The Odessa International Film Festival is often cited as an event with the ambition to be the “Ukrainian Cannes”. Do you have that ambition or did you give up on it?
I wouldn’t say we want to be like Cannes. Cannes is often referred to as a very glamorous festival. OIFF chooses films based on their audience potential. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t show arthouse cinema. We have an ambition to become the main meeting point for film industry representatives from Ukraine and neighboring countries – Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia. We have a geographical advantage, and also industry-wise, since the Ukrainian film industry is slightly bigger. We invite people who have a deep interest in Eastern European cinema. For instance, five years ago professionals came to Odessa just to have a look around. Now they are coming with a particular interest – searching for projects, films, connecting to certain people. Still, the Ukrainian film industry should also evolve in this case, and increase the number of cinemas, develop the educational system in film, and things like that.
How does the festival address the political and social issues in Ukraine? And how does this intention correspond with your wish to be an audience-friendly festival?
This is a common question for most festival managers, you know, whether festivals should reflect on politics and social issues. As for OIFF, we have special programmes for that. Of course, when we select films in the main competition, we go by different type of guidelines, but we cannot ignore the Oleg Sentsov case, for example. So we pick films that cover important topics in special out-of-competition sections. Also, generally speaking, selecting films for OIFF means we need to acknowledge the fact that Ukrainian viewers rarely got the chance of watching different types of films – starting with the Soviet period till now. Ukraine lacks screens and film education, as I said earlier. So the mission for a festival like Odessa is to showcase non-blockbuster, auteur films.
Up until a couple of years ago, a Ukrainian film festival would screen almost every local feature-length film that was submitted. Now, there is a selection process. What are the criteria for the selection of Ukrainian films?
There have been certainly more shorts and documentaries made over the last few years. As for full-length feature films, we start to follow them at the pre-production stage. Usually we manage to get all the films that we laid eyes on in the National competition.
Do you have a list of Ukrainian directors whose films you follow? And does the festival consider itself a platform to discover those filmmakers?
There are certainly some ‘festival babies’ – films that were pitched in Odessa, then came to the festival as work-in-progress and later were screened at OIFF. We also help Ukrainian films be considered by foreign international film festivals. I don’t want to name names, but let’s say there are some Ukrainian film directors who can send their films after the application deadline and still be considered and even accepted at OIFF.
How have the festival dynamic in Ukraine changed since Molodist in Kyiv moved its dates from late October to the end of May? I ask with regard to the selection of Ukrainian films as well, as both film festivals have Ukrainian short film competitions.
I don’t think that dynamic changed in a radical way. We didn’t sense any difference. Still, I’m not sure if moving Molodist to May was a good decision: spring and summer in Ukraine are pretty busy with festivals, while the fall season remains vacant.
What about Docudays UA? In 2016 you established a Documentary Competition at OIFF. From an international point of view, it makes sense – the Berlinale has one too, for example - but in the Ukrainian context it was seen as a challenge to Docudays UA, which is the most important documentary film festival in the country.
The Documentary competition in Odessa complements Docudays UA, rather than competing with them. In fact, we are friends with Roman Bondarchuk [the Art Director of Docudays UA], he was on our Jury once. His films took part in different programs. I hope to cooperate with them, in a way. Docudays UA has a clear profile: films about human rights. Meanwhile, we show audience-friendly documentaries.
As a film producer and a festival manager, how do you see Ukrainian-Polish relationships in our industry?
I think the cooperation between our countries is very natural – we are neighbors and at some point shared a common history. The film industry in Poland is much more evolved, so Ukrainian filmmakers can benefit from working with Polish colleagues.
Do today's political issues between Ukraine and Poland influence these relations, in your opinion?
Not yet, but my Polish colleagues and I follow the situation and hope that everything between Ukraine and Poland remains the same. I know that the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs thinks that relations with Poland are of the highest priority right now. The Ukrainian Institute [a recently established state institution that deals with public diplomacy] also has Poland among their immediate priorities.
In 2019 you will have your 10th edition. Do you plan to make changes in the festival? What is your strategy for further development?
We are actually working on that strategy right now. The festival team understands that there are higher expectations for the 10th edition, and we expect that a lot of people will come: winners of previous editions of OIFF, stars, filmmakers, cinephiles. For now, we are going to change the rules and regulations of OIFF a little bit, but we don’t want to show more films. I think the amount of films at the OIFF is adequate. I would also like to establish a programme for children in the nearest future. I am not talking about just showing films for kids, but organising a full educational plan, so they could learn about arthouse and auteur cinema as early in their lives as possible.
Gabi Virginia Șarga and Cătălin Rotaru’s first feature Thou Shalt Not Kill had its world premiere at the Warsaw Film Festival. It’s a drama about a pediatric surgeon who finds out that the disinfection system in his hospital is broken, which leads to the spreading of dangerous diseases. Based on true events, the film follows protagonist Christian in his fight against corruption in Romania.
At the screening of your film yesterday, I noticed people were very involved with the story. Reactions were strong.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: Yesterday at the Q&A there was a local surgeon who told us that, here in Poland, it is the same story. Authorities hide true statistics of bacteria in hospitals.
Why do you think it happens in Romania and Poland (and, presumably, in other Eastern European countries)? Is it because of the post-Soviet corrupted system?
Cătălin Rotaru: Of course, the communist era in Romania left some marks. But the corruption there has historical roots, and I mean it started 200 or 300 years ago. Everybody buys and sells everything in Romania.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: When the scandal broke out, the press uncovered how many people took money to cover this scheme.
How long ago did this happen?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: We found about this scheme 3 years ago, but the problem started 13 years ago. And for 10 years nobody talked about it – people were dying in the hospitals and we thought it was the flu. Because what could possibly go wrong if you go to the hospital?
How did the scandal end? Was anyone fired or prosecuted?
Cătălin Rotaru: Shortly after the scandal erupted, the head of this company [the one providing defective disinfection substances] committed suicide. The prosecutor arrested two of the top managers of the company, and right now the minister is trying to put an end to this scandal by covering all the tracks. The representatives of the company are now in the court. The important thing is that among the 350 hospitals that bought supplies from that company, only 92 hospitals testified against it in court. And once the hearings started, only two of them were still up for it. The others just don’t want to fight.
In one of your comments about the film you said that it is “fiction, but a personal one”. Could you please elaborate on that?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: We are very angry, like many people in Romania right now. We regularly take part in manifestations along with protesters who have been fighting for almost three years against corruption in the country.
Cătălin Rotaru: The fiction in the film connects to reality. We did our research, talked to the doctors, found out all the statistics etc. Characters in our film are somehow “designed” after doctors we have met.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: All the numbers in our film are real, we didn’t make them up. The dialogue is partly taken from real interviews with the real doctors.
And yet you still made a fiction film, not a documentary. When you created the character of the pediatric surgeon, was it more important for you to address the issue in every detail or you followed the development of the character?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: Both. On the one hand, we wanted to show all those numbers and facts for everyone to know what happened. But it’s not the only aspect. We also wanted to tell a story of how a man or a woman fights with corruption. It’s a universal story. Our main question is how far you can go in fighting the system.
Cătălin Rotaru: It’s an evolutionary process – we start from facts and reality, then move to something beyond reality. What we are interested in is the true nature of human beings. What is their relation to evil, and what is the origin of evil itself.
This is a metaphysical question, dealing with people’s beliefs and religion. I remember the key scene from your film, taking place in an apple-tree garden, and there are plenty of Biblical references in it. The main character’s name is Christian.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: Yes, and all other characters’ names have a meaning, too. The child who dies is called Ovidus, which means “the man who is sacrificed”. Carbunariu, the family name, means “coal”. It’s a reference to the boy’s parents, who fight only for a little while and then give up.
Cătălin Rotaru: This is a typical Romanian family. They have the typical Romanian fatalism. “God didn’t want him to live” – the father says. It’s in our historical roots – to embrace our fate.
Gabi Virginia Șarga: We are interested in our relationship with God. Our first short film is about a religious man who meets a guy claiming to be Jesus.
Cătălin Rotaru: We don’t what to deal with the church specifically. There’s no church as an institution in our film.
You said that you question the origin of evil. What do you think it is? Do you follow Hannah Arendt’s stance of banality of evil? Or is evil something else entirely?
Cătălin Rotaru: We don’t answer that question in our film. Christian is not an atheist, he’s just indifferent. He doesn’t want to look up to the sky, because he’s interested in solving problems down here. But his actions are entirely Christian.
How did you get the money for a film like this?
Gabi Virginia Șarga: It was a big problem for us to find money for this film because nobody wanted to be involved in this project. Potential sponsors were frightened that they would have problems with the authorities if they supported us.
But many people agreed to work on the production for free – actors, for instance. So we could use the money we had to get a good camera.
Did you receive money from the Romanian Film Fund?
Cătălin Rotaru: Yes, we got state funding. But it wasn’t enough, so we looked for sponsors. At first they were very enthusiastic, but after reading the synopsis they backed out.