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Darya Zhuk • Director of Crystal Swan

"In Belarus, the idea of changing country to pursue a better life is still floating around"


- We met Belarusian director Darya Zhuk at the Film Festival Cottbus, where her debut feature, Crystal Swan, was selected for the international competition

Darya Zhuk  • Director of Crystal Swan

Crystal Swan [+see also:
film review
interview: Darya Zhuk
film profile
 is Belarusian director Darya Zhuk's first feature, presented at this year's edition of the Film Festival Cottbus. Through her heroine, the director tells part of her own life story, which includes leaving her home country to study abroad. Even though the movie is set in the late 1990s, the yearning for independence, the desire to pursue one's dreams and the struggle with strict social norms that she depicts in Crystal Swan are timeless and should allow most viewers to identify with what they see on screen.

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Cineuropa: Your protagonist wants to leave Minsk in order to train abroad. You also left your home country for the same reason. To what extent is the movie autobiographical?
Darya Zhuk: I identified with my protagonist’s dream of becoming a successful woman, not by being married to a powerful man, but rather by being successful within a career path that I chose myself. I thought I had a better chance of succeeding if I went to study abroad. Unlike my protagonist, who is taking big chances and dreams of being a famous DJ, I had more of a pragmatic plan, and for a while, I studied Economics. Velya is more spunky and more naïve than me at that age. But in a way, you could say that she is my alter ego because when I was her age, I was also obsessed with electronic music and supported myself by DJing in clubs for a bit. The drug-addict boyfriend is based on several real people I dated back then. The visa mishap story itself is based on real events that happened to a friend of mine.

What is the general opinion in Belarus nowadays about young people with the urge to leave the country to work or train abroad? Is it easier to leave today than it was in the 1990s?
The idea of changing country to pursue a better life is very much floating around nowadays as well, so the film resonates with young people. I think it’s easier to leave now than it was in the 1990s, since we are better informed and interconnected via the internet. These days, it’s easier for Belarusians to get European visas and travel via Lithuania. It’s easier to travel and easier to come back. There is less of a feeling that it’s now or never; it’s more fluid.

One very impressive scene is the one when Evelina is running away from her mother's place listening to music, and behind her is a wall of graffiti. It brings to mind the opening scene in Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Where did you get your inspiration for the visual design of the film?
The running scene came to me from an old obsession with Denis Lavant running to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. It was also referenced in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Both scenes are very much about joy, though, and I thought I could make it about sorrow, too.

A parallel with another film springs to mind with your closing scene on the bus. It reminds me of the ending of The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman. What films do you consider important for your artistic training?
I watch a lot of films, and my preferences evolve over time. For this movie, I looked at early titles by Kira Muratova and Jim Jarmusch. I re-watched The Conformist by Bertolucci and Ida [+see also:
film review
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile
by Pawlikowski with my director of photography. I really love Susan Seidelman’s first film, Smithereens.

How did you create the image of Crystal Town?
Crystal Town is based on a real town that has a crystal factory; I visited it as part of my research process. We couldn’t film in the real town, owing to budgetary restrictions, so we constructed the places using similar locations closer to Minsk.

You tackle the differences between people from the town and people from the country. The young guy wants to distance himself from the archaic stereotype he assumes townsfolk have about people from the countryside. How do these differences affect Belarusian society nowadays? And why did you decide to break with that image by letting the guy do what he does?
Crystal Town represents that old, patriarchal way of life that is haunted by the historical trauma of the Soviet past. Stepan is always doubtful of the protagonist’s ideas, even if he allows her to feel like she’s being convincing. It’s a typical situation where the individualist attitude is not welcome in a society that is used to everybody collectively conforming to the status quo. Stepan is a victim of harassment himself, so for him it’s not a choice, but rather a need to put down the main character. This is a society where individuals cannot win.

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