How ‘Crystal Swan’ Told an Edgy Story in a Repressive Country

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A version of this story on “Crystal Swan” first appeared in the Foreign Language Issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

First-time director Darya Zhuk’s drama “Crystal Swan,” one of the sleepers in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, is set in the early 1990s and stars Alina Nasibullina as a young DJ desperate to get a visa and head to the United States. While it is not autobiographical, Zhuk did find herself waiting in many long lines when she secured student visas to study in the U.S.

The film is only the third Oscar submission ever from Belarus, and the first in 22 years. This interview is one in a series of conversations with directors of this year’s foreign Oscar contenders.

Also Read: Belarus to Enter Oscar Race After 22 Years With Indie Gem ‘Crystal Swan’

The lead character in this film is a combination of your experiences and…
DARYA ZHUK: And the experiences of my friends, yeah. I grew up in Minsk, and after the fall of the iron curtain in 1991, there was a push to get out. Like a lot of the countries from the Soviet Union, we were trying to adopt a democracy. In ’91, ’92, ’93, ’94, it looked like, Oh, wow, we will really do this. We will follow the Western rules!” And then it swung back, slowly but surely.

So then the floodgates were open, and we had a huge brain drain in the mid ’90s. A lot of my friends live all over America and Europe, so it seemed like a very relevant story to tell. And even now, the numbers are back up — the numbers of people emigrating is comparable to the early to mid ’90s.

Why did you decide to turn that experience into a film?
I just felt that these people didn’t have a voice. None of the films that have been made in Belarus were for me. They were not reflective of my experience or the experience of my friends. I had a conviction that an audience was hungry for younger, edgier, festival titles. What was being made in Belarus was films to support the government, to please one person.

What were the particular dangers of shooting in Belarus, which is now considered a repressive dictatorship by most international observers?
They let us do what we wanted to do, but it wasn’t without problems. The distributor did ask me to make certain adjustments just to make it a little more palatable. At one point they wanted us to take out the opening title that says the film takes place in 1996, and just say it takes place in the ’90s. Because the current president [Alexander Lukashenko] was in office in 1996, so it could be seen as criticizing him. But the film still says 1996.

And my producer said we had to wait until the very end of the shoot to do a scene where the lead character is in a bus and she looks out and sees a street protest. That was risky. Any time somebody tries to do a protest, even if it’s a sanctioned protest, a lot of people end up in jail. The last one of those was March 27, while I was shooting. This type of political free speech is not allowed.

I talked to some friends who are creative people who live in Minsk, and they were like, “Wow, I’m really amazed that they let you show the film.” And closer to the Oscar deadline, there was more stress. One producer wrote an open letter to the president saying, “You just submitted a very liberal picture, how could you have done it?”

Also Read: Oscars Foreign Language Race 2018: Complete List of Submissions

The film has a lot of humor and a wonderfully light touch, but toward the end there’s a scene of sexual violence that changes the tone and casts everything in a darker light.
It’s like, that just could not not happen to this character in this particular circumstance. It’s such a common problem that in a way it also made the film for me. It is about this very individualistic character being taken down by her environment. You can have big dreams, but just because you want it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. There are so many forces that are working against you, and things you don’t control.

But in a final scene with her assailant’s younger brother, there is a glimmer of hope.
There is hope, absolutely. That was important to me. I do firmly believe that change is possible.

The fact that it’s a period piece puts a little buffer there and allows people to think, “Oh, it’s about the past.” But in fact it’s very much about the present.

To read more of TheWrap’s Foreign Language Issue, click here.

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Belarus to Enter Oscar Race After 22 Years With Indie Gem ‘Crystal Swan’

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Personal and national identity reverberate through “Crystal Swan,” a tough but irresistible debut from Belarusian director Darya Zhuk.

Set in the director’s native Eastern European nation in the mid-1990s, Zhuk co-wrote the story of an aspiring DJ hustling big time to flee her country for a life spinning house music in Chicago. Co-produced by Vice Films, “Swan” premiered at the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on Saturday.

Featuring a breakout performance from star Alina Nasibullina and boasting a rare female cinematographer in Carolina Costa, the drama marks a progressive re-entry into the awards race for Belarus, as the country will submit “Swan” for the Best Foreign Language Oscar after a 22-year dry spell.

Also Read: Karlovy Vary Film Festival to Honor Tim Robbins

Nasibullina plays Velya, a club kid and serious DJ desperate to escape the squalor of her “liberated” homeland — which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1994 only to elect an autocratic president who still rules to this day — for the promise of America.

Donning a blue wig and stomping around in Doc Martens, Velya flies in the face of a country mid-identity crisis. She has a law degree, but spends her days asleep and her nights raging in dank nightclubs. Her Walkman (shout out to cassette tapes) is the only company she cares to keep, as she manipulates her loved ones in the singular pursuit of her dream.

Velya steals from her mom, sells her clothes and hits up her tweaker boyfriend (a brief, amazing turn from Russian actor Yuriy Borisov) to scrape together the cash for a tourist visa and her ticket out. She forges employment by falsifying a letter from a crystal factory outside her capital city of Minsk, but it blows up in her face when the American embassy says they’ll call the phone number she gave to verify her gig.

She then travels to the remote crystal factory town in attempts to sway the owner of the phone number on the forged letter to lie for her and seal the deal on her visa. What she finds on arrival is a gruff and tight-knit family preparing for the wedding of their son, horrified by her request to sit beside their phone for a call that will implicate them in a lie.

Also Read: ‘Black Panther’ Cinematographer Rachel Morrison on Hollywood’s Lame ‘Excuse’ for Not Hiring Women

But they don’t resist. Velya is swept into the bustle of wedding day prep, while the eldest son of the house (also the groom) teases her for her American ambitions and bristles at her criticism of their antiquated, controlled culture.

It’s here that Zhuk’s film takes a hard left, as Veyla is raped by the groom the night before his wedding. It’s a crushing and vile defeat that comes as a direct response to her laser focus on getting what she wants, a cruel reminder that women are rarely supported or rewarded when a man feels threatened by their power.

It’s a very serious incident that the film moves on from quickly (and Nasibullina shines in her character’s one vulnerable moment, warning her rapist’s younger brother that when he has sex in the future it must be consensual). Some may see it as a brash hit-and-run narrative device, but it’s supported by the context of a character who won’t be deterred no matter the circumstances.

Zhuk and Nasibullina create a character that harkens back to the enterprising, unapologetic heroines of ’80s films like “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Working Girl” and Madonna’s underrated “Who’s That Girl?”

But Nasibullina’s Veyla is something new. You can dance to her beat or get the f— out of the way.

“Crystal Swan” was co-written with noted Russian poet and filmmaker Helga Landauer. It was supported by grants from the New York State Council, Hessen Film Fund and the Tribeca Film Institutive. Loco Films is handling domestic sales.

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Loco Films Boards Vice Films Co-Production ‘Crystal Swan’ Ahead Of Its Festival Debut

Read on: Deadline.

EXCLUSIVE: Loco Films has picked up international sales rights to Crystal Swan, the debut feature from Belarusian director Darya Zhuk, which has been produced in association with Vice Films.
This comes ahead of its debut at the Karlovy Vary Internation…