Documentary filmmaker Zoya Laktionova (Harriman Resident in Paris, ’22 – ’23) was living in Kyiv and working on a feature documentary about her family history and the Azovstal plant in Mariupol when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since then, she’s completed artist residencies in Vienna and Barcelona, and is a Harriman Resident at Columbia’s Global Center (Paris) and the Institute for Ideas and Imagination this year.
The following transcript is an edited and condensed excerpt from a longer interview that will appear in a forthcoming episode of our podcast, Voices of Ukraine. Our conversation took place via Zoom on February 23, 2023.
[You can meet Laktionova at our March 27 event, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culture, which will highlight the work of Harriman residents in Paris!]
Masha Udensiva-Brenner: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Zoya Laktionova: I was born in 1984 in Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Russia. All my family worked at Azovstal, a metallurgical plant. My mother was a construction crane operator and I spent a lot of time there with her. When I was five years old, she took me up on her construction crane. I had a very interesting childhood.
MUB: You have one film, Territory of Empty Windows, that tells the story of how your family ended up in Mariupol. Can you talk about that history?
ZL: Yes, Territory of Empty Windows is a short film that was an inspiration for Ashes, a longer, feature film I’m working. My grandfather was born in a small village in central western Ukraine. During World War II, he was taken by force by the Soviet government to restore the Azovstal plant in Mariupol, which is how my family ended up there. He worked there all his life, and invited my mother to work there as a construction crane operator. Then in 1992, he died under a construction crane operated by my mother. In the film, the Azovstal plant will simultaneously be a metaphor for the totalitarian system and a crematorium.
MUB: Were you close with your grandfather?
ZL: Yes, I think I have my storytelling talent because of the Ukrainian fairytales my grandfather told me when I was a child. After that I decided to write my own fairytales. But I couldn’t write yet, so I just scribbled lines, imagining they were my fairytales. And now my fairytales are my films.
MUB: And did you speak with your grandfather in Ukrainian?
ZL: I spoke Russian because my mother spoke to me in Russian. But my grandfather, grandmother, and mother spoke to each other in Ukrainian. They were from a Ukrainian-speaking village. My mother learned Russian in school, and that’s why she spoke with me in Russian and I grew up a Russian speaker. Now I speak Ukrainian; it’s my political choice.
MUB: How did you perceive language as a child?
ZL: I learned Ukrainian at school. We had two courses in Ukrainian—Ukrainian language and Ukrainian literature. Everything else was in Russian, and Russia was only 20 kilometers from Mariupol. Ukrainian was portrayed as the language of village people. So when I was a child, we laughed at people for speaking Ukrainian. It was considered shameful.
Many years later, when I was about 17, I decided that I was interested in Ukrainian literature and that the language is beautiful. And I became interested in Ukrainian mythology, Ukrainian fairytales.
MUB: What was your relationship with your parents like?
ZL: Before I became a documentary director, we didn’t have much in common. Then in 2016 my friend [Maria Stoianova] made a short documentary film called Ma, about my mother and me. After that my mother started to like documentaries and started going to documentary film festivals. We became best friends after that, documentary filmmaking connected us.
MUB: Can you tell us a bit about the documentary your friend made? How did she decide to make it?
ZL: Mariupol is near the sea and I invited some friends to visit me there. Masha liked the city and she met my mother, who was a really interesting person. When I told her that my mother was making video diaries about the war that had started in 2014—she would make these videos about our city, about our dacha, and post them to Facebook and connect with me that way—my friend decided to make a film about it. It was really nice. This film is still really popular.
MUB: And you studied management and were working in digital marketing in Kyiv at the time. How did you become a documentary filmmaker?
ZL: Because of this film Ma. My mother and I ended up having such a good relationship after it that I realized documentary filmmaking could be therapeutic. And I thought I could use it as therapy for myself, too.
I made my first film, Diorama, in 2018 about the mining of the sea in Mariupol. After the war started in 2014, they started mining the sea. And this was very traumatic for me—I grew up by the sea and now it was dangerous to swim, even to go by boat. And I made a documentary about it and it was a good experience. I decided that I wanted to work in this field.
MUB: And can you talk about the period leading up to 2014? What were you doing when the Revolution of Dignity occurred?
ZL: I took part in the protests. I was in Maidan most days after work.
MUB: And how did your parents perceive these events?
ZL: Like many people in Mariupol at the time, they were against Maidan. They watched a lot of Russian propaganda and repeated everything they heard on Russian TV. They believed that there were some bigger interests behind the protests—power, money, something like that.
MUB: And once Russia annexed Crimea and occupied Donbas, how did your parents feel about that?
ZL: It was a stressful time for all of us. In 2015, Russia shelled our district. Our apartment was damaged. My sister and I tried to move our parents from Mariupol to Kyiv, but it was impossible because they were not young people. They didn’t want to change their lives.
We invited them to visit Kyiv so they could see everything they were watching was just Russian propaganda. This was in 2015 and they became pro-Ukrainian because they understood the situation.
MUB: And you said your mom started making videos about the war. Can you talk about those?
ZL: In 2016 I gave her a digital camera, and she decided to film the reality around her. Everything looked the same, but the sounds of war were always near. So she filmed the fields, the dacha, the dog, the cat– just regular life; she talked about the weather and the sun shining, while you could hear shelling in the distance.
MUB: And you made a film about your mom, also, can you tell me about that?
ZL: It was originally supposed to be about my mom and dad, and the lives of people near the frontline. My mother died six months before I made the film. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, after the war started. It was not an unusual situation; we had a neighbor who also got cancer after the shelling started. I believe my mother got sick both from the pollution she’d been exposed to at the Azovstal plant and because life near the frontline was really stressful. When I started making the film, I had another main character in mind, but after my mother’s death I decided she would be the main character.
MUB: Can you talk about the film?
ZL: After her death I cried for four months before I could edit the footage. Then I decided that it would be easier for me to look at the story as a director, not as her daughter. And I started to feel better once I began editing the film from that perspective.
MUB: When did she pass away?
ZL: She died in early March 2020. So I edited the film during the pandemic.
MUB: What was going on in your life when the full-scale invasion started last year?
ZL: I was working on my feature film, Ashes, as planned. I was supposed to go to Mariupol, which, along with the Azovstal plant, was going to be my main visual character. But then the full-scale invasion started and I decided to flee Ukraine, because after spending two or three weeks near the shelling, I was afraid. So I escaped to Vienna. My father decided to stay in Kyiv, where he’d moved after my mother’s death. It was impossible to convince him to come to Vienna with me. He’s been in a small village deep in the forest near Kyiv since the war started.
MUB: And you made a film about the dichotomy of being abroad and watching the war unfold. Can you talk about that?
ZL: Yes, it’s called Remember the Smell of Mariupol. After I fled Ukraine, I got an artist residency in Spain, and then another residency in Austria. I was always reading the news and I had one awful reality inside my head—constant death, the destruction of Mariupol—and a very different reality surrounding me. So, I used archival video footage from Mariupol, because it was impossible to film there at that moment, in which you could see a mountain, and I filmed another mountain in the Alps that’s similar to the mountain in Mariupol and I combined the two images and wrote some text to show the emotions and reality inside my head.
MUB: And did that help you process the situation?
ZL: Yes, it helped for. awhile. But the situation hasn’t changed and I need to be doing new work every day in order to be in a normal state.
MUB: Can you talk about the residency in Paris?
ZL: Yes, after two shorter residencies, it’s nice to be settled somewhere for a whole year instead of moving all the time. I am back to working on my feature film, and can focus not just on the war but on art, too.
Laktionova, along with her fellow Harriman Residents, will join us at the Institute in late March for two campus events: an evening of discussion and celebration at Low Library, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culture (March 27), and a poetry reading and discussion, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow: An Evening With Ukrainian Poet Natalka Bilotserkivets (March 31).