Sand in the trombone. Sea in the drums. The documentary Dixie Land opens this year’s DOCU/YOUNG, the festival programme for children and adolescents. The story is about a children’s jazz band from Kherson and the first challenges of one’s youth. It shows how a dream can captivate a person, make them great and open them up to change. Director Roman Bondarchuk told us how he managed to catch all that on film: the youth, the dreams, and the music.
How did DixieLand, the band from Kherson, come to be in your life?
In 2010, Dasha (Dar’ya Averchenko is the film’s screenwriter and one of the producers — Ed.) suggested they make a short clip for Docudays UA. Then we thought of those children who were sitting in the basement of the Kherson Palace of Arts and playing jazz on their battered pipes – that their situation echoes ours, as we were a festival in the ‘documentary underground’ of the House of Cinema. We made this video, and then this band was invited to the opening of Docudays UA in March to play live jazz.
And after the festival, we received a proposal from the Latvian producer Ilona Bicevska to take part in the 15 Youngsters About Youngsters anthology, a project in which young documentary filmmakers from the former Soviet republics portrayed the generation that grew up after the Union’s collapse. For 30 this anthology we made a short film about Polina from DixieLand. But then we decided that we would produce a feature film not only about her, but also about her old teacher and the other musicians in the band.
Polina became the person who dragged you into the movie. And what about the other children?
No wonder we had this notion of the orchestra girl. She had been unsure about the instrument she wanted to play. Only after some time did she finally decide to learn trombone. Lyova is clearly the engine of the band. He was there with their teacher Semyon Mykolayovych from the very start. It all started when Ryvkin met the children on the streets. He dragged them into this jazz, taught them to play their instruments. As their cellar is located on a street by a busy park, people became interested when they overheard the music and looked inside the windows. And this is how the other children started learning from him.
I think that previously the children had no idea what a documentary film is. How did they react to being filmed?
The children had got used to concerts and travels anyway, so it was nothing special for them. When we went to a summer camp with them, they them-selves willingly took the camera and filmed the traditional final night of the shift, when the children secretly covered each other with toothpaste.
Were you planning to give them a camera from the very beginning?
It had always been a disappointment each time I tried to give a camera to a character in my movie and make them film by themselves. For example, I gave Sheriff Hryhorovych (a character in Bondarchuk’s film Ukrainian Sheriffs — Ed.) a GoPro, and then I saw him playing a Rambo wannabe. And this time the result was also in a completely different aesthetic. We see the world in the way people would like others to see them, not in the way you see them for real. For me a movie is interesting when it shows how I see reality, not how I make it from other people’s observations.
Are children more capricious as characters of a documentary?
A child playfully and eagerly explores everything around them. And the main thing was to hunt for those childlike, divine, irrational things that came to be in their lives. For example, on their way to the dining hall, they threw poplar fluff at each other — a simple thing that an adult would never think of. But when you see it, you instantly remember its touch, the way it gets stuffed in your nose, and the time when you last held it in your fingers. I find this film so cute precisely for having such a diverse composition — like a sewn patchwork quilt.
The differing degrees of intervention into the lives of characters produces a completely different rhythm. What de- termines how you choose to present a documentary character?
It depends on the character. Someone has a slow temperament, and you have to come up with the situation suitable for them, push and provoke them. Some people are explosive or — on the contrary — constantly expressive, and you have to filter their ways of expression. A child perceives the world differently. It seems that time does not exist. It seems that you will be that way forever. I wanted to see the world through their eyes and focus primarily on what children pay attention to in this world.
Did the children listen to your advice?
Lyova was very confused. Overall, the loss of the teacher had become the most important event in the children’s lives. It was the first time they had to take adult decisions. And Lyova, in particular, had to either make a daring attempt to manage the orchestra or start his own career in music. Eventually he realized that he could not replace Semyon Mykolayovych and went to study in Kyiv. The scene in which he tells the children about this decision is the key. You can plainly see how they love each other. And it is obvious that when you are thirteen, the 5-6 years you had lived together seems like forever.
After all, everyone only finds the answers to troubling questions after some time. At some point we decided that this film would begin with them as children and end by showing how they matured. After the events that had happened to them in these two years, we realised that the story had become different – we can see how their attitude to the world changed when they had to take responsibility and change in order to act accordingly. After all, Dixie Land is a film about the purpose in life which you should define for yourself.
Besides, it gives the feeling that childhood is like a dream. Is this always the case?
I think that in childhood one believes that there are no hard edges, trade-offs and priorities. And now, as an adult, it is difficult to recall this childlike belief. Therefore, we all need someone nearby to help us remember what it was like.
SCREENINGS OF DIXIE LAND WILL TAKE PLACE IN CINEMA HOUSE: ON MARCH 26 AT 7 P.M. IN RED HALL AND ON MARCH 28 AT 9:30 P.M. IN BLUE HALL.
Interview by Viktoria Khomenko
On photo: "Dixie Land" (dir. Roman Bondarchuk)