Don’t try to make a Cow into a Camel!

Last week we had the pleasure of screening the Scottish premiere of The Woman with The 5 Elephants at Edinburgh College of Art, with a long Q&A by director Vadim Jendreyko.

85-year-old Svetlana Geier dedicated her life to language. Considered the greatest translator of Russian literature into German, Svetlana has just concluded her magnum opus, completing new translations of Dostoyevsky’s five great novels—known as “the five elephants.” 

As a precocious teenager living in Ukraine with an unusual facility for languages, Svetlana was brought to the attention of her country’s Nazi occupiers during World War II, and found uneasy refuge translating for them. She fled in 1943 and never returned … until now.

During the screening  you could hear a pin drop in the audience, who were clearly in awe of Svetlana’s mode of thinking, her poignant use of language – in short her authenticity: whether she was ironing her table cloths, talking to a train guard on her first journey back to the Ukraine, or translating Dostoyevsky.

Svetlana is a unique person, and director Vadim Jendreyko really wanted to share with an audience what it meant knowing her. He spoke at length about what was involved in translating her journey onto the big screen.

Following the talk, Vadim also hosted a weekend workshop for our 11 shortlisted Bridging the Gap filmmakers, currently developing their 10 min films.

Here are a few points of reflection gleaned from Vadim about filmmaking:

  1. Filmmaking is self development: I want to be a different person when I’ve finished making a film.
  2. Try to take the most uncomfortable part of your project, your biggest weakness, and really work on it. People will invariably pick up on it, and you need to have answers for them – and first of all for yourself.
  3. Don’t show everything at once. Remember the original meaning of strip-tease
  4. Use obstacles in your favour. Not having access to this or that person, location, object – you have to turn negatives into positives, or make the obstacle part of the film.
  5. Always look for a personal connection. For my relationship to Svetlana that meant not shooting for 6 months. If you don’t have  a personal connection with your main character, how will you ever translate this into an interesting figure on screen?
  6. Again: Authenticity is key. Doors will open – or you will find your way in. Only when I managed to take a still of myself with Svetlana, could I begin the process of recording. In fact we were never making a film, we were herguests. You could never do things twice. She never acknowledged the camera.
  7. You have to strategise about getting access. You need patience to understand people’s viewpoints very much unlike your own; you may need to align yourself with the strongest, but perhaps not most likeable character. That person can often open the entire setting or milieu for you, and help you get accepted socially within their environment; other people, situations.
  8. At the beginning, always raise a strong curiosity; give us real motivation to watch this film. Always be able to answer the question: Why do you want to make this film? What do I want to learn from it?
  9. Be prepared. Know what you’re looking for and trust what you’ll find. Often it will seem serendipitous.
  10. Music kills a scene when used as illustration. Use it sparingly. Never forget about the sound. Always get a clean track when you’ve finished a shot.
  11. Don’t try to make a cow into a camel. Just try to make a really good cow.