“I chose the theme of a little man who does a great job. The Roma volunteer and help the army,” said film director Ivan Sautkin.
Ivan Sautkin is a director of advertising and cinema. He is one of the authors of the BABYLON’13 project. Ivan has made four documentaries and three feature films, and more than two hundred commercials. Recently, Ivan made a documentary about Roma migrants from the city of Hostomel, who, like other Ukrainians, were forced to flee the war to the most remote corners of Ukraine. The work on the shooting took two days. The director went to Uzhhorod, where he found one of the characters of his film – Vasyl Kanalush. He went to his son’s grave. He talked to people in the camp, visited the house with a large family of 29. He listened to the stories of the Roma and recorded them.
We talked to the director about the role of the Roma during the war and their participation in civil resistance against the background of martial law.
Ivan, you are one of the founders of the documentary project on the civil protest BABYLON’13, which began its work during the Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity. Today, BABYLON’13 documents and records the Russia-Ukraine war.
Why does the theme of the Roma take one of the leading places in your documentary work?
We are now in the Transcarpathian region. I have three minor children, whom I took to my friends. Today we live with friends in Khust district. They are anarchists, I am not an anarchist, but we coexist well and live together in this commune. Now the three of us are making films – me, my ex-wife and her friend. They both work for Public Broadcasting Company (Suspilne). This film is our collaboration project. Since we all live together, we have common equipment. And, of course, I’m not the only author of this film, the work is co-authored.
I have known the activist of human rights of the Uzhhorod Roma community for a long time. I was interested to see what is happening now, firstly, with the Roma, and secondly, I am concerned about racism and discrimination against the Roma, because it is unfair, especially now. As you can see from the film, almost every family has children who are at war. For example, the son of Vasyl Kanalush, one of the characters of the film, was in Mariupol. He was wounded, he was taken out of Mariupol and he is not under blockade. But I don’t even know what happened to him now. That is, they are fighting in the most dangerous war zones.
There is one more reason why I am interested in the Roma people in this context. We are in close contact with the battalion “Azov”. One of our co-authors has been making a large documentary about the battalion’s fighters since 2015. Russian propaganda has given “Azov” the image of one of Ukraine’s most Nazi-oriented groups. They constantly spread the idea that the “Azov’s” members are fascists. We have a lot of material about the life of the battalion and its fighters. It is important for me to break this stereotype that has taken hold of “Babylon 13”. After the film about the Roma, no one will accuse us of right-wing radical views.
But the main reason is an interest, I am interested in what happens to Roma and other national minorities, how they participate in events and experience them. “Babylon 13” makes a civil society film. Here in Transcarpathia, I chose the theme of a little man who does a great job. The Roma volunteer, help each other, help the army.
“Babylon 13” appeared at the beginning of the Revolution of Dignity. Then the unification of this documentary came to show another society that is changing and protesting. In your opinion, from the moment the studio was founded until today, has your documentary project been able to influence public opinion?
“Babylon 13” has several principles that we follow. We hardly work with information. This is not our tool. Now everyone has a smartphone in his or her pocket with a camera that can take pictures of anything and people take pictures. On the Maidan, next to one protester who was throwing a Molotov cocktail, there were 5 people filming everything on video. Information can be interpreted, distorted, anything can be done. We don’t work with it, we work with emotions. We do not make television materials, but documentaries.
Another principle of the studio is that we have not filmed anything with politicians and people who can speculate on emotions, people’s aspirations, and context. The object of our interest is ordinary people, civil society.
I hope that our work has changed the way we think about civil society. I think that it helped people feel their own strength, helped them feel their effectiveness as part of society, and moved from a passive to a more active state.
The Roma are, in fact, a closed community. Please tell us more about how you established communication?
It is true that the Roma are a closed community. You can just come to their camp with a camera, of course, but you won’t get any interesting information. They will work for the camera, trying to get something from the person who is shooting – money or some other things. This is not a convention, but such a feature.
The Roma are very different, I have a friend, the godfather of my child, and we are living with him now. He was born in Austria, married to a local Ukrainian. He now plays with local musicians in the Hudaki Village Band. Yurkin is the band leader; there are several Roma among the band’s musicians. These are settled Roma who have lived in the neighboring village for several generations. Inside, I know about the communication difficulties that the Roma face in society. We have the protection of a Roma human rights activist from Uzhhorod, there are also some of my friends – local Roma, who can give protection. But this material, as I said, is not a very serious film. This work is not about an inside look, we just received information from the Roma that they are also taking part in the war, suffering from it. As a cinematographer, it takes me about six months to work on Roma issues. I need to live with these people and study the topic from the inside. We just have the protection of the defenders. We have helped them in our volunteer work and continue to help, so we have a certain level of trust.
Did you have your own stereotypes about Roma?
In fact, I had no stereotypes. I remember when I was a kid, about five years old, now in my fifties (laughs) I wanted to be stolen by the Roma.
When I saw the Roma walking down the street, I liked their beautiful, bright clothes. They walked around the city barefoot, talking loudly, they had golden teeth. It looked so great and I wanted to get into this company. I was small and everyone scared me, but it so happened that I always had friends of Roma nationality. Therefore, there are no stereotypes about the fact that they occupy such a “non-caste” place in our society. We have no castes; we do not live in India, in Japan. There are allegations that they have chosen a caste position and behave like Shudras in India. There is such an opinion from time to time, even among the Roma themselves. I have never had such thoughts.
Did you manage to learn something from the Roma while working on this theme?
In fact, personally, the Roma taught me not to give in to emotions, to think, to analyze, and to be cool-headed in communicating with people. It is impossible to be calm among the Roma, they are highly temperamental and terribly interesting people. In communication with these people, the emotional amplitude is very wide, but they have their own traditional social attitudes. They are not always similar to our secular attitudes. This must be taken into account and analyzed.
The Roma are a closed community on the one hand, but I do not think it is a marginal one. Of course, there is a marginal part and it is very large, but there is another one. It is impossible to say unambiguously, that the Roma are “like this” or “like that”.
The Roma people are travelers by nature. This is a wandering soul that cannot be eradicated. Even if society wanted to socialize them as much as possible, the question is whether such a mechanism would be useful for them?
I believe that it is also impossible to globalize in this case. For some it is suitable – for some it is not, some have different circumstances compared to others. People are completely different. The Roma have many people who take it easy to move, say, Ukrainians. A lot of the people you saw in the movie are now in some other places For example, Vasyl Kanalush went to his wife in Romania. I can’t say where he will be tomorrow, and neither can he. His decisions are made in just a second.
Do you intend to continue making any films on Roma issues in the context of today’s war?
I would like that very much, but I can’t answer for sure yet. Today, events are happening so fast that it is difficult to predict anything. Now we need to work quickly. I can’t just stop for six months; immerse myself in Roma life being there all the time, making movies. This is because I’ll just lose a bunch of stuff around.
What other themes of the documentary are relevant for you today?
For example, the next work I am currently working on is dedicated to the artist. She is a fashionable and famous master – Zhanna Kadyrova. The artist makes funny, stone objects and sells them through her gallery, patrons and collectors with whom she collaborates. The other day an exhibition was opened at the Venice Biennale with her works. She spends the proceeds from her works on buying bulletproof vests; she helps the army and society.
In general, there are a lot of things around us and we have to be active. If you focus on something so hard you will lose a lot of interesting things. We have to show people what is happening. Now everyone is very angry, I understand, because we have a war, but what makes us different from our enemy is humanity. You need to show all the time that there are interesting, fantastically kind and purposeful people around you. They can be taken as an example; they should be respected, valued and helped. The Roma theme is fantastically interesting.
Interviewer: Marianna Maksymova
Interview transcript is prepared by Ruslana Polianska