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Samal Yeslyamova and Sergey Dvortsevoy: Cinema that mirrors reality


Migrant women workers at a clandestine sweat-shop in Moscow. Ayka, the eponymous heroine of Sergey Dvortsevoy's 2018 film, is seen in the foreground.

Familiar yet invisible people, around 2.5 million migrants have left their homes in Central Asia to try their luck in Moscow. Most of them eke a living doing precarious jobs. In Ayka – a feature film which won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 – Kazakh-Russian writer-director Sergey Dvortsevoy and Kazakh actress Samal Yeslyamova explore the fate of those who are willing to sacrifice so much in the hope of a better life.

Interview by Katerina Markelova

Samal Yeslyamova, in the film you play a Kyrgyz migrant who is forced to abandon her newborn child to return to work. How did you prepare for this role?

Yeslyamova: My character lives in extremely difficult conditions. I knew Sergey as a director, and realized how complicated it would be to play this role under his direction. When he becomes interested in a subject, his approach is more that of a documentary filmmaker than of a director of fiction.

I prepared myself for the role for a long time. I first interviewed my family, my acquaintances, my friends. But no one around me had ever faced a situation like this before. Thus, it was difficult to find the right expression. When the shooting started, I had just finished my studies at the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts. I had a spring in my step. Now, I was going to be playing a woman paralysed by pain.

Before I started shooting, I had to run and dance until I was literally exhausted. This state of exhaustion was enough for a few takes, but I quickly regained my energy and had to start running and dancing again. Even more so because, as the story progressed, my character’s level of fatigue increased.

Sergey Dvortsevoy, how did you come up with the idea for this film?

Dvortsevoy: I was appalled to learn that a large number of women from Kyrgyzstan were abandoning their children in Moscow’s maternity hospitals. Although I have lived in Moscow for over twenty years, I am originally from Shymkent, Kazakhstan. I am therefore familiar with the culture and mentality of Central Asia. I wanted to understand what could be pushing these women to do something so drastic.

I started to do some research, to meet women who have been through such an ordeal. Some of them, like the character played by Samal, commit this desperate act after being raped. Others do it because the child was conceived outside marriage, and it is impossible for them to return to their country because they would be rejected. I was very touched by this situation and decided to make a film about it.

Ayka is your second feature film, before which you made documentaries. Why did you feel the need to switch to fiction?

Dvortsevoy: In fact, I had already started to feel restricted by the documentary format. I couldn’t have made a documentary about a story like Ayka’s because I could never have been able to get close enough to this woman’s most intimate life. Besides, there is a contradiction in documentary filmmaking – the more difficult the character’s situation, the more dramatic the film is, and the better the result for the director. This ethical problem has been very painful for me. Although it is not easy to make a feature film, it is still fiction.

The main character literally takes up the entire space in the film, from beginning to end. Why is that?

Dvortsevoy: On the screen, we see Ayka’s life in the present. We have to understand who she is through her eyes, her body and her behaviour. It is through these, more than through her few lines, that we must also glimpse her past and predict her future. Samal has very expressive eyes, which the camera hardly leaves for a moment.

Samal, you express your character’s feelings with so little dialogue. How did you manage  that?

Yeslyamova: There were a lot of takes. Sergey edited them right away, and the next day we would watch the results. If we felt that something didn’t work, we would shoot it again. It was a permanent work in progress. The film was constructed as we went along.

And then we talked a lot with migrants from Central Asia. Some of them told us that eight of them lived in a single room. Sometimes one person would stay in a room during the day, and another would use the same room at night. They also told us how much they missed their children. To avoid the painful moment of separation, some of them preferred to leave early in the morning, when the children were still asleep. When they returned home, their children would not leave their side, afraid that they would be left alone again. These painful stories, and the shooting itself, were so hard and psychologically charged that I can say that this film was like a third school for me.

How do you explain that this film, which shows a few days in the life of a Kyrgyz migrant in Moscow, was able to find such resonance with audiences abroad?

Dvortsevoy: At each screening, the film generates strong reactions from the audience. I wasn’t expecting that at all. When I started working on the film in 2012, the issue of migrants was not so acute a phenomenon in Moscow. At that time, the Western European countries were not facing such an influx of migrants either. Today, these population movements are affecting almost all countries.

The other thing is that, in all my films, I try to avoid anything that seems fake in the acting. When this authenticity is achieved, the audience can identify with the character. I knew that by watching this film, the audience would stop seeing these migrants in terms of what they do, but would begin to see them as people. Cinema cannot change the way things are, but it can reach people’s hearts. If a work succeeds in touching the soul, it is an immense satisfaction for the creator.

Some migrant workers participated in the film alongside professional actors. Why did you make this choice?

Dvortsevoy: For the same reason – that is, for the sake of truth. Non-professional actors have a big advantage over professional actors. Their sincerity shows on their faces and in their words. They bring to the film, the roughness of life, the authenticity and the scent of real life. That’s why I wanted non-professional actors to join the cast. But that requires a lot of training. Many people who have seen the film said that they could not distinguish between the professional and non-professional actors – I take that as a great compliment.

Some of these migrants were on Russian territory illegally, which couldn’t have made shooting any easier.

Dvortsevoy: That did indeed happen many times. We would choose someone, check their papers, start working, train them in acting, and they would disappear overnight. They would then phone us from Kyrgyzstan to say they had been deported. In Moscow, it is extremely difficult to obtain a  residence permit legally, so the majority of migrants use false documents –  sometimes even without knowing it. People arrested in possession of forged documents are tried and deported after a few days. We would then have to search for another person and start all over again.

Were these unusual shooting conditions the reason the film took six years to make?

Dvortsevoy: That is one of the reasons, but not the only one. To highlight the heroine’s difficult conditions, we shot the film in winter, in the middle of a snowstorm. But as it turned out, it hardly snowed in Moscow for two years in a row. We tried to continue shooting using artificial snow, but this film did not support such artifice. So we had to wait until the weather was favourable, and there were snowstorms. Waiting is a very complicated state.

Samal, how did you feel when you heard your name announced for the Best Actress award at the Cannes Festival?

Yeslyamova: When the film was chosen to be in competition in the official selection, it was still being edited. The month before the festival, we worked hard to ensure that it was completed on time  – the director slept for only two hours a night, and the rest of the crew, four hours. Each of us performed about three different functions. At the beginning of the festival, I was so tired that even though I was aware of the importance of the moment, I only felt the emotional impact a little later.

When I heard my name, I felt both joy and disappointment. In fact, I was hoping that the film would win the Palme d’Or. What would my role have been without such a talented director and dedicated team? So this prize is not only mine, it goes to the whole film.

What does Samal’s award mean for you, Sergey?

Dvortsevoy: It is totally justified. I am happy that an actress who has thrown all her strength into the film has been rewarded. It is proof that thorough work and a sincere rapport with what is being done can elevate you to the top. But this level of commitment is not given to all actors.

In addition, this recognition is important for Kazakhstan. It is the first time that the Best Actress award at Cannes has been given to a country in the post-Soviet area. This award has also made it possible to understand that Ayka is a film that touches people beyond our borders. Its reach will continue to grow long after its release. For a creator, this is essential.

Our Guests were interviewed during the first Festival of Kazakhstan Film in France, held in Paris from 26-29 September 2019. Samal Yeslyamova was the guest of honour.

This interview is published to mark the occasion of International Migrants Day on 18 December.

Samal Yeslyamova

Winner of the Best Actress award at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, Kazakh actress Samal Yeslyamova, born in 1984, started her career in film by chance. After considering becoming a journalist, she studied drama at the Petropavlovsk College of Arts in Kazakhstan. Before she graduated, she got a role in Sergey Dvortsevoy’s film, Tulpan, which won the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. She graduated from the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS), Moscow, in 2011.

Sergey Dvortsevoy

Russian director Sergey Dvortsevoy was born in 1962 in Shymkent, Kazakhstan. He worked as an aeronautical engineer before enrolling in the documentary section of an advanced course for screenwriters and film directors at a Moscow film school at the age of 29. After making four highly regarded documentaries, he turned to feature film. His second full-length feature, Ayka (2018), has won awards in several international competitions. In 2019, he became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars.