Ella Shtyka: Documentary film is my therapy

25.08.2023 ZAPA
Ella Shtyka: Documentary film is my therapy

Ella Shtyka is a Ukrainian documentary film producer, curator of the Indie Lab for young artists, and curator of the documentary program and thematic panels of the American film festival Nezalezhnist (Independence) in Ukraine. Since 2001, she has headed the New Kyiv production centre. As a result of the war in Ukraine, she left her country in February 2022 and joined the SFP-ZAPA team a month later, where she works with Polish and Ukrainian authors, who can also entrust their rights to SFP-ZAPA.

Anna Andrych: At this year's Millenium Docs Against Gravity festival, the film project titled "Keepers of the Ruins" ("Obrońcy riun"), directed by Maria Shevchenko, won the MDAG Industry Award sponsored by the Polish Filmmakers Association in the Progress Pitching Session category. The award is a 10-day stay at the House of Creative Work in Kazimierz Dolny, where Maria will be able to devote herself to work on the film. The project also won a prize donated by Studio SMAKJAM, a colour-correction service worth PLN 15,000. What connects you to the film?

Ella Shytka: I am its co-producer. "Keepers of the Ruins" was produced as part of the Young Europe Program. It is organized by the Foundation for Documentary Education under the leadership of Miroslaw Dembinski. Miroslaw is also a co-producer of the film from the Polish side. Young Europe is a very interesting educational and filmmaking program aimed at young filmmakers from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.

A.A.: The title of the film "Keepers of the Ruins" is very meaningful...

Ella Shytka: The film shows life in Kharkiv, which has been under constant fire from the Russian aggressor since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. It is a poignant story of the city's residents, who are trying to maintain a substitute for a normal life in these abnormal times. Maria, as a journalist and filmmaker, captures their daily life with her camera.

For Maria and me, "Keepers of the Ruins" is more than a documentary. It is a kind of moral duty, a need to show the world the heroic courage and strength of our compatriots in the face of the immensity of Russia's cruelty. It's also a kind of therapy for us, a chance to tame the subject.

Maria is currently in Kharkiv, where she is shooting a film. Probably, her stay at the House of Creative Work in Kazimierz will be a time for her to calm down and work quietly.

A.A.: How do you know Maria? Have you worked together before?

Maria was a participant in the Indie Lab program in Kyiv, which I curated. She is an extremely talented young person, for whom I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed.

Kamila Paradowska: What exactly is Indie Lab?

I would describe Indie Lab as a film lab for young future filmmakers. My husband and I wanted to create an initiative to support talented young people, and with the support of the U.S. Embassy, we created an Indie Lab in Kyiv in 2013. Its participants are ambitious cinema enthusiasts, not yet trained in filmmaking, who see themselves as professional documentary filmmakers in the future. Indie Lab takes the form of a competition. Each year, we select 10 of the most interesting short documentary film projects. After the initial editing, we watch the participants' films together with American filmmakers, discuss and share experiences and tips.

K.P.: How did the cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine come about?

In 2011, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine initiated an annual screening of independent American films in Kyiv called the American Independent Film Festival (AIFF). At that time, I was invited by representatives of U.S. diplomacy to work directly with the selection of American films for this show. Shortly thereafter, as a result of many inspiring conversations, the idea of creating an Indie Lab was born.

The AIFF event is accompanied by several film workshops, educational programs and lectures, where participants in the Indie Lab, among others, can take an active role in expanding their film knowledge. For a week, American professionals share their experiences. Such meetings are invaluable for young people.

K.P.: Has Indie Lab been a success?

I am very pleased that the project has become extremely popular in Ukraine. Being part of it opens many doors for young talented filmmakers to further film education. I know that quite some Indie Lab participants have developed their workshop films as part of their studies undertaken. I am especially proud of the fact that 4 Indie Lab participants were invited by the U.S. Embassy to Los Angeles for a workshop at the USC School of Cinematic Arts' AFS Documentary Workshop in Los Angeles.

A.A.: Balancing your roles at Indie Lab and SFP-ZAPA must be challenging. How do you manage these responsibilities, and what drives your passion for both projects?

It's simple, every day I get up at 5:00 a.m. and work on Indie Lab film projects until 8:00 a.m., and then I go to the office. I'm happy to have contact with people. Working at SFP-ZAPA allows me to integrate into Polish society, as well as invaluable personal relationships with colleagues who support me a lot. The next step is intensive study of the Polish language.

K.P.: During the special screening of the films you produced at Kino Kultura on May 18, viewers could watch a selection of your work. What were the criteria that guided your choices for these films, and among them, which holds a special place in your heart?

In documentary filmmaking, I particularly value the observation of reality. At the same time, I wanted to present the diversity of form that is a feature of this genre. Three films were made as part of the Indie Lab: "Save Me, Doctor!" (Врятуйте мене, лікарю!) directed by Dmytro Hreshko , "The Wonderful Years"  (Щасливі роки) directed by Svitlana Shymko, and "Thus They Will Sing" (Так мут співати) directed by Anna Yutchenko and Diana Horban, besides "Counteraction"  (Протидія) directed by Serhiy Andrushko.

I love "Thus They Will Sing" due to its enchanting sound and music, drawing viewers into a distinctive world. The film interweaves human experiences and traditional songs depicted in different stages of life. The experience of working on this project felt truly magical, especially when we listened to these wonderful folk songs in new arrangements.

A.A.: You are very involved in the development of documentary film in Ukraine and its promotion abroad. What are your professional dreams as an ambassador of Ukrainian cinematography?

I believe in human development and improvement through culture, and documentaries are an important part of it, as they are a reflection of our reality through the lens of a camera. I think that cooperation based on the exchange of ideas and skills between countries is essential for understanding each other and building mutual respect. Activating international dialogue also serves to develop professionalism in the film industry and gives filmmakers a better chance to be recognized internationally and reach a wider audience. Unfortunately, I still see a deficit in this regard. My dream is to create a foundation or other organization to work together, such as in Ukraine or Poland, where documentary filmmaking remains niche. It's about the very practical dimension of cooperation, i.e. developing joint projects, improving professional skills by learning from each other, and promoting our very talented young filmmakers at home and abroad.

Interviewed by Anna Andrych and Kamila Paradowska
Please note: This conversation was translated and adapted for clarity and coherence.