Born in 1960 in Bashkiria, a then-Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (now Bashkortostan), that same year, Sergiy Bukovskiy’s father, film director Anatoly Bukovsky, and mother, actress Nina Antonova, brought him to Kyiv. Ukraine has been home ever since, and given his parentage it is hard to believe Bukovsky was destined to anything else but work in film. However, it was not Bukosky’s first choice – he dreamed of working at a nature reserve and wanted to study biology. The lure of work in film proved too great and Bukovsky would go on to study directing at the film department of the Karpenko-Karyi Kyiv State Institute of Fine Arts.
With a body of work of more than 50 films spanning his 30-year career, his work has been awarded at prestigious national and international film festivals. For the nine-part documentary series War: The Ukrainian Account (2003), Bukovsky was awarded The National Taras Shevchenko Prize of Ukraine the following year. Recognised as a National Artist of Ukraine since 2008, his film Zhyvi (The Living) released the same year tells of the famine (Holodomor) of 1932–33. In 2011, Bukovsky filmed a documentary about Ukraine’s independence in 1991. But his career pinnacle so far could be said to have been in 2006 when Spielberg sat up and took notice.
Spielberg, in collaboration with whom Bukovsky made Nazvy Svoye Imy’a (Spell Your Name), states in his introduction at the beginning of the film: “I would like to express my gratitude for his (Bukovsky’s) exceptional talent.” The documentary, which was jointly-funded by Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, chronicles the tales of Jewish survivors who escaped brutal execution, and those who rescued friends and neighbours during the Holocaust. Bukovsky knows documentaries like the back of hand and explains his craft thus: “I think documentaries are the same interpretation of reality as in other arts. They are reality as explored and envisioned by the director and interpreted by the cinematographer.”
Though he says the ethical part poses more difficulties, Bukovsky believes real life can be more compelling and powerful than anything scripted. “Can I be blunt? In documentaries you brainstorm much more than for feature films. I do not envy feature films. Trust me.” Many films by Bukovsky such as Na Berlin (To Berlin, 1995), Nazvy Svoye Imy’a (Spell my Name), and Zhyvi (The Living), are both an insight into history as well as human psychology.
Documentary Verses Blockbuster
Bukovsky says his work follows a historical bent because everything has already happened. “War, famine, the death of Brezhnev, Gorbachev coming to power...the production of such a film or series is less risky technologically and less expensive (than a feature film).”
Having juried at film festivals in both Ukraine (Youth, Contact) and abroad (Leipzig, Germany; Lisbon, Portugal; and Gyor, Hungary), these experiences have proven to Bukovsky that documentaries have some advantages in comparison to feature films – even the worst examples offer something to watch, as there is always something to catch and hold an audience’s attention. However he readily admits documentaries have a niche audience and rarely reach mass audience appeal. “Documentaries have a particular audience. Mass audiences have become accustomed to slurping skilly (light watery soup). It’s so sad. They won’t take in anything but this light stuff. Bella Ahmadulina (a Russian poet) once said: “Art belongs to the people? What nonsense!”
Anchoring The Project
Choosing subject matter can be a tall order, but Bukovsky has a special feeling for themes. He states that when looking for muses you should remember amazing things can be found simply by being a fly-on-the-wall. But few directors are willing to pay for that approach because it is time consuming, costly, and may yield few results. For that reason the documentarian started learning to edit at age 53, and believes it easier and more cost effective to take a camera and shoot on his own: “A documentary filmmaker should be able to do everything – shoot, edit and present. That’s what time has taught me to do.” At other times, just observing pays off. During shooting a movie about his mother she was asked to show the war medal of her husband, but couldn’t find it. Such live situations form the core of documentary films. There is no plot; it’s all about authenticity.
A must for a successful film is having “main characters” according to Bukovsky, who are like the foundation for the whole project. As his films focus on past events, he has many characters, each of whom is unique, and so question becomes one of selecting those that will act as his anchor characters. For Nazvy Svoye Im’ya, Bukovsky and his crew chose to conduct 60 interviews from thousands of testimonies. If there are strong main characters there is balance and thus there is history, he says.
Another secret to a successful documentary is a good crew, he says. “It is very important to understand each other at a glance, especially in documentaries. You crew is the most important thing. Often they are taking a risk working with me, especially if I’m not sure whether we will receive money for the project, but I like the feeling of freedom. It is worth a lot. No one stands over you, no one shouts orders to be thriftier or how to shoot.”
Having gathered material, it depends on your skills to tell the story, be it simple or complex, Bukovsky says. In his editing technique he takes an interesting approach – he edits from the end. He cites the example of actor Alexey Batalov who won’t star in a TV series because he can’t play someone whose life “is not written yet”. However, external funding is still needed and he admits it is a frustrating process. “Today’s promotional language and terminology, which is used for grants, are totally alien to me. Most of the time there is absolutely nothing behind the words about the goals and objectives of a project.”
One of his grant applications, however, was recently successful, and Bukovsky received funding (the amount he will not disclose) for a project centred on Chornobyl. “Yes, we received a grant and I’m grateful for that. It will be enough to form a shooting crew, find specialists, scientists, and also for exploring the area for shooting. What happens after that...we will see...”
The documentarian wants to capture the return to nature within the 30-kilometre exclusion zone since the April 1986 nuclear meltdown, and he wants to capture the isolation of the area with as few words as possible – in fact none – he promises it will be a silent movie. “I want to observe, to be silent in the movie. If the project is realised I won’t say a single word in the film.” He has yet to start shooting, but hopes the film will be ready in time for the 30th anniversary of Chornobyl catastrophe.
by Olga German