I was privileged to be a member of the international jury at the eleventh edition of the International Documentary Film Festival “Flahertiana,” in Perm, Russia that took place last month (11 – 17 October). We five jury members were tasked with awarding a Grand Prix, a Best Feature and Best Short film prizes. We gave the feature prize to Estonian filmmaker, Marianna Kaat, for Pit No 8. Here’s what we said in our statement:
“ . . . Kaat grows a unique and complex relationship with her main protagonists, particularly in her portrayal of one very powerful man who still resides in the body of an adolescent boy. We observe how he and his family try to survive under unbearable social pressures with grace, dignity, and persistent resistance against the forces that might pull them under at any given moment. They display clarity and fortitude, as does Kaat in her filmmaking. Pit No 8 is an inspiring portrait of Ukraine, a country in painful transition, where there are no rules. But Kaat shows us plenty of examples of the miracle of humanity amidst inhumane conditions.”
The Tallinn-based filmmaker’s new film is also an apt case study for a couple of complex issues nonfiction directors face on a regular basis. In her quest for a main protagonist for her film on illegal coal mining in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, she met a teenager named Yura and he, in turn, introduced her and her crew to his two sisters. When they met, the three children were living completely on their own, taking care of one another and surviving the best they knew how. During the course of filming with Yura and his sisters, Julia and Ulyana, Kaat and her crew became so close to them that the usual lines drawn between filmmaker and protagonists started to blur, with the director, in particular, becoming personally involved in their lives—an association that still continues to this day.
As well, because Kaat is interested in making cinematic pieces that comprise aspects of what she calls “her vision,” there are re-constructed scenes in the film that she and her subjects created together, and so she plays with the timeline of some events for the purposes of stronger dramaturgy in line with the story she chooses to tell about their lives. In essence, this documentary filmmaker plays with form and, in the process, has created an emotionally resonant film that has had profound repercussions in the country of Ukraine. Quite candidly, she talked to me about these creative decisions and the journey that took her deep into the lives of her subjects.
Marianna Kaat (MK): As a documentary filmmaker, I’m always open to new stories, new characters; I’m always thinking about those things, even when I’m not actively making a film. Ideas can come from news stories or meeting someone and I think, oh that would be a great subject or character for a documentary. I’m always open for that.
I was a co-producer on a Ukrainian project, a fiction film for children that was shot in Estonia. I was sitting drinking coffee with the Ukrainian producer and I told her that we now had to do something in Ukraine [laughing]. I already knew about this area, this Donetsk and Donbass area [the center of the coal industry in Eastern Ukraine].
I was born in the Soviet Union—we used to be one country, Estonia, Russia, etc., and I’m old enough to remember certain things that filled every day of my life, such as what was on TV and in films. There were a lot of documentaries about miners in the Soviet period. These men were considered the “aristocrats” of the labor-class. They were very well paid; their salaries were fairly high compared to what a lot of other people were earning at the time, and they were privileged. They traveled to the best places for vacations in Crimea and the Black Sea area. When the Soviet Union collapsed, most of the state mines were closed. I also was aware of all the social problems in this area that were the result of massive unemployment when the mines were shut down.
We found a retired guy, about 54, who still had this illegal pit but it was closed by the time we got there. He was like a Don Quixote, fighting with the authorities because he didn’t want to pay bribes to the militia anymore to keep it open. So the authorities made him a sort of unofficial Marshall, closing his pit with the presence of TV and the militia present and all this kind of thing, to show how they are fighting the illegal pits. But, in reality, they are all connected to this illegal industry, somehow. So I thought this might be my main character and we would follow him trying to legalize his pit, going to the different authorities. Theoretically, it is possible to make it legal, but it costs a lot of money. And it was obvious that there would be no way for this man to succeed in accomplishing that.
We even made some sort of trailer from this material and I pitched the project in different parts of Europe. We received some money to go and shoot, and just as we were getting ready to go, I got a message that he had died from cancer. But when we got there, I was absolutely sure that we would find a protagonist. This area is full of very, very strong characters, responsible men who work for their families. Usually the women sit at home and the men work. When Ukraine received independence [in 1991], there were changes to these classical roles because so many men lost their jobs. They could no longer feed their families. It was both an internal and external tragedy for a lot of people.
We did think we had found another main protagonist in this young 22-year-old guy who, like Yura, had started working in the pits when he was fourteen or fifteen years old. He had just gotten married and his wife was pregnant. Yura actually mentions him in the film as “the kamikaze” who dug a hole underneath his own house. This guy mentioned that his neighbor was a fifteen-year-old boy, the grandson of one of the plant directors, and he worked in the pits. For me, that was new information because I didn’t realize that children were working in the pits. That was a discovery and something I had never read about anywhere.
One day when we were shooting on the street, this boy rides up to us on his bike and starts asking us who we are and what we’re doing there. And then, of course, I realized that this is the same boy we had been looking for. We were looking for him, but he had found us, a good sign. And it was absolutely clear that he would be our main guy.
SIM: What was it about Yura, in particular, that made you feel that strongly that he would be the person to lead the film?
MK: He was extremely open from the very beginning—you can see this first encounter in the film. When we were editing the material, we tried different approaches to introduce his story and then I realized there was no need to get very complicated about it and just showed how our first encounter happened since we filmed it. He was open to sharing his thoughts and wasn’t afraid or shy. And of course, there was the fact that he was working, a normal workingman, no different than anyone else there who decides to work. Some of these working people, like him, are children. By that time, we had also learned that he was the grandson of this Soviet factory boss. For those not living in the Soviet era, that doesn’t seem so important, but for those who lived during those times, the importance of this is key. The factory was making materials for the military, so the person running these plants was very powerful. For this region, the director of the factory was like a god. There were no barriers or limits for this kind of person, you know? So knowing this and knowing how his grandson is living makes for an enormous difference if we look at it in terms of legacy.
SIM: The ghost of the grandfather is there throughout the entire film. People keep mentioning him, what a great man he was. But what’s even more resonant in terms of this particular aspect, is that this boy, somehow, even without knowing what this legacy might mean, is imbued with this kind of nobility. I see this noble class in him, not only in his confidence and his maturity, but in the way he feels so paternalistic towards almost everyone he meets and certainly in the way he regards his role as caretaker of the family. He’s so much more like a father figure than a brother or a son.
After you filmed for about six months with Yura and his sisters, we come to a very interesting point in the film. Other filmmakers would have, perhaps, made very different decisions about this and there are many, many discussions about this issue in documentary circles—one of the trickiest territories a nonfiction filmmaker has to traverse. You state, very explicitly, that you decide to help the children by buying them a house. It’s Christmastime and we’ve watched their situation deteriorate relentlessly, including some strife amongst them, particularly Yura and the older girl, Ulyana.
MK: Well, in many discussions about this with viewers and audiences, I must say that it's always addressed as a kind of positive question. No one’s blaming me or finding fault with that decision, except for one time when someone asked me how I could “just change lives like that?”
First of all, their lives did not change after I decided to buy that house for them. It cost practically nothing for me, to be honest, 1000 dollars. That was nothing to spend to provide a roof over their heads. I have two boys, close to the same age as Yura and Ulyana, 17 and 19. When we started to film with Yura, I cried a lot. He was the one who was trying to encourage me and comfort me, “No, no it’s okay; why are you crying like this?” [laughing] I was looking at this situation as a mother, not as a film director. I was having a hard time separating these two things.
SIM: We never see or meet their mother. Was there an attempt to film her at all, or did you decide early on that you were going to stay focused on the children?
MK: We filmed once with her. There were several moments when we could have shot with her, but Yura did not want us to involve her in this at all and when I first saw her, I understood why. For me, it was like a shock. The first thing I found myself saying to her was how beautiful her children were because the contrast was staggering. She looked absolutely awful. This wouldn’t have given anything additional to this film except an awful visual moment. During the time we shot the film, she wasn’t involved in their lives at all. And the reality was they were completely on their own and I wanted to show that there is, literally, no one taking care of these children. Not even any of the representatives of this commission that is supposed to be responsible for overseeing the well being of these families, came to us to ask us what we were doing there. They knew that we were filming. The only time they came around was when I bought the children the house. They didn’t come to check on them; they came to check out the house out of curiosity to see what kind of gift the children were getting.
The house where they were living with the mother was very, very cold, with no electricity and the windows were blocked with wood to keep some warmth in. The stepfather had sold the heater for scrap to buy alcohol. The situation was absolutely awful and my heart was breaking. Yura told me about this house being sold by its owner’s son, that he was dreaming to buy it once he had enough money. So I told him that we should go and see it together. I had decided that if it would be okay for living, I was going to buy it—I had already made up my mind. I knew the price already. I told my crew that we needed to film everything since you never know what you might need afterwards. But I wasn’t sure I would use this material for the film then.
Also, in talking with the owner, I realized that he would be the only adult person to whom I could call from Estonia to ask how the children were doing. In case they needed something, I could manage things through him. I decided right then and there to buy it. Yura was in shock since he didn’t expect this at all.
In an earlier cut of the film, I didn’t use this section. But I started asking some people about it and understood that without this, something essential would be missing. And once I decided that Yura would be the center of the film, I started putting some moments back in like this one, his problems at school, and also this “golden” moment at the end when everyone is happy and we can all believe that everything will be okay. However, I did want to know if it did bother people if we explicitly stated that I bought the house for the children, illustrating this involvement I had which obviously went beyond the filming relationship. I didn’t get any negative reaction.
SIM: Yura does struggle greatly with this work / school dilemma, realizing that with all the other responsibilities he has, to manage both is not really possible. Particularly when the relationship with Ulyana breaks down, he realizes he’s really the only one that can support himself and Julia, the younger girl. The kids who do go to school and finish, do they stay in the area, do they leave? What’s going to happen to places like Donbass?
MK: This is an area where the authorities are not involved very deeply. It’s not a question of money—there is money there. It’s how the system works and how it’s worked for a long time now. So it still depends on family. If the family is okay, then the children are okay. If the family is not okay, then the children have a hard time.
In Ukraine, someone put this film up on YouTube without permission, no English subtitles. I’m not fighting against it since it’s obviously to be shared with people there who otherwise would not have access to it. I haven’t checked recently, but it’s received thousands and thousands of uploads from Ukraine. I’ve received emails through Facebook or through YouTube from people who were born there, some who even worked in the pits and have moved out of the area. They live in Kiev, some even in America. They are very moved because they see themselves in this film. But most people stay just because they simply don’t have any money to move.
SIM: The ending of this film, the last shots particularly, are surprising. In many ways, this portrayal completely goes against the grain of the rest of the film as it's quite idealistic, whimsical and, one could say, fantastical. Why did you choose to end the film this way, with Yura and his best friend, Dima, “riding off into the sunset” on a motorbike? Why was it so important to you to have this “happy ending”? Most documentary filmmakers do not feel compelled to show resolution of any sort, let alone a happy ending.
MK: This scene--the whole film, in fact--is my vision of things. The motorbike ride shown at the end is a reconstructed episode. For the children and for the audiences who watch the film, I want them to believe in something [laughs softly]. I’m a positive person in life because I choose to be. I also, somehow, believe in signs. I think if you put something very horrible at the end, something horrible can or will happen to them. That’s not what I want for them, to have this kind of bleak future. I put my emotions and my energy in these episodes to make everybody believe that it is possible to change something.
We shot this episode on the motorbike in the middle of our shooting period. I knew then that I wanted this to be the finale of the film and I told my crew this. So I decided what the end of the film would be in the middle of shooting, whatever would have happened. Dima purchased the bike in the beginning of summer. He had taken out a loan from the bank to buy it. When we got there in the middle of summer, the bike was already ruined, you know? The boys had been very rough with it and we filmed them trying to repair it. I wanted to reconstruct this episode where Dima buys it and they're driving it when it’s new. It was something he and Yura had done together during the summer but we’d missed that. So we repaired the bike and shot them riding in the city, outside the city, what you see in the film. The light was fantastic, etc. I tried to make this motorbike a constant theme in the film. When we show that they go to first see the bike in the store and ask how much it is, the bike had already been bought. I wanted to get all these episodes on film—things that had already happened. It becomes a manifestation of their dreams and instead of having them merely speak about it, I wanted to show them riding.
SIM: I see this kind of nuance in the work of your cinematographer, Rein Kotov. His camera work is really extraordinary. These quiet, formally framed moments become so vital to a viewer’s emotional journey with these characters. We really get a sense of where we are and what it feels like. And a lot of it is really ugly. He bothered to go and find a good amount of beauty there.
MK: Rein is a very famous Estonian cinematographer who mostly works in fiction. So I’m very proud that he works with me. Obviously, I can’t pay him near what he makes in fiction and he’s very, very busy; he’s in high demand and works a lot. My sound recordist, as well, is now a fiction film producer [Ivo Felt]. So I’m working with an extremely qualified and professional crew. It was tricky logistically sometimes to work things out, where everyone could take time to go to Ukraine to shoot. Sometimes we would only be able to go for three or four days at a time and it just came down to using what we had when we could get it, how to use what happened when we weren’t there, and how to incorporate those elements in the film. This also included what might happen in the future that didn't yet exist at the time of shooting.
But all of us share a common understanding of the world and so we formed similar relationships to the protagonists. It became vital to be able to shoot together and so I needed to wait for them to be available. The children became close to all of us. It gets dark in the Ukraine very early so the shooting day is very short. There’s nothing to do there so we’d sit for hours in the evening together in restaurants and the children were always with us. We acted very much like a family in this way when we were there.
I think this is crucial when you’re going to show very intimate aspects of people’s lives to have this kind of intimacy in reality. That intimacy extends to your crew because I completely relied and trusted in them.
MK: They like the film. We spent three years of our lives making it together. It’s very difficult for me to divide things—it was, and still is, a very big part of my life, these relationships. I’m still in contact with them and I’m still dealing with them and I probably will until they’re grown. I’m still trying to help them. The film has had powerful emotional impacts on people. When I showed it at festivals in Canada, at Hot Docs in Toronto and DOXA in Vancouver, there were some people who told me they were involved with a charity and wanted to know how they could help.
The irony of the situation is that the Ukrainian authorities are so frightened by this film. In fact, the film is prohibited from being shown in Ukraine. Not prohibited in any “official” capacity, but none of the Ukrainian festivals will take it and my co-producer there, who has distribution rights for that territory, is not doing anything. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture is the only source for financing films and she is afraid that if she associates herself with this film any further, the financing for her own future projects will be compromised.
The head of one of the Canadian charities is from a different region in Ukraine and they have created some big projects affiliated with orphanages, one of which is where Julia is now. But these places would not let me in when I was asked to go there to negotiate on behalf of the Canadians. The orphanage director in Ukraine was advised not to have contact with me and refused to meet me at all. There was even talk of the possibility of putting together a scholarship for Yura to come to study in Canada at a cooking school. [Yura dreams of becoming a chef.] People have reacted so emotionally; they really want to do something to help. But they are reacting to my vision of life there—not necessarily the reality. Yura still works in the pits, you know? He did finish school but he’s working in the pits again.
I’m not their mother. If he was, indeed, my son, I would just flat out tell him to do what I thought was best for him and there would be little discussion! [laughter] But I can’t say things like that to him. He knows about this proposal to bring him to Canada. He needed certain documents and he didn’t bother to acquire those. I haven’t heard from him in a couple of months, but through checking in with the sisters, I know he’s involved in working in the pits and he knows how I would take that and that’s why he’s not contacting me. Because then he’d have to tell me what he’s doing and he can’t lie to me. To be honest, I don’t see a good future for him. Maybe the army can change something but I don’t know if he will go or even if he’ll be accepted or sent there since he has the two sisters. I don’t know what the rules are regarding that.
And unfortunately, Julia, the little one, is too old for adoption in Canada, but these same Canadians were ready to establish some sort of fund for her support after she finished school at the orphanage. But all these things have to be done with the cooperation of the local people and I can’t do anything from Estonia. I do understand as a professional filmmaker that you can definitely influence people with your films and gain something from it when there is the offer to do something about the situation of the people you portray in your films. But in Ukraine, they are doing nothing and more than that, creating restrictions so that nothing can be done.
Viktor Yanukovych [the President of Ukraine] was born in this region. The film doesn’t do much for the image of Ukraine or the region, quite obviously, since no one in power is interested in doing anything for people there, including the children. I’m an outsider; I’m not a citizen there and to be honest, I really don’t know what to do, to whom I should appeal. I do want this film to help people and to change things, especially in the mines. I know that several Ukrainian bloggers are writing about the film. I saw one comment that said, “Yanukovych to the pit, and Yura for President!” [laughing]
SIM: That would not be a bad start for change.
To stream or upload the film (with English subtitles), click here: https://onlinefilm.org/en_EN/film/48972