Iryna Tsilyk talks about the making of her doc “The Earth is Blue as an Orange”, an ode to the healing power of cinema set in Ukraine’s turbulent “red zone”

We had the opportunity to chat with Ukrainian filmmaker Iryna Tsilyk, director of the successful documentary “The Earth is Blue as an Orange”. The movie follows the lives of single mother Anna, her two daughters, her old mother and two sons in the “red zone” of the troubled region of Donbass, a theater of the war between the pro-Russian separatists and the pro-Ukrainian government forces since April 2014. 

Nevertheless, the piece is far from being a classical observational documentary about their hardship. Instead, it is an ode to the healing power of cinema, made special by the characters’ will to shoot a film about what they have experienced in their shattered hometown and its surreal surroundings. 

A Ukrainian-Lithuanian co-production, “The Earth is Blue as an Orange” was world-premiered at Sundance back in January, and later played at other prestigious festivals such as the Berlinale, Prague’s One World, Poland’s Doc Against Gravity, Kyiv’s Docudays, and, more recently, at Zurich and Reykjavik.

DAVIDE ABBATESCIANNI: How did the idea come about?

IRYNA TSILYK: Actually, it wasn’t mine because everything had started from an idea of my producer, Anna Kapustina. She was one of the leaders of a cool Ukrainian project called “Yellow Bus”, which consisted of professional filmmakers arranging cinema camps for children living in the war zone. Thus, she thought of making a feature-length documentary about a group of teens and she invited me and my team to work on it. We filmed and met different people but then we found that it was difficult to make this kind of “group portrait” and I had the feeling I had chosen the wrong characters. So I didn’t know what to do. There was a moment in which two of the girls attending the camp, Miroslava and Nastja, invited our team to their place in Krasnohorivka, in the Donetsk region. We saw that house full of cats, music and art. We had really interesting chats with them. We realized immediately that we had to change the initial idea and follow this family instead. I ended up spending about two and a half years working on the project.

ABBATESCIANNI: How did they feel about the idea of being filmed while working on another movie?

TSILYK: They were very open from the very beginning because they were aware of the filmmaking process and happy to be featured in the documentary. However, when we had to visit them back again and again or live some time with them, I guess they got bored and tired. I felt they weren’t so joyful anymore. Generally, we became friends and I hope they’re happy now, since they took part to this risky experiment.

ABBATESCIANNI: You said that the family got bored and tired at some point. Was there any moment in which you felt you couldn’t go ahead with the project?

TSILYK: Generally, we established good relationships. There was one moment, though, when I felt I had done something wrong. I wanted to shoot the exams that Miroslava had to take to enter the film school and she was totally against the idea. She felt very nervous and did not want to have any cameras or crews around. She told me: “Ira [short for Iryna], that is your film, this is my life!”. I think she was totally right. I understood that it’s much more important to stay friends rather than getting some good footage. Later, in the editing room I realized that it was the right choice for us and for the film. It was a very important lesson for me as a documentarian. This was my directorial debut, so I’ve done several mistakes and learned many things along the way.

Iryna Tsilyk with family on “The Earth is Blue as an Orange” doc set

ABBATESCIANNI: We spoke about the documentary’s main human challenge. What about the technical ones?

TSILYK: We didn’t have specific technical problems but when you’re filming something in a war zone, you should be ready to adapt to the different rules of the game. It’s still dangerous there, so you need to be very careful and responsible for yourself and for your team. For instance, we had a moment during which I wanted to have a beautiful shot showing a poppy field – we couldn’t film it because of the lighting conditions, but then we also found out that it was a minefield and the area was guarded by snipers.

ABBATESCIANNI: How long did you follow the family? How much footage did you shoot?

TSILYK: We followed them for a year. We’ve got not too much footage, though. About 55 hours, I’d say.

ABBATESCIANNI: How did you coordinate the post-production process?

TSILYK: We were lucky to take part to some great workshops. In my opinion, dok.incubator in particular was really useful because I’ve never studied documentary. It was my first experience and I’ve done many things intuitively. So I felt the need to complete some training with professional tutors. I guess that we’ve got the biggest selections – Sundance and Berlinale – thanks to their help.

ABBATESCIANNI: Are you still in touch with the family? How are they?

TSILYK: Yes, they’re fine. I’ve some interesting news for you! Anna, she became mother for the fifth time.

ABBATESCIANNI: Congratulations.

TSILYK: I’m really surprised. She’s a wonderful woman and now she has a fifth child. Meanwhile, Miroslava studies in Kyiv and Nastja got the chance to study in the US, but unfortunately the pandemic has changed all of her plans. It was still a nice, well deserved achievement, though.

ABBATESCIANNI: What women filmmakers do you find the most inspiring?

TSILYK: It’s a really difficult question to answer, there are many. But I can say that I really like the films of Isabel Coixet and Jane Campion.

ABBATESCIANNI: Are you currently working on a new project?

TSILYK: I’m now working on my new feature. It’s a fiction film and it’s such an inspiring and challenging project. I’ve been waiting for so many years before taking this step and I’m trying to do my best. It’s a coming-of-age story revolving around a boy growing up in the 1990s. It’s a film about my childhood and that of my husband, as it is based on his novel [Artem Chekh]. He’s a writer, so we’re basically doing this film together. I wrote the script, though.

ABBATESCIANNI: Is it a Ukrainian production?

TSILYK: At the moment, it’s an all-Ukrainian production, but maybe we will find some co-producers along the way. The title is “Rock, scissors, grenade”.

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