2016 IDFA Interview: Peter Entell (Director- Like Dew in the Sun)

All people are the same. The same sun shines over all of us. But people always want something more. – Raisa, a Ukrainian old lady

Injustice, anger, hate, protest, war, destruction, death –the never-ending circle of the human race, the one that has been dictating our lives and societies for thousands of years. There is a new era of agitation, no one can deny that. The West is taking a full-on right turn, while the East is battling with demons of its own. Peter Entell recognized this agitation and wondered, “Why do we do this?” He travelled to Ukraine, seeking an answer to the question derived from his own family’s agonizing story.

In 2014, I was having lunch with a cameraman, a close friend, who has been in several war zones. He had just been to Ukraine following the war. I told him that my father was born in Ukraine. He said ‘You never told me that’ and I responded, ‘I never thought it was relevant.’ What is happening today is similar to what was happening a century ago. It was exactly 100 years ago (1914) when my father left Ukraine as a two-year-old boy. Three weeks after that lunch, we left for Ukraine, together with a sound engineer.

Even though three weeks of preparation sounds like too little time, Like Dew in the Sun is a film with a concrete pace. Interestingly enough, we watch the research happening before our eyes.

I don’t research my films my research is the film and my film is the research. All I had was a photograph and the name of a village my father had mentioned when I was boy: ‘Kalerka or Kalerika, I am not sure.’ That’s all I knew and my name, ‘Entell’. I told my crew, ‘We’ll film the research, but I have no idea what I will find since I had not researched it beforehand.’ I didn’t want to make a film about me… My father was Jewish and I didn’t want to do a Jewish film it’s been done many times. I thought that it was interesting to be in a place where not only Jews suffered, but Orthodox people and Muslim people as well. Often Jews and Muslim are put as enemies. In this case they aren’t enemies. They both suffered. That was interesting to me, how they were in the same boat. 

From what I understood, that is a place on earth where people have been killing each other for thousands of years. That’s interesting to me. It seems like humans are killing each other almost everywhere. So it became symbolic of men’s intolerance. We solve our differences through war, violence, hatred. Those issues interest me very much.

How does a filmmaker proceed then, without research?

We left. I made some contacts. I went to the archives. I had no guarantees maybe I’d find nothing. But I found the birth certificate of my grandfather. I found the village. I said to the crew: ‘Ok, let’s go to the village, but I have no idea if it’s going to be interesting.’ I live in a little village in Switzerland and its history is not bloody. There’s nothing particularly special in that way. Maybe the village in Ukraine would be interesting to our research. What we discovered was horrible. A tunnel so big, a man could fit on a horse to flee – because the Turks had also come there to kill. Even the name of the town that used to be called ‘Big Rose Hill’ was changed to ‘Wet Rose Hill’ because of all the blood that was shed there. One story after the other. I met some fascinating people.

Indeed, when Entell is in Wet Rose Hill, we get to see all these sweet, warm people opening their houses to him, offering any kind of help and zucchini pancakes, just like the ones his grandmother used to make. A beautiful spot, which comes in contrast with what is happening in Crimea.

Exactly 70 years ago the Tatar people had been killed and deported. After perestroika they could come back to Crimea. Today they are once again surrounded by Russian soldiers and so many of the old people remembered the Russian soldiers all around them when they were kids. There was that story.

Then there was the story of today, not just 100 years ago for the Jews, not just 70 years ago for the Muslims. It’s going on right now: Orthodox killing Orthodox. It isn’t a film that explains in detail what is going on today. You can learn all that from the newspaper. At some point in the film, the viewer doesn’t know whether this person is a separatist, or a pro-Ukrainian… I did this to show the terrible feelings both sides have and it doesn’t matter who they are, but that they share these feelings.

I don’t believe there is objectivity ever. I don’t believe it exists. I think it’s always subjective. The whole film is my point of view, I’m the director. I have to assume the responsibility from that point of view. The point isn’t to talk about my feelings. The purpose is to see how an audience will respond in their own terms to that, to provoke feelings in the heart and the minds of the viewers.

Entell intertwines past and present, his story and a story people all over the world share.

I was trying to find my great grandparents’ grave and I knew of the existence of this huge mass grave in the area; hundreds of thousands of people were buried there. I don’t think they ever got out of the country. I couldn’t find their grave in the village. Did they end up in a mass grave? There’s no way to know that.

People have the courage to share their own personal feelings in this film. I felt it was OK to tell my story. It was important that I share also the idea of taking the earth from the cemetery of my family – or where I think they might be… It came to me very spontaneously. I didn’t plan. I don’t plan so much.

A very strong element in Like Dew in the Sun is the music. Yet these wonderful, traditional songs can give you the goose bumps…

Everywhere I went I asked, ‘Is there anyone who likes to sing?’ These are Slavic people, they all like to sing, that I knew! But I didn’t know what they were singing, I don’t speak the language. We recorded it and later I sat down with the translator and we went through scene by scene, music by music. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. Song after song was about loss, about killing, about revenge. This beautiful old Tatar woman from Crimea says ‘I want to burn to ashes and blind those who sent us away, may they be damned.’ To me it became like opera in the sense that opera is very passionate. There’s often killing. For me the songs in each case became very strong as a personal expression.

Music carries a lot of cultural traits, but so does the landscape. The amount of war monuments in Ukraine seems astonishing!

You have to keep your eyes and ears open. Everywhere I looked there were monuments to war! There is even an amusement park for children to play on tanks, play with cannons. What is very important in the film is this is not recent. It doesn’t go back only a few years. It goes back thousands of years. I learned there are so many cultures that have come and gone. Many of them do not exist anymore. This is not a recent development. You can see their monuments and many of those are monuments to war.

Going to a war zone without research, plan or knowledge of the language seems like an apprehensive activity, however, the difficulty for the filmmaker came from a different direction.

The only time I felt discouraged was when I tried and failed to get financial support from the Swiss Government. It was a surprise to me because they have supported me in the past. But it was only finances. Having a project is important to me, it is what I do. I love my job. I really enjoy making films. I love the process. I edit them together with an editor, Elizabeth Waelchli, with whom I have worked for fifteen years. We spent two years on editing this film. I don’t prepare the shooting, I just capture. We are capturing images without understanding what is this all about. We are just experiencing. Only when we are looking at the material over and over and over again, can we try to understand what is going on. What do we see, what do we hear, why that look, why that smile, what is going on? We then have to construct a story. There are typical aspects of dramaturgy which have existed for thousands of years. The filming may be very open ended, but the editing is very precise. We work very hard on constructing the film.

After all, is it because of the wealthy land, the passage to the sea or people’s minds that Ukraine is a land of turmoil?

I think the land and the people go together. It’s very fertile land located on a plain. Everyone can travel through there. It’s a crossing point. Turmoil I think it’s in our nature. All the data is there to support that anger and violence and killing is there and probably will always be there. I’m not very hopeful that humankind will overcome our aggression. I think we are an aggressive species. I do also believe in goodness. I believe we can also be generous and kind to each other. We have to act to find peace. The need for it is there.

Like Dew in the Sun won the Night Award at the 14th International Festival Signes De Nuit 2016.

likedewinthesun.com

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