Magyar Narancs: You are originally from Belarus, lived and studied in Moscow for several years, and now study in Budapest. How have these experiences shaped your interest in documentary cinema?
Ruslan Fedotow: I am currently an MA film student in the DocNomads program. This program includes three semesters in three different countries. Budapest was my second semester, I am currently in Brussels, and will return to Budapest to complete the program and do my diploma film. My motivation for joining the program was to gain some distance from the post-Soviet space, to understand the “European optic” and mentality, and to return home to try to see things differently, because without distance, you develop routine blind spots. In Hungary, I sensed a transitional space between Europe and the countries where I was born and grew up. Even without knowing the language, a lot of things were familiar to me in terms of outlook and people’s behavior, this might make my perspective somewhat superficial and very subjective.
MN: You are currently a student at DocNomads and a filmmaker with award-winning films. What made you join this film program?
RF: I thought a long time before applying. I am 34, and feel like a “dinosaur” in the group. At the same time, I started my career as a cinematographer and was unsure of myself as a director, even if I had made some films. DocNomads is an experimental field. In Hungary, the home country of one of my favorite directors, Béla Tarr, I wanted to scout the endless windy spaces. But, at the beginning of the semester, the war in Ukraine broke out and it was not possible to think about anything else.
MN: Has the documentary filmmaking field changed in the last years?
RF: This question is very important for me. If we look at the majority of recent, successful documentary films, we see that most are “audience films” and are closely connected with global streaming platforms. Documentary is pushed beyond “just a doc”; the boundaries are blurred, few people are committed to Truth, and many are following the “rules of the game” to achieve maximum viewing numbers, which is not bad in itself since arthouse festival films are of interest to too few people. But to watch these films knowing how and why they are made is sometimes painful. There’s often musical “overkill,” and usually with not very good music. There are simplistic narratives, and use of cliché and fiction-storytelling practices, which keep the viewer’s interest, but undermine the important distinctions that make documentary films special. I am not talking about hybrid or experimental cinema, there are lots of great examples among them. I am talking about so-called “hits”, where filmmakers don’t shy away from using blunt instruments, and a cello and piano to emotionally manipulate viewers and make them cry when needed.
MN: Do you have a filming credo you follow, or do you believe that a filmmaker should be flexible and adjust his/her approach depending on the chosen topic and context?
RF: I believe that for each story there should be a tailored, original language of cinematic expression. Yet, very often we can see a singular filmmaker’s imprint or “hand” across different films, and this is a good thing. I think it’s very important that a chosen form corresponds to the film’s content; it’s very boring when rigid storytelling templates are reproduced in multiple contexts, allowing directors to tell any story in a predictable way.
MN: How do you choose the themes for your films?
RF: It usually happens suddenly, from observing the world around me. It could be a street scene I remember and live with for some time, thinking about how to transform this impression onto film, and after a while, trying to do something with it. For example, before I met the protagonists of Away, I was going to train stations with my classmates to help the Ukrainians escaping the war, carrying their bags from one train to another. Mostly these were women with children, and also elderly people, since men were not allowed to leave. In those two weeks I saw only one young couple, a boy and a girl around 14–15 years of age, traveling without adults. They were siblings escaping the war to Austria, to stay with relatives. At that moment I realized I would like to film something about going through first love during this difficult time. The teens, torn away from their families and their familiar lives, studies, and home, experience evacuation as a new, shocking, and unforeseen turn in their lives, where all their troubles coexist with new emotions.
MN: How long have you been filming Away?
RF: I have filmed and edited for about a month and a half. This is a very short time, but I must finish the film as part of my study program and submit it at the end of the semester.
MN: How did you meet and build a relationship with the film’s protagonists, two young Ukrainian art students?
RF: I was interested in working with a young couple during the first wave of Ukrainian refugee arrivals, but I wasn’t sure I could manage it; it’s psychologically quite demanding, there is little time for a character-driven story, and there were also ethical questions for me. I am from Belarus, the country trying not to get involved directly with the war, but which depends on and is in military union with Russia. I posted a question in a Facebook group, and a girl I didn’t know from Belarus wrote to me about Andrii. Soon I got in touch with him, we met, and I learned that he and his girlfriend are artists, teaching small children drawing in a makeshift Ukrainian community center in Budapest. Then I understood that it could be a film.
MN: Did you have any special concerns when filming them?
RF: Of course. All sorts of ethical questions were always on my mind, but on the other hand, it was very important for me to film and decide later what and how to work with this material. I shared the work in progress with my friends in Ukraine, and asked them what they thought, most were not against it ethically. So I decided that keeping silent and ignoring the topic is more harmful than all the questions about my moral right to tell their story. In any case, it was a good experience for the protagonists. They enjoyed guiding me in this story and being heard as artists who express their feelings and emotions through their art and performances.
MN: What is your film’s most important message?
RF: I very much hope that this film will find its audience, and I am very happy that it is being shown in Hungary, where it was filmed. Having seen the film, you can understand how the horrors of war impact sensitive, fragile children, and how violence breeds hate.
The interview was first published in Magyar Narancs on 3 November 2022.