The Earth Is Blue As An Orange, a documentary film about the war in Donbas commissioned by Current Time, has won the 2020 Sundance Film Festival’s Directing Award for a World Cinema Documentary. The documentary is both the first-ever Ukrainian entry in Sundance and the debut documentary film for its 37-year-old Ukrainian director, Iryna Tsilyk.
“I am so happy that we have a chance with our film to say, once more, ‘Make love and art, not war,” Tsilyk said at the February 1 award ceremony.
In the 74-minute-long documentary, Tsilyk tells the story of a mother, Anna Gladkaya, who lives with her four children in a Ukrainian-controlled frontline village, Krasnogorovka, that is constantly under attack by Russia-backed separatists. To cope with these circumstances, the family decides to make a film about their lives.
Tsilyk, a graduate of the Kyiv National University of Theater, Cinematography and Television, is no stranger to the Donbas conflict. Her husband, writer Artem Chekh, served with Ukrainian forces in the region. She herself previously filmed five short films for The Unseen Battalion, a collection of Ukrainian documentaries about Ukrainian women caught up in the war in Donbas.
A Kyiv native who formerly shot advertisements, Tsilyk said that she got into documentary film by accident.
She met the Gladkys, the family portrayed in The Earth Is Blue As An Orange, while volunteering in Donbas as part of the Yellow Bus project, which teaches adolescents in Ukraine’s frontline zone how to make short films.
The family’s two elder daughters took part in the training. “They later invited me to their house. When we saw this house, this town broken by the war, got acquainted with the mother, Anna, everything came together.”
The film crew did not experience any security mishaps while filming, she said. Another crew earlier shot the footage of a mine falling into a house near the family's residence at the start of the film.
The family did not let the sound of artillery ever distract them from their lives, Tsilyk noted.
“The children are watching movies, there’s shooting outside the house, and no one reacts! It’s really a convergence of totally disparate things. And there was a lot of that.”
That atmosphere influenced the choice of name for the film. The title is based on a poem by the 20th century French poet Paul Eluard, said Tsilyk, who also works as a children’s writer.
“Eluard was a surrealist and surrealism is a way of life in the frontline zone,” she explained.
In that surreal zone, the filmmakers tried not to interfere in the lives of their subjects. They held back from offering suggestions about the family’s own film or doing anything that could put them in situations that were not natural for the mother or children, according to Tsilyk.
“We chose the position of observers, although we also were living in their house and became almost part of the family,” she said.
Her rule of thumb was not to undermine that trust -- “a colossal, even scary responsibility,” she added.
Since filming stopped, Tsilyk has stayed in touch with the family. Anna Gladkaya, the mother, whom Tsilyk describes as a natural organizer, is now expecting her fifth child. The elder daughter, Miroslava, is studying to become a film camera operator and is now in her second year of film school. Nastya, another daughter, plans to study to become a film director.
Tsilyk herself hopes next to make a full-length feature film. The characters “will receive a significantly greater amount of freedom and possibilities for improvisation” than in a documentary, she commented.
Her documentary film work appeared to inspire audiences at Sundance. One schoolboy, she said, came up to her after a Salt Lake City, Utah screening and said that the documentary had made him want to become a film director.
Tsilyk senses more opportunities now for filmmaking in Ukraine than when she finished film school in 2004.
“If we talk about the recent past, all of us – that is, young cinematographers – had to simultaneously study and figure out what cinema is. [Ukrainian cinema] didn’t have, relatively speaking, a broad backbone of masters in which you felt confident.”
Those Ukrainian film directors who were considered at the top of their profession stopped making films as financial resources dried up after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. That now has begun to change, with increased government support for film and “new opportunities for young directors,” Tsilyk added.
“After a long period of stagnation, films are coming out, one after another, that are not cause for embarrassment," she said.