Interview – Ptitsa
Interview with Alina Maksimenko
Shot during Covid pandemic, Ptitsa never leaves the apartment where you and your mother live and in which you are confined. It develops as a double portrait of you two, of your relationship. Can you tell us about the origin of the film? How did the project emerge, and what part did the context of the pandemic play in its genesis?
The pandemic for me was a closed-space shock. Against my will and against my idea of freedom. The danger of the disease pressed my personal boundaries into the walls of my house and equated me to them. They were deformed and made painfully sensitive. The same changes happened to my beloved mother: being two very different individuals we changed our boundaries and our perceptions.
The material of the film is the most personal and intimate: the continuation of everyday life between the walls of the apartment, a tragedy happening outside and how your character responds to it. The narrative moves between these oppositions: the ordinary and the extraordinary, inside and outside. How did you develop it, according to which intentions, following which method?
I was amazed at our movement into each other and accepted it as a recognized necessity. As a part of my freedom. Video diary format helped keeping in mind every detail: my camera was always at hand. And now, when a tragedy happened to my old friend, Inna, the camera was filming us keeping us in it. It captured this indescribable horror of losing a loved one. The main point of intersection of the two lines of the film, its nervous and semantic node is Mom. Her Portrait, built by our two stories, external and internal. Both stories have Ptitsa, (Bird), like every child who leaves the parents’ nest.
Now the war has overshadowed all previous upheavals. The horror of what was happening in my home, in Ukraine, erased the fear of that pandemic year, when somewhere on our streets, in our cities, a rather abstract Disease was roaming. But then and now, my biggest fear is losing a loved one. Physical disjunction from this person. This panic feeling cannot be defined and controlled; I understand that I cannot cope in a human way: neither then, nor now.
You manage to project your film far beyond the frontier between documentary and fiction. It seems to be very precisely written and staged and it feels vividly spontaneous, to begin with the phone conversations with your friend Inna. What were your intentions on that matter – seizing life in a form? Can you explain how you worked to produce this form, this feeling?
The story that becomes the Document is like a witness: it holds in its hands a cast of reality and confirms its authenticity. How convincing this evidence will be, the viewers will decide. For me, this is definitely not a matter of genre. The film is made in the form of an adagio, very vital, from my point of view: I see how often events, human features and movements are intertwined in the most amazing way within a single time segment. I think that if Life (as a totality of numerous manifestations) appeals to a Human, it often uses this format. The form of adagio is demanding for a precise work with meaning and text: as in a musical performance, an error in one phrase will entail a failure of the general form. According to the design of the film, its textual, vocabulary part is leading; we could not be wrong.
Ptitsa is your first film, after an already established career as a painter. Why, as a painter, this desire or impulse to make a film? Why did you put down your brushes for a camera?
Painting has long been a part of me. I can spend six months or a year without painting, but I will still return to the canvas and paint, I know that.
A digital camera appears in the film. The way it appears seems to indicate that you shot the film, image and sound, all by yourself, with no crew but yourself. The end credits confirm this impression. Can you describe the shooting, how you proceeded? What link do you make between this shooting process and painting?
My camera. I love it as a companion, not just as a tool. Probably because I came from painting: when you paint, the material and its tactility is of great importance to me: it is the format, texture and size of the canvas, the surface; to paint with hands, fingers, to pour paint; to be kind of a child who is free to do whatever. The attitude to your camera as to an interlocutor is also a form of luxury to be a child, to have your imaginary friend. Besides, I just really like filming. In a pandemic, it was impossible to invite a team to film Ptitsa. I filmed and recorded the sound myself. Of course, I asked for pieces of advice and followed them, understanding I was making mistakes because of the multiplicity of tasks. I saw that some of the tasks are lost, and some of the materials are technically imperfect but I continued filming. And then I was in the groove of my filming with all its flaws.
I appreciated the opportunity to film, to be alone with the camera, that’s like painting. I am sure that if I solve most of the technical problems everything will work out. With God’s help.
The film was produced in the context of Wajda school in Warsaw. Can you talk about the production of Ptitsa, the part played by this school context?
Teamwork was very important here, especially with the Wajda curatorial School & Studio team, and Felix Mamczur. Together we checked and verified the impact of the text, its nuances of sound and meaning. In the search for the right solution, some of our discussions seemed dramatic. Now I am sincerely missing them.
Ptitsa was shot in Kyiv, where you live – or used to live, you leaving the apartment being at the center of your conversations with your mother. Of course it was shot before the Russian invasion, but the tragic dimension of the film – death, separation –, although it apparently has nothing to do with the political situation, resonates today in a strong and strange way. Could you comment on that?
Around two weeks before the Russian Federation invaded the territory of Ukraine, my Polish friends began writing to me: “leave.” There was no certainty that a war was possible: it was too crazy and unreal; the word would stick in my mouth, unutterable, unreadable. What was very real was a feeling of viscidity, unsteadiness. For some reason my legs were like jelly. I fell while walking down the street, on level ground, tripping over my own feet. It turned out badly: my hip was broken, I had surgery on February 22nd, two days before the war began, (fortunately they were able to operate), regular patients were released early to make room for the wounded.
No wounded were arriving on the 24th, late that night the head doctor came in (he asked us to turn off the light), and said they would perform all scheduled operations overnight, during the day they’ll be busy. He said—they have an incredible team—they will work continuous shifts, only leaving to pick up their kids.
I’m in Vienna now. I want so much to see everyone alive when I return to Kyiv. To hug them all as soon as the war is over. It is among my worst nightmares to learn that the human face and warmth you need is no longer “there” where you hope to find it. This is probably about not being able to make room for death in my comprehension. Of course, this is the leitmotif of Ptitsa: the impossibility to accept death in one’s perception.
Interview by Cyril Neyrat