else would you say that’s unique about Ukraine, and filming in Ukraine? Is it perhaps in the locations, or is that just standard for Europe?
Rozumny: No, no, we’ve got everything here. We’ve got the sea, we’ve got the mountains, we’ve got the cities which look European, North American. We’ve got the cities that look medieval; they look like Paris. I did an ad a couple years back where we faked Paris in Kyiv. So it’s got the locations, and it’s got the talent. I mean, there’s a lot of talented people here. If it was just inexpensive, people would not shoot here. It’s got to be inexpensive and good.
Smerechuk: In what way do you find Ukrainian actors different, say from what you get in North America and Canada?
Rozumny: Good question. They’re fighters, I mean they’re grinders. I’m an actor myself, and it’s a fight. There’s no agents, there’s no unions…
Smerechuk: You don’t go through an agency when you’re looking for actors?
Rozumny: There is a little bit of that, but it’s nothing compared to what there is in the West. You don’t have exclusive representation, so basically every actor – I’d say, I don’t know, 95%, 98% of the actors are on their own. And you fight it out. You negotiate, you go to castings, you go to auditions, you knock on doors. I mean, you’ve got to create all your opportunities. You don’t just throw it off onto an agent and say, okay you know, do the work and I’ll give you 20%. I mean there’s none of that. So the actors here are fighters. There’s a very strong school of theatres in Ukraine – it’s very developed. And good university training, and they’re very, very, very talented. In this last job we did we had to cast actors that are attractive, and are professional dancers, and Asian mix – 3, 4 things you need. And the director said, we just don’t have that in Hong Kong, we don’t have that in Asia. And we had like 50 people at the audition, we were struggling to pick who, because there are so many. So yeah, that’s just the acting. But if you go to the art direction…
Smerechuk: Computer graphics?
Rozumny: Computer graphics, I mean it’s the top of the world. The guys that I’ve worked with on a bunch of previous jobs, I mean these guys are doing half the music videos in Los Angeles right now. I mean they did Coldplay Up&Up, which won I don’t know how many awards. They won in London, New York, Berlin, these guys are rockin’ – they’re huge! And they just do their thing. Gloria FX, they’re in Dnipro, these guys are amazing!
Smerechuk: Well it’s kind of a secret, isn’t it, that there’s all this developing in the film industry here, or maybe no one within Ukraine…?
Rozumny: People in the business know, and not just in Ukraine, people in the business know, but people around the world know. But the average Ukrainian, they’re shocked. I mean they have no idea that work at such a high level is being done here.
Smerechuk: Well what do you think needs to be overcome for Ukrainian film industry to be really competitive? Or perhaps even more competitive, to make its name?
Rozumny: Film, or commercial, or both?
Smerechuk: Well let’s say both.
Rozumny: For commercials, I think it’s, to be more competitive, the only thing I could say that the commercial industry – and when I say commercial I mean music videos as well – is that it’s just got to bring up its level of professionality just a little bit. If you work in the States, or if you work in Canada, or in Europe as I have, I mean people hustle. I mean, there’s a professionalism. I mean you’ve got to – you don’t walk, you run. So there’s a little bit of that slack attitude here, but that’s all I can really say. Film industry, it’s on its way. I’ve acted in two pretty cool movies in the last couple years, and I’m going to be acting in one in about a month. And it’s basically, the government is stepping in with grants, and there’s just so many films happening. The distribution is starting to show Ukrainian films. So it’s a slow process but it’s getting there.
Smerechuk: It’s a long process. If you go back to say 1991 when there was the government financed, fully government controlled studios that were making films, like Dovzhenko Studios. You take the situation today where I assume it’s driven by the private sector, but with government grants. Now the government is starting to support more, with perhaps, rebates..?
Rozumny: Yeah, they’re giving grants, and it’s helping a lot. I mean, there is a lot of stuff being shot; a lot of movies. And ideally is if they could get more into theatres. And you know the budgets are modest, but your dollar goes a lot further here. And they’re doing really, really cool projects. And it’s very diverse. For example, I acted in a film called Captum, actually screened in Cannes a couple years back, and it was a gritty, violent, harsh, realistic view of the conflict that’s going on in the East. And it was a pretty intense experience. And then in the same year I acted in a teen comedy. Which was, you know, a lot of T & A, and drinking, a typical comedy made for teenagers. So it’s diverse, and that’s very important.
Smerechuk: What do you think are the biggest challenges that Ukraine is facing in developing the film industry?
Rozumny: I think the biggest challenge is distribution; it’s to get these films into the theatres.
Smerechuk: In Ukraine?
Rozumny: Yeah, in Ukraine. I mean, it’s a big market, but it’s tough to get people, when you’re competing against Hollywood and European movies, the level has to get strong. Let’s take an example of Québec, in North America. Québec is rockin’. There are great films being made, and there are some stunning directors, and it’s a little market in a bigger market. And they’re doing it, I mean they have their own identity. So maybe Ukraine could, I mean Ukraine’s always been fighting behind the shadow of Russia.
Smerechuk: So that’s something that Ukraine could learn from, say, Canada?
Rozumny: Oh absolutely! I think there’s huge similarities between Canadian and Ukrainians, and especially Quebecois and Ukrainians.
Smerechuk: What about the opposite way? What do you think Canadians or the Canadian film industry could learn from the way things are done in Ukraine?
Rozumny: I think Canadians could loosen up a bit and be a bit more crazy and think outside the box. Because here [in Ukraine] anything goes. I mean, anything goes. People take risks, people take chances. Twenty years ago there was nothing here except for what we were saying, but it was undeveloped and people had to fill the void. So you could look for work in production companies, you had to do it yourself. And it’s still going on! There are countless film and production companies and they have a drive here. There’s that ambitious, entrepreneurial spirit, and people can care. Everyone’s just fighting, you know, it’s amazing!
Smerechuk: Can you see the development, or how things have changed, even over the last ten years when you’ve been working here in the industry? What have you noticed in particular?
Rozumny: Yes. It’s becoming more professional and has more depth to it. It’s becoming more diverse.
Smerechuk: What does more depth mean?
Rozumny: CG effects, stunts, very high-quality production design. It’s spreading, it’s becoming fuller, there is a lot more to it than there was before. So it’s become more professional, there’s a lot more to it. An equipment supplying company that everybody works with in Ukraine, and that I’ve worked with a bunch of times, these guys won an Oscar! Filmotechnic, they’re based in Ukraine, and they designed a crane that’s won a technical Oscar. They’ve got offices in Los Angeles, London, all over the world! My friends in Toronto shoot with them.
Smerechuk: So there you go. Have you noticed that since 2014 when Maidan happened, and then the war with Russia and the conflict in the east in the Donbas started, have there been any particular changes associated with that? Because, for example, there’s been legislation introduced that has been limiting the amount of Russian information coming in, the amount of Russian cultural products coming in to Ukraine. Do you find that’s also affecting you in the film industry?
Rozumny: Yes absolutely. First of all, economically, the Russians shoot here less. Ukraine is a lot like Vancouver for the Americans. The Russian’s came here to shoot because it was a lot less expensive, and that’s pretty much what Vancouver is for America. And that pretty much dried up, so the Russians don’t come to shoot here anymore. The Russian market dried up for Ukrainians because Russia, in general, do not take Ukrainian products. It hurt at the beginning, but from anything that could be perceived as negative there’s always a positive. So what that did, is it spurred domestic product. Ukrainians started shooting stuff for this market and that’s amazing. That’s perfect.
Smerechuk: Well just looking at the last few years, some of the films that have come out are very entertaining and doing well in the box office. They are beating records for a Ukrainian domestic audience.
Rozumny: Absolutely. And the language of these films are in Ukrainian so it’s a huge boost to the culture and to the confidence of the people. You don’t have to rely on the Russians anymore. And it’s caused Ukrainians to turn their back on the east and look west, or keep on looking east but a little bit further to Asia and just skip over that market. I think in the long run it’s a positive.
Smerechuk: So what would you say has been the highlight for you working here in Ukraine? What’s the highlight or the project that you think about with a lot of pride and achievement?
Rozumny: Oh my God…
Smerechuk: Or are there too many!
Rozumny: Honestly yes. For me, it’s just been the diversity. I’ve been able to do way more. I’m acting and producing. I produced a bit in Canada but here I’m acting and I’m directing and the chance of this happening back home… I don’t know. For example, the acting thing. It’s wide open here. Anyone can step in and become an actor, I mean anybody. In Canada, you’ve got unions… the doors are closed. They don’t want to let you in. But here it’s like they are just scooping people off the streets. So for me the highlight has been that anything’s possible here. That’s the beauty.
Smerechuk: And one last question: what would be your dream project here? What would you like to do if you could work on something that is an ideal for you?
Rozumny: A feature film. I’m working on it right now. I’ve got two projects that I’m developing to screenplays. One is about the native residential schools in Canada, and the other one is more like a spy-thriller based in Ukraine, Asia, and Europe. So they are totally different subject matter but yes, that’s the goal of every filmmaker, a feature film!
Smerechuk: Well good luck and I hope this really happens for you. Thank you for coming in, thank you Istan!
Rozumny: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure!
A band in Kharkiv called Fever plays indie punk rock. Here’s a song of theirs called Rock’n’rolla Priest. It may have been influenced by Slade’s Rock-n-Roll Preacher. They’re looking for feedback, so have a listen and let us know what you think. We’ll pass it along. Enjoy!
Next week we’ll be back with more commentary on events in Ukraine. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Bohdan Nahaylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iavorenko, Caroline Gawlik and Caitilin O’Hare. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.