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Art

"When the war started, I realised that it was in my power to film and document the unfolding events." Interview with Russian film director Taya Zubova

19.07.2023

Director Taya Zubova made the film Trauma of a Witness about Russians who left Russia after the Kremlin regime invaded Ukraine.

These people did not want to live in a country where a tyrant reigns and there is a constant fear of being jailed for their own opinions. Taya told Media Loft correspondent Katya Kobenok about emigration from Russia, artistic freedom in Europe and her anti-war projects.

"And Cannes is ours"

Taya left Russia immediately after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. She recalls her press conference at the Cannes Film Festival a year later, where Zubova presented her short film "My Fish".

"While I was answering journalists' questions, the head of Roskino asked me a question: 'Is Crimea ours?" (Russian?). I was taken aback, as at that time I was not making a political film, but a love story. The head of Roskino, noticing that I was confused, immediately joked back, saying: "And Cannes is ours"," recalls Taya.

After that Zubova went to Russia for the screening of the film at the House of Cinema. Then her team managed to get together 1,000 people in a hall.

"When I was about to go on stage, I was stopped and, without warning, was told that first a United Russia MP would come out and say a few words and then I would go on stage," the director recalls.

Taya says that the behaviour of the ruling party greatly angered her at the time:

"There was not a penny of state money in my film, it was made with the help of crowdfunding. I was unhappy that the pro-government party was PRising among the audience I had gathered on my own."

"When they saw the words 'annexation of Crimea,' they said 'it's not relevant'"

After the incident at the Cannes Film Festival, Zubova began to become more interested in political topics.

"But I didn't understand how to make a film about politics in Russia while in Europe. On the one hand, it's safe to do it, but on the other hand, there are no connections in the professional world," she admits.

Taya wrote the script for the feature film "Flow", which explores the relationship between domestic and political violence. The film begins with the protests on Bolotnaya Square and a disagreement between the main characters over the situation in Crimea. The heroine believes that Crimea has been annexed and leaves Russia for Italy.

"I tried to offer this script to Russian producers, but  when they saw the words 'annexation of Crimea', 'rallies' and 'political violence', they told me that either 'it's not relevant' or 'such a film won't be allowed anyway'. Now we all understand why."

"When the war started, I realised that it was in my power to document the events"

When Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, Taya didn't want to stay on the sidelines and decided to tell the war story as best she could - through films.

"I saw the horrifying scale of violence spilling out from inside the country to the outside. I was already developing the theme of political violence for feature film scripts and when war broke out, I realised that it was within my power to film and document the unfolding events."

So Taya made Trauma of the Witness, a film about the first wave of emigration, about Russians who spoke out against the war and were forced to emigrate. The film was released on the YouTube channel of the publication "Novaya Gazeta. Europe." Then Taya started travelling to countries where there was an influx of Russian emigrants who had fled mobilisation and showed her film there. Her film has been screened in Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro.


Screening of the film "Trauma of the Witness" in Belgrade, Serbia

"This film is like a cry from my soul saying 'no to war'. But also the film supports those who left because of their anti-war stance. This film makes anti-war-minded Russians visible... There were full halls everywhere and people were crying after the screenings. I saw that the film touches the audience incredibly, gets to the heart of the matter."

Taya says that residents of European countries where the screenings took place also learnt a lot about Russia.

"For European viewers, much of what I show in the film comes as a shock, they are completely unaware of the power of repression now being deployed in Russia. I can immerse Europeans a little bit in the context of the situation inside Russia"

The film answers many questions about what is happening in the Russian Federation, the director says.

"European viewers didn't know a lot about Russia's internal problems. But that was before this internal violence, developing inside the country for decades, spilled out into neighbouring Ukraine. And now indirectly - through the cost of living, the rising price of food, petrol and gas - this invasion is touching everyone in Europe."

Now, in 2023, to make and show a film like "Trauma of a Witness" in Russia is something from the realm of fantasy.

"In Russia now they put people in jail for an anti-war drawing, an anecdote, or a comment on social media. I don't even want to think what kind of punishment could result from a whole anti-war film."

Now Taja is shooting another film on the same theme called "Pristaniste". The film is about how Ukrainian refugees and anti-war Russian and Belarusian emigrants live together and support each other in Montenegro.


Still from the movie "Pristaniste"

"The Pristaniste Foundation is a really unique place where people are not divided by nationality, where what matters is what kind of person you are, what you do and what kind of heart you have, not what colour your passport is."

We need to focus on actions that will help stop the war

As an artist, Taya feels a personal responsibility to speak honestly and openly about what is happening now.

"But I think it's important to focus not on what has already happened, but on the actions we are taking now, on how we can benefit every day using our skills to stop the war."

It is now necessary to analyse what is happening in Russia to prevent the development of totalitarian regimes in the future in other countries, says Taya.

Zubova herself recently returned from the University of Bologna, where she was invited by the Department of Interpretation to speak to Russian language students.

"We watched the film Trauma of the Witness, and we had a very interesting discussion with the Italian students after the screening. We  talked about the responsibility of Russians and that it is worth learning Russian at least to become negotiators, third parties who, when the window of opportunity opens, can help negotiate between Ukrainians and the anti-war Russian community," says the director.


Screening of the film "Trauma of the Witness" in Italy

Taya believes that when the Kremlin regime is finished, many Russians who left will want to return to their homeland.

"And there, already with the experience they have learnt in different countries, the returning Russians will be able to build a democratic country built on respect and empathy for the people around them," she said.

"We are and will continue to take to the streets of the world's cities"

On 24 February, the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Taya produced a video about Russians taking to the streets to protest around the world, from Auckland in New Zealand to Chicago in the US.

"After watching the film Witness Trauma, the Russians who left Russia told me thank you. Thank you for showing them that there are a lot of people like them - dissenters from the war, these people are now scattered across the world."

"It occurred to me to make a single video of activists who come out to rallies on the anniversary of the war and say one unifying phrase. They say, 'We are and will continue to take to the streets of cities around the world ... to say that ... we are against war'."

The video also stars activists from Belarus who fled Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

"I hope that after some time this video will become documentary proof that there were many people who disagreed with the war among Russians too," says the director.

Taya has lived in Slovakia for a long time, now she is moving to Montenegro. There she is going to finish her film "Pristanishte" - at the moment the film is in the process of editing.

By: Katya Kobenok

Photos: Instagram