Fresh, direct and sensitive, Stop-Zemlia draws the doubts and longings, desires and intimacies of adolescence. Oblivious to clichés, with her gaze glued, at times almost in a documentary way, to the lives of its protagonists, the debut of the Ukrainian Kateryna Gornostai has just been recognized with the Crystal Bear for Best Film in the Generation 14plus competition from the last Berlinale. Draped by a cast of young non-professional actors, it portrays the current moment of Ukrainian youth.
Does “stop-zemlia” game really exist? Why have you chosen it to give the film its title?
Yep, “Stop-Zemlia” which means “stop the Earth” is a real game from my childhood. It differs in its names in different Ukrainian cities and even city districts of Kyiv, but the rules are always the same: the “it” follows others with blinded eyes. Everyone should stay above the ground (it often is played on a playground with horizontal bars). When he or she catches somebody – the name of this person should be told. If the name is correct the person becomes “it”. If the “it” gets closer, you can run to the next horizontal bar not to be caught, but if the “it” hears you – he or she can shout “stop-zemlia!”. If you were on the ground at that moment – you become “it”.
Although it is a childish game it’s often played by teenagers. I like this frozen moment state when someone shouts “stop-zemlia!”: you are aware of yourself – about your position, orientation and direction at that moment, but you’re not moving and so you are living through this pause. For me it’s similar to the state you’re finding yourself in this last school year – you’re waiting for the grown-up life to come, you’re waiting to take all responsibilities on yourself, but the period of waiting seems to be endless. So, you need to learn to appreciate this moment you are in – not to wait for life to happen, but to enjoy it as it is here and now.
The film reminded me of Elephant, in the way that it presents more of a world rather than a straight-forward narrative, although a central story does exist. Did you have Gus Van Sant film in mind or any other teen film approaches close to documentary?
“Elephant” is one of my favorites. I am fond of the feeling and atmosphere it unfolds while it flows, although the main narrative line is too harsh for me. But the reason we have an ensemble structure in “Stop-Zemlia” is more inner. At some point in the casting process, I realized that we have not only main characters on board but a whole class of beautiful young people that started living as an organism even in the pre-production phase. So together with them, we started to develop these small storylines of every member of the group – for everybody to be involved as a supporting character more than a “crowd scene character”. And the central story of Masha allowed this mosaic way of storytelling because of its simplicity and non-conflict type.
The documentary approach grows out of my first cinematic experience. I think it was really helpful to start with documentaries to train the eye to discern the truth on the screen. And this approach is rather common when you are working with non-professional actors. It is much easier for them to work through the entire scene without breaks not to leave the state of their characters – not to “play” it, but to live through this fictional but common script situation.
Were the interviews that intercut the film actually with the young actors themselves?
We met each other with future actors on the casting through similar interviews we have in the film. So, it was a natural desire to talk one more time at the final stage of shooting. All things we have in these interviews – both fictional and true – were told through the prism of their characters, but without any lines or doubles, just in a form of a conversation. I want it to be the actor’s will or responsibility, to be honest, or not where exactly the true parts are. But I’m grateful to them that there’s a lot of truth in that.
Throughout the documentary-like interviews, the main actress, Maria Fedorchenko formulated you a question about whether or not her teenage feelings will follow her into adulthood. Were both the question and the answer improvised?
Yes, the part when I’m asking her to ask me a question she wants – was my favorite part of every interview (I did it with each of them). This shift from the film to our real relationships was always striking and fully improvised. But I may say, that the whole interview was in a way improvised. I planned to discuss some issues and expected some of their answers. But the most important thing for me was to create interesting conversation – to listen and to direct their train of thought, to formulate some things together.
You did a casting process in which you picked 25 youngsters who did not know each other prior to filming. How did you help them get close?
The main thing that helped us with that is the time that we spent all together and the creative process inside the so-called actor’s preparation laboratory. We had the 9-week schedule of a part-time actor’s “school”, but it was more about emancipation and bonding. We didn’t have the aim to teach them how to be an actor but to encourage them to improvise and to understand the laws of dramaturgy. In the final weeks, they were creating collective sketches in the style of documentary theatre. Another goal for them was to get used to a camera that surrounded them constantly.
How did you work on the haircuts and outfits of the characters?
Alena Gres is our costume designer. She has a daughter of the same age, so she is aware of the trends among youngster’s fashion. Alongside this knowledge, we tried to keep the wardrobe of each character suitable to the personal features. For example, introverted androgenic Masha is feeling comfortable in cozy woolen sweaters and a roomy faux fur coat; Senia is wearing a hat as a protection shield – it is the first thing he puts on after he’s awake; Sasha is a “blank” character, he doesn’t know himself well enough to wear clothes of some style, so his wardrobe consisted of simple one-colored t-shorts and jeans. Another thing that we wanted to avoid was stereotypic and sexualized images in our outfits, cause this way of portraying youth is outdated.
Maria Pylunska is a make-up artist in “Stop-Zemlia”. Besides the fact that she is one of the best in her field (you never notice her work in a frame until she makes it visible – like in prom scenes), she is also playing a role of a psychotherapist for the actors. Our cast was in love with her – she’s strict but honest with a great deal of irony. The style we picked for the film in make-up is as naturalistic as possible but with a magical glowing touch.
How important was it for you to address mental health issues as cutting, depression and PSTD in a straightforward manner?
These issues are on the agenda of a modern teenager, so we could not ignore them. And another thing that these issues are universal for every generation – the shape of the problems differs but the problems are still here. We had it during our school years, they have it now. It is an essential part of life – to deal with the “all-new” things that overwhelm you when you are at that age. The more the film became mosaic, the more topics we could reveal and it felt right.
The actress who plays the teacher is a university teacher in real life. Was it in purpose? If so, what did she add to the truthful of the script?
Yes, she is a neurobiologist from the university. I want her to bring the respect of university-style teaching into the school. Maybe this is not an entirely true story for Ukrainian schools, but we did so on purpose – to depict the school “of the future”, because I believe this is a natural evolution of the school institute, where teachers become respectful friends to the students, ceasing to be schoolmarmish inspectors.
Cell phones are often demonized in movies, but you, on the other hand, show the protagonists making healthy use of them. In fact, you have stated that you sense an evolution in this new technological reality. What makes you think like it? What do you think it will consist of?
When we were designing our actor’s laboratory, I was afraid that our future actors would be consumed by their phones and it will damage classes. I was really happy to learn that the need for gadgets is rapidly decreasing if you’re involving the group in the creative process and when everyone is truly passionate about it. I believe this shift from obsessing to clever using of technology is happening in every aspect of life now. Another crucial thing – they were born with their phone in their hand, it’s the whole world for them and an important part of life and communication, and they treat it easier than we do – they do not afraid to be themselves online. We need to perceive technology as an organic part of their life.