Painting Reality in Vivid Colors: an Interview with the Young Belarusian Film-maker Daria Zhuk, whose First Feature Film May Be Nominated for an Oscar

This year, for the second time in its history, Belarus may see one of its films nominated for an Oscar. The film is called Crystal Swan, and it is the first feature film of Daria Zhuk, a director from Minsk who is currently based in NYC. Daria moved to the US at the age of 16 and, after pursuing a finance degree at Harvard, decided to turn to her true passion – film making. Her journey, however, has not been an easy one. It took her almost a decade to bring to the big screen the story of a young lady called Evelina (Velya), who in the ‘90s followed the American dream by trying to obtain a US visa to immigrate and become a DJ. This summer the film had its premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film festival, opening in the East of the West competition, and then was screened at a few other film festivals. YT met with Daria after the premiere screening and talked to her about her life and work, the stereotypes in cinematography, the millennials, and the problems of family acceptance.

First of all let me congratulate you, Belarus has decided to nominate Crystal Swan for an Oscar.

It has not been nominated per se. We only wanted to seize the opportunity to be nominated, so to speak. It will be nominated as soon as the process gets into motion. Belarus will nominate the films that will represent it. We haven’t been placed on any short list or long list, we just want to take part in the event. We did not have a Corresponding Committee in Belarus before this. Last year, it was finally assembled, which led to the beginning of all current processes.

I am going to ask you about Belarusian cinematography a bit later, but for now, I would like to dwell more on an issue concerning the Oscar and the film’s premiere.  You found out only recently that Belarus is tend to nominate your film, and now you travel across Europe presenting the film at festivals.


Production team of Crystal Swan at a premier in Karlovy Vary city theatre. Source: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Did anything change with regard to your perception of the film itself, because, as far as I have understood from your previous interviews, you had to go through a rather long and thorny path, and it required a lot of effort to make this film. So, after you were able to see the result of your work on the big screen and people’s reaction to it, have you changed your attitude towards the entire process?

Suddenly, I am able to appreciate the length of the journey that I have made . . . (starting to cry). It will be hard for me to speak now . . . I am about to cry . . . because it was like a real lump, a burden that you shrug off your shoulders and say, “I don’t have to carry it anymore!” And then suddenly you come to realize the magnitude of the effort that you have invested in this endeavor.

Youth Time has covered the Karlovy Vary festival for five years now, and we always try to follow the films produced by directors from the post-Soviet countries. Frankly speaking, not a lot of films can make the foreign audience laugh. Your film features a plethora of magnificent dialogues, which can be easily comprehended in the Russian, Czech, and English languages.

The Czech translation is amazing. I am very grateful to the festival for such an awesome translation. It turns out that translating the dialogue in a film can be quite a daunting task, considering how many times we have tried to do it. The English translation is especially tricky. Regardless of how many times I’ve tried to polish it off, make it a bit better, none of the variants could be considered as satisfactory. We have something in common . . . a certain solidarity that exists in the territory between the East and the West, I’m not sure how to call it . . . However, I am very grateful to Helga, my screenwriter, who is also a poetess and a director. She has a magnificent sense of pitch. I have read the dialogue with my actors on multiple occasions, and every time we made some amendments, I thought to myself, “Thank you, Helga, for leaving such wonderful gifts along my career path.

How was the screenplay born?

I had heard this story from my old friend, though she told me only the beginning of the story, and she refused to disclose the ending of it. She told me, “It would be better if you didn’t know how it all happened.” Although the storyline has always seemed very interesting and appealing to me, I began telling other people that perhaps it could serve as a basis for a great movie. It turned out that something similar happened not only to this particular friend of mine, but also to other friends who tried to submit false documents to the American embassy. It all happened before the Internet era, when it seemed that out-witting the system might be feasible. I wrote this script during my freshman year at cinema school, where I studied in the department of advanced directing. It was the first script that I had ever written on my own accord. Then I took the draft, which looked like it was written by a monkey, to Helga. I was certain that it was horrible, but Helga actually liked it. She said, “Why don’t you let me write my own version of this script?

Crystal Swan is your first full-length feature film and before that, you only made short films which were produced in the U.S. and Israel?

It just so happened that one of my best friends, who is also my producer, is an American who often visits Israel. She really wanted to make a film there . . . a story about a woman’s life. So she took me there. I had never been to Israel before, and when I got there, I had to get straight on to working with actors and experiencing this completely different world, which was an enjoyable experience. I have also made a short film in Minsk, and also a few films in New York.

So, it wasn’t as though you immigrated to the US long time ago, and then suddenly decided to come back home to do a feature film?  In other words, was it a sudden bout of nostalgia or a desire . . . I am asking this because in one of your previous interviews you said that no one has yet made a film about the youth of the ‘90s who lived in the post-Soviet countries that would have depicted your friends and your surroundings.

I had never actually thought that I had left Belarus for good. Perhaps that’s the reason why I felt such a strong need to tell this story, and it felt so much easier to convince other people that I am obliged to make this film because I had this enormous connection with this place and this time. I really wanted to make a film about my generation, I have never seen myself from the third-person point of view, the films that were made before seemed a bit distanced or irrelevant.

How difficult is it for the fledgling Belarusian director to make a film in Belarus: to find good actors, find sufficient financing, and produce it?

I think that it is an incredibly tough task because there are no government authorities that would offer support to experimental projects. There is a film contest that is constantly being postponed. It is very unreliable since everything is done at someone’s bidding and only in a particular framework. The topics are being constantly changed, while state funding is provided only for the films that promise to be interesting to Belarusian audiences, the internal consumer, while the foreign critics seem to be unaffected by these works. To put it succinctly, it doesn’t cross their minds that these films can take Belarusian cinema to a whole new level. They don’t have any goals, they have some sort of desire but no particular understanding of the fact that these films should be based on universal stories that will be interesting to people with different points of view. The fact that I have visited and lived in many countries, and even spent a semester at the Berlin cinema school, and made friends there, helped me a lot. When I showed this film to my friend from Africa, she jumped up and began clapping her hands enthusiastically, “We have the same thing going on in Kenya, with these visas.” This problem seemed relevant to her.

So when you were writing the script and producing the film, who did you think would be the end consumer, the local or the international audience? It seems to me that this post-Soviet reality is based on stereotypes of one kind or another.

I made this film for Belarusians first of all, because it contains a lot of symbolic things, which seem understandable and funny to them. It was of great importance for me to instill the Belarusian spirit into this movie, so it wouldn’t seem like I came from a foreign country and started making a film about things which I had not experienced myself. For instance, there is a stereotype which you won’t find in my film: the stereotype of dull gray residential districts. You won’t see it anywhere in my film. It is a genuinely Belarusian image, the image of a country that suffered during WWII, but I am depicting this idea in a slightly different way. Although my American producers put me under a lot of pressure by insisting that everything had to look dull and terrible, so that the viewer would understand why the main protagonist wants to leave her country. However, I have never envisaged this story as a depiction of gray realities, because local people see the world in many different colors, for instance, they have pink vases on the streets of Minsk. They paint their reality in vivid colors, so it wasn’t at all necessary to film it that way (in a dull manner).

The main protagonist Velya. Source: Crystal Swan film

I agree with that, but I rather mean the highlight of this film – the wedding. The wedding itself is kind of stereotypical and rather bizarre. What is the idea behind showing the life of a small Belarusian town through a particular wedding?

In 2001, just when I began my film-making career, I made a documentary about my best friend, who was about to get married. He was only 22-years old and decided to ask a former classmate for her hand in marriage. It was a 40-minute-long film called “A Wedding Kiss”, and it just so happens that the best scenes from that film migrated to my last one. I was totally mesmerized by the rituals made up by these people. They say that these rituals are of a historical nature, but they are totally weird, almost surreal: the tall mixes with the short, and then the doctor, the disinfection.

Tell us a bit more about your career path. How, for example, you came to the decision to abandon the career of a finance major who studied at Harvard for the craft of film-making?

I knew that I was going to become a film director even while I was studying at Harvard. I just didn’t have the courage to admit it to myself. I tried to escape it for a very long time, but at a certain point I came to an understanding that I couldn’t keep on going like that, I had something to say. I had people around me who were fond of film-making, so it wasn’t a totally strange idea or a distant dream for me. Suddenly, I saw that people from my milieu just did it, and that served as a great inspiration to me. 

Did your family help you to make this decision or was it more like the situation that occurred with your main protagonist, Vela, when her mother insisted that the arts could not be perceived as a serious profession?

I would say that they were neutral towards my decision, neither supporting nor criticizing it. At first, I didn’t get any support, perhaps that is why it took me so long to make my first film. Otherwise, I would have made it ten years earlier.

In your opinion, does modern youth in Belarus in particular or Eastern Europe in general often face a lack of understanding from their families when it comes to the choice of profession, especially those who prefer career paths in the creative industry?

I think that it is the same throughout the world: there are parents who are more conservative and demanding, while there are also more open-minded parents. It largely depends on the level of their education.

In other words, would it have been easier for Vela to deal with her mom in today’s world, than it was back in the ‘90s? 

I think it would. The majority of stereotypes are dispelled, and the moral framework has become more flexible, you can be whoever you want, like an artist, and still make a decent living. By now, Vela’s mother would have been more integrated into modern society: she would use Facebook and see a lot of different people there. We all have a bit of a knack for photography since we use Instagram, and we all are artists at heart.

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