KinoKultura: Issue 48 (2015)

The First Kalmyk Film

Interview with the model and actress Eugenia Mandzhieva and the filmmaker Ella Manzheeva (The Gulls)

By Birgit Beumers

The first film from Kalmykia, The Gulls, participated in the Berlinale Forum in 2015. It is the debut by Ella Manzheeva and features in the main role of El'za the fashion model Eugenia Mandzhieva.

Birgit Beumers: Is this your first time in cinema?
Eugenia Mandzhieva: Yes, this is my first work in cinema,

BB: Why did you go for it? You are no alien to the camera.
Eugenia Mandzhieva. I’m familiar with a static camera. But this was my first experience with a video camera. When you see yourself for the first time on video, from the side, it’s new: you’ve never seen yourself like that, because you only see yourself with your own eyes. Why I did it? It’s an interesting world where you can try different things, and you discover and learn new things. You discover within yourself some little doors, which are closed, and you grow to open them. I wanted to try it out and that’s how I met Ella. I’m glad it worked out that way.

eugenia mandzhievaBB: If I understand correctly you have no actor’s training.
Eugenia Mandzhieva: No, I had no previous training, but the film has led me to study now at the Moscow Cinema School (Moskovskaia shkola kino) with Ingeborga Dapkunaite.

BB: So, on the basis of the experience you gained while making the film you decided to go into acting?
Eugenia Mandzhieva: Yes, I would like to develop myself in that direction, but you need experience, and some people who have been doing the job for a long time can tell you a few things. I thought for a long time about where to go, and I ended up in this school.

BB: What were you looking for in the sense of gaps to fill—not in the sense of your role, which has no deficiencies—, but what were you looking for?
Eugenia Mandzhieva: When we were shooting the film I did not think I would go study acting; that came after the film. If you have chosen an aim then you have to do something to move towards it.

BB: In the Russian acting school, the psychological construction of the role has always been strong. Is that the direction you seek? Or is this something you don’t need.
Eugenia Mandzhieva: I had a good teacher in Ella, I think she understood what I needed and gave me some guidelines how to build my role. It was probably instinctive: how you turn yourself into another character. It felt a bit like I’d been given a new gown that was a little too large for me, but gradually I grew into it and filled it with the role of El'za. When you try on something that you have never worn before, you suddenly discover facets of yourself that you have never seen before, as though you were looking at yourself in a 3D camera.

mandzhievaBB: I’d like to ask you, Ella: you chose your home place for shooting your first film. Isn’t that dangerous?
Ella Manzheeva. I don’t see a danger, but I’m a little worried about how the film will be received in Kalmykia. I have a lot of concerns, because it is important how the film will be received there. I don’t want to offend my own people and their dignity. I want people to see that this film has been done with a lot of love for my native culture. Once the theme had emerged, you cannot control how it develops. Everything came naturally, and I know this material, I know these people and how they feel, how they think, how they act. I wasn’t afraid to do this, but now it worries me. For the spectators it’s a view from the side, it’s exotic, it’s a different world. People don’t see themselves. I know that the character portrayals are accurate for the environment, but sometimes you don’t want to see yourself in the way the film shows you. But I hope the film will be received properly in my home land. What people say here, that’s their right and their response; but my own people—their reaction at home does not leave me cold.

BB:  When will the premiere take place?
Ella Manzheeva. Not for a while. In a year, probably. I won’t do a special screening, because that would be unfair towards others to invite only friends and a select audience. If I only show it to my own friends that would not be fair towards others, as it’s the first film made in Kalmykia.

BB:  In a sense, you have a parable here: when you developed the script, did you draw on any story related to the location, or to legends?
Ella Manzheeva. There is no legend at the heart of the film. The parable is there because the film is about lofty feelings: about hope, how we see ourselves in the ideal, how we take revenge, how we feel an inner freedom and love. So the parable lies at the root. There are moments that refer to parables and to what I know, but I wanted to touch upon the relationship between people that is not formed by words. Often it is the wrong flower presented that shatters a relationship. I wanted to present that atmosphere of how we want to feel ourselves, that sense of dignity. Because the film is quite realistic, with a social element, but above all it is about people and their imagination, how they feel in the ideal.

BB: There is cruelty and violence in your film, but it is not shown on screen. Is that a conscious decision?
Ella Manzheeva. There is a reality, and our world is not simple, wherever we live. Often this sort of thing happens between friends, when you are betrayed, not necessarily killed. But people can be quite cruel to their relatives and close ones. There is a reality when it’s easier to cut off a relationship than to try and mend it. People act cruelly because it’s simpler. I did not want to hide that moment. This film is not about cruelty but how to avoid it. Ledzhin is a victim of the system: he lives like that, yes; otherwise he ends up in prison. It’s not his choice. He would end up in prison, and he is no Decembrist who’d go to prison for his deeds. Everyone has a motivation to act one way or another. There is always a reverse side, there is no good and bad. People have a spectrum of feelings which includes cruelty, but that spectrum can be adjusted and corrected

gullsBB: The story is so universal, that you could shoot it anywhere, or not?
Ella Manzheeva. I don’t think so. I presented the project at various pitching markets and my European colleagues did not understand: she sleeps with her husband and yet she wants to leave him? If she sleeps with him, she cannot leave him. Her role is hard to understand; only a girl from Kyrgyzstan had no questions about her actions. This is the eastern mentality: El'za is not universal and maybe that’s a disadvantage. Why can’t she get up and solve her problems? This issue does not arise in European cultures: if you don’t like something, you get up and leave. But here you are, married; you have made a choice and you must endure. You have made a choice and you have to carry your lot to the end, you cannot leave. The motivation of the heroine and her behaviour can only be explained through her upbringing and the local mentality, the place. She could leave and divorce, but she has no energy do that. When you are so low, everything is too much of a problem, even to ask for bread in the shop. People are like animals and they sense when someone is low. Likewise, when you have energy, people around sense it. El'za is in a state where no-one wants to pay attention to her, because she is invisible. Only when she finds herself does she become a character, a powerful person; and that’s when she’s noticed, when she’s seen.

BB: She is as a character who is belongs there (svoia) and is a stranger (chuzhaia) at the same time?
Ella Manzheeva. The actress, Eugenia, is wonderful. I’m so glad she trusted me completely and never asked any questions. If something did not work out, then that’s my responsibility. She is very talented and expressed a sense of dignity without arousing pity. El'za is unhappy, but she does not arouse pity, because she is at one with her self. I’m glad Eugenie joined the project and made her debut in the film.

Birgit Beumers, February 2015

Birgit Beumers © 2015

Comment on this article on Facebook