65th Berlinale Interview: Ella Manzheeva (Director) & Evgeniya Mandzhieva (Actress) – ‘The Gulls/Chaiki’

The Gulls‘ is a parable set against the background of modern Kalmykia. This is a story of a fisherman’s wife and it takes place in a small town on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

gulls_poster_-final-504x720Only the wind, the sand, the reed and a desire to live not worse than the others…” – these words served as a base for the atmosphere of ‘The Gulls‘, and they are incredibly precise as a definition of the real world in these places.

The Seagulls are a parable on the background of modern Kalmykia. It is about love, with the characters intuitively fulfilling forgotten traditions. Their love is silent and their sorrow is without tears… The seagulls are souls of dead fishermen, broken boats… a hope.

Elza the fisherman’s wife lives in a seaside town in Kalmykia. She wants to leave her husband but cannot take this step because she is afraid of uncertainty. Suddenly her husband dies. Because of his death, Elza has to think everything over and reconsider her views on life, on happiness, on liberty.

We spoke with the film’s Director Ella Manzheeva, as well as its lead actress Evgeniya Mandzhieva about the film’s Kalmyk roots, its importance to the region and, of course, some filmmaking specifics alongside much more.  ‘The Gulls‘ screens at the 65th Berlinale as part of the Berlinale Forum section with additional screenings on Tuesday, February 10 & Sunday, February 15, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.

Find more information on ‘The Gulls’HERE

What was the very first aspect of the screenplay that came to you? Was it a single location, a character, a theme…?
Ella Manzheeva:
The location it all started with was a Kalmakyan village called Lagan.  It is a very unusual place.  It is strange, in the sense that the people are very close.  It was important to me to understand why this is as it is (kind of) an extreme place to live.  It is on the Caspian see, so when I first arrived I thought I would see the sea but I could not since the water level has dropped so much.

Also, we used this unusual location to express how the main character is feeling, both inside and out.

What was your approach to the cinematography? I noticed how effectively the film’s sense of place was depicted so what were your conversations like with your cinematographer? What were the important aspects of the location you wanted to make sure came out on screen?
Ella Manzheeva: I am lucky because my husband is the cameraman so we had a lot of time together to talk about how to depict Elsa’s feelings and those of the local villagers.  It was very important to not shoot the village “aesthetically,” per se.  Rather, we wanted to express how the weather dominates the people’s everyday life.  As fishing is a strong industry of the region, weather forecasts become extremely important.  There is a lot of fog or the water can freeze over at any time.  This brings out an anxiety in the people that we wanted to express.

gulls1Did your approach to the cinematography have to change from your pre-production to production?
Ella Manzheeva: We had a very short shooting period of 25 days so it was important to plan everything as much as we could.  We shot on two locations that were 500km apart because we needed to catch the weather we needed.  The main character, since her husband is out on the sea, is very anxious about the weather so every day we hoped we got the weather we needed or we would have to adapt.

Evgeniya, how did you come to be involved with this project?
Evgeniya Mandzhieva: I did not know Ella before, but a casting Director contacted me via Facebook.

How did you approach the character during pre-production?
Ella Manzheeva: I wanted to keep a distance between us so I instructed everyone to not actually talk to Evgeniya, as her character is going through her own issues.  If she would have been too comfortable it would have shown.  We worked very hard on this distance so every shot depicts her emotions. We did not get to know each other until after the film.

Evgeniya, how did you feel about that process? Did you feel isolated?
Evgeniya Mandzhieva:  From one side, it was hard work and I needed to be another person.  I needed to be a person that she [Ella] wants.  Not only did I not speak to anyone but this is also our homeland, and I was in this village for the first time.  From that aspect, I felt so cool and comfortable.  This gives you a lot of power.  You just feel the electricity.

Gulls3So you definitely felt a personal connection to the location?
Evgeniya Mandzhieva: Yes! I started to listen to Kalmyk music and songs.  It helps a lot to feel so much around you!

Coming from the world of fashion, how did that industry prepare you for acting?
Evgeniya Mandzhieva:  From one side, it is similar and from another it is not. Modeling is a static form of shooting while filming is not.  You have to move, speak, accentuate.  Even when you speak in the film you have to understand how people speak slower than you may expect.  Ella showed me how I needed to listen to the quiet between the words.  She would tell me to count in my head between certain words or phrases.  At that moment, I felt how I had been seeing myself the same way for 28 years and did not realize I had so many different sides.  This gives you a 3D type vision of yourself.  It is great! It makes you grow, understand and feel more.  Of course, it also gives you a chance to be another person whom you may not be familiar with.

Is there a filmmaking background in the region?  How did your initial interest in being a Director come to be?
Ella Manzheeva: I am the first Kalmyk Director.  It is the first feature film from the region in 25 years. It is very important for us to be here.  All Kalmyk people sent me messages and well wishes.  I hope it is the start to a Kalmyk cinema resurgence.  I would like to start a Kalmyk film industry.  It is a good idea because they are a very rich culture.

We are losing our native language, which is a big problem.  You see in the film how the young people cannot speak the language. Maybe, film can help this problem.

Also, it is very important how people react in Kalmyk.  Some European audiences may find the culture interesting but, for a lot of people, it is a film about their culture.  It is very important how they will react and what they will say to me.

gulls4What was the most difficult part of the production? Was there any part you had anticipated being difficult but ended up not being so?
Ella Manzheeva: In the beginning some of the villagers and the shooting crew did not connect with each other.  This connection was very difficult.  Our team was 45 people with different mindsets.  When they tried to connect with the local people we had a lot of problems.  They [crew] did not quite understand how the Kalmyk people have a special way of connecting.  You have to come with your respect first. Afterwards, they will open their hearts but if you do not come with respect they will be closed off.

Afterwards, though, the dynamic was very good once we connected. I had to explain to the entire team about respect and connections.  In the end, some of the local villagers helped with this connection. When they loved us it was a very great experience.  When we finished it was very sad because they understood something was ending.

Evgeniya Mandzhieva:  It was such an interesting process.  It was a small period of life when you are involved in a new world.  Afterwards, it is sad. I realized I needed this more and more.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson
– Translated (from Russian) by Thessa Mooj

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