A Family is an oddly beguiling black comedy. Minimalist in style, enigmatic in character, it has a touching charm about it. Set in a tragically un-hip suburb of overwhelming bleakness somewhere in Eastern Europe, the ingenious plot is about Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi). His desire is to build a family and he has taken a uniquely 21st century short cut to live the dream. He hires actors to ‘play’ his brother, mother and sister in little scripted role-plays and then captures these precious moments as home movies. Things get complicated when he forms a special attachment to Erika (Liudmyla Zamidra) the young woman who ‘plays’ his sister. Is he connecting to anything real, or a drama?
The project may not seem ambitious, but it was. Shot in four weeks in Kyiv in 2017 on a budget not big enough to cover the catering on a typical short film with local largely amateur actors recruited through the local version of Starnow and community theatre for the cast, A Family was conceived by two young Melbourne filmmakers. Directed by Jayden Stevens and cinematographer Tom Swinburn, the pair co-wrote the screenplay, travelled to Ukraine on tourist visas and completed the film with a tiny local crew including co-producer Olga Mykhalets without any official co-operation.
How did the Family team come together?
Jayden Stevens: “Film school. Tom wrote A Family as a feature, and we did a short The Family which was a scene from that. I was pretty gung-ho about making my first film. As we were developing it, we were thinking about ways to get it done. We did not want to go down the traditional funding path. I though the project was ideal. All interiors. Reliant on characters and story.”
Tom Swinburn: “The original idea came out of something I wrote in 2013. I was in the USA after I left film school. I ran into people who were using drama as therapy.”
I understand that another important pillar to the story concept was the idea of people using online platforms to buy just about anything, helping them to ‘connect’ – but in A Family this idea of connection is turned on its head.
Tom Swinburn: “Yeah! These listings sites can bring out really absurd moments. When I was in the States, I was using things like Craigslist. I was selling a mattress. I had this man who turned up and he went into my bedroom and took his shoes off. He rolled around on my mattress. I was standing by the door. Watching. He was taking more time than I thought it might take. Then I went into the living room and waited. Finally, he came out. It wasn’t to his liking. He left.”
That story is like something straight out of the film!
Tom Swinburn: “In the film we are never explicit about where Pavel is finding his ‘family’, but it was probably online.”
Everything feels slightly mysterious in A Family. It makes you a more active viewer.
Tom Swinburn: “Exactly.”
There is always just enough information for us to get involved with questions about character motivation and certain story points. It seems a rebuke to the widespread convention where every single little plot point is explained and as a viewer you don’t have to do anything…with your film it’s almost like you have the privilege of completing the story.
Tom Swinburn: “Yeah, I don’t like being given everything on a platter. I like to have to work. I don’t think script editors trust audiences.”
The film has a lot of ideas. Particularly about identity and loneliness.
Tom Swinburn: “I don’t like to summarise the answer about what the film is about for other people because they should discover what that is for themselves.”
It seems to be about the tension between fantasy and reality, between how we try to shape our lived experience into a form we find more acceptable (a bit like creating an online image, no?) The dialogue is hilariously stilted, like it’s ad copy.
Jayden Stevens: “It made us laugh a lot [laughs] but we wondered whether it was better read than said. When we started working with the actors, I didn’t have to say: ‘I want this deadpan.’ They just did it that way! In the original draft, Pavel was watching a lot of TV. Adverts were playing all the time. In the end he was in an ad. But we cut all that. I think part of the inspiration from the style of dialogue came from when I was growing up. Mum had those mags like New Idea and Woman’s Weekly: images of pseudo happiness.
In a way the central point of the fiction – man hiring ‘actors’ to ‘play’ family members – is not at all dependent on any sort of specific location. It could happen in Minnesota, or Perth, Berlin or Hong Kong. Why Ukraine?
Jayden Stevens: “That’s true. I thought it would be great if we set it in Texas. That was a daydream. Too expensive.”
Tom Swinburn: “Ukraine was never mentioned [in the film].”
Jayden Stevens: “There are a lot of reasons why we shot in Ukraine. All equal. A big one was aesthetics.”
Tom Swinburn: “Jayden wanted it to feel timeless.”
Jayden Stevens: “If you can’t afford to build it, you go to shoot in a place where it already exists. It feels like the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Tom Swinburn: “We were working with feeling. The location [suburban Kyiv] gave us alienation, solitude. That sense of desolation lent itself to the story. When we were deciding where to do it, we felt Australia was…the vibrancy you get here would not push the story forward.”
Jayden Stevens: “Tom had shot a music video in Kyiv. He showed me some stills. We thought, that’s it! We booked the flights.”
The Ukraine is one of Europe’s largest countries. Formerly part of the USSR it is now a democratic republic with a large military, somewhat hostile neighbours and a relatively high level of poverty…
Jayden Stevens: “It seemed like a good idea to stay in the middle of Kyiv, near all the public transport hubs, in a neighbourhood that was full of government blocks. Two weeks after we arrived someone got assassinated in a car bomb.”
Tom Swinburn: “It was interesting to see after that, the military walking around with mirrors checking the underside of cars. There were busloads of soldiers around…”
Jayden Stevens: “Everything was always very tense. There was talk of revolution. In only a few months we had to find the locations. We re-wrote the script.”
Tom Swinburn: “The writing process never actually ended. Meanwhile, when we shot on the street, a woman told us [through a translator] to go home. She thought we were Americans. The [hero] location was about a half-hour drive out of the city and the reality was it was not a poor neighbourhood at all. Actually, people were very helpful, supportive and friendly, and we felt very welcome.”
The film’s look is reminiscent of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days yet it is quite distinctive. The light in the Northern Summer is nothing like here. It gives a sad atmosphere.
Tom Swinburn: “Yeah. We used a Blackmagic [digital camera]. We were lucky to have these beautiful Russian Lomo lenses. I think they were from the ‘70s. Without them the film would have looked lifeless and sterile. We had one light. It was tough but there was also a freedom in it; it dictated how we placed actors a certain way for the shoot and whether we had them in light.”
Shooting in a language that you could not speak…how did that work?
Jayden Stevens: “Everything took twice as long as it should. We did a rehearsal partly so I could get my head around directing with a translator. Everything had to be repeated. Me – to Olly [Olga Mykhalets] – Olly to the actors – then they had questions. I was directing off gut instinct. A good performance…you can always tell.”