She made movie magic with her movie debut, achieving many Ukrainian firsts. With success comes set-backs. What’s On asks why? Where to next for this filmmaker? And do the misogyny and scandals recently highlighted in Hollywood affect the movie industry here.
Victoria Trofimenko cemented a place with her directorial debut Brothers. The Final Confession (Braty. Ostannya Spovid) in 2013, based on the work by Swedish writer Gustav Torgny Lindgren, with the story transplanted into the Carpathians. It was the first Ukrainian movie to be accepted into three international film festivals. Ever. Petit, steely, and razor-sharp, Trofimenko speaks passionately about her work and honestly about the challenges.
As she tells it, her career almost happened on a whim: “I decided to go to theatre university two weeks before entering, before that I wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t prepared and did not act.” However, she was inspired: “Because they had the best teacher from theatre – Viktor Kisin – and he was going to create an institute within the institution, he had that dream. Do something grand, but six months later he died.” She was perhaps even more determined. “The course I studied was not the most successful for mastering the profession, so not to waste time, a year later I transferred to another faculty – management of international tourism, and in parallel decided to enter the theatre institute.”
After this, she left for the UK, to gain practical experience. According to Trofimenko, in Ukraine the film industry was at a standstill: “It was the beginning of the 2000s. I entered the UK film industry. Working on a voluntary basis, a girl running errands, a clapper, assistant director, all as part of the diploma work of a young British filmmaker who graduated from the Welsh film school.”
A year later, she returned to Ukraine, and entered the theatrical university on a serious basis. “It was my third attempt with this university. By that time I had already made my first full-length documentary Back Home, which was screened in Soho, London. The question was asked: ‘Is this really the first thing she has made? She made nothing before?’ The producer replied: ‘Yes, it’s her first work’. They said they would show it. The producer told me: ‘Victoria, not every director has their first film shown in Soho.’”
In her second year, she worked in television as a director, and finally had a resume behind her. The calls started to come, she had a professional reputation. She had also completed theatrical training with a coveted ‘red diploma’. Her work was the feature film Brothers. The Final Confession, made with the company Pronto Film. “After graduating from the institute, I worked for five more years on this work. As a result, this film was the first in the history of independent Ukraine, which was selected for three festivals ranked in the ‘A’ group.”
Still it was not easy. “The main challenge is common – money. Cinema is an expensive art form. It requires a large number of people. The director, is a conductor with a wand, idea, and knowledge (often he/she is also a composer), but he/she is solitary – the vision is in his/her head, it is a start, but not enough.”
She is honest. “To be a woman director in Ukraine, at this time of cinematic development, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or a man. Earlier, yes, there were sexist statements that ‘a woman director is more than a woman, but less than a director’.” Now, she says these statements are irrelevant, because in Ukrainian cinema women have a voice.
“Once there was a case when one producer wrote about me as ‘he’ several times, I complained, saying: ‘he sees me as a man, and I’m a woman. I wear dresses and skirts. And the producer then wisely remarked: ‘Vika, he sees you as a director’.”
The issues plaguing Hollywood do not go unnoticed and Trofimenko is strong in her views. “How could I continue to work with someone who committed an act of violence or humiliation toward me? If everyone knew? It’s like a totalitarian regime, where (Harvey) Weinstein is Mussolini and everyone keeps quiet, pretends everything is OK. In keeping this silence, there is an act of responsibility. It tells the perpetrator everything is OK and he continues…
“I once heard, in movies, you become either relatives or someone’s mistresses. I remember being lost for words when I heard that, it did not compute with me…I did not have any relatives in movies and I was not anyone’s mistress.
She is very clear about the situation in the local industry: “This scandal does not affect Ukrainian filmmakers at all. At least I don’t know of anything like that.”
After stops and starts, Trofimenko has two projects in development. Firstly Yakob, again a collaboration with Pronto Film, a Holodomor story about a man who saved 2 800 people from the Stalin-created famine – a historical drama based on real events. She has no intention of infusing it with propaganda.
“My main character is a Communist who renounces Communist ideology in the name of humanism. I like this very much about him, he doesn’t burn the party card and grab the trident, he doesn’t do it cheaply as many people do. He doesn’t jump from one ideology to another. He finds value not in ideologies, but in human life.”
It was the first Ukrainian project to be selected in the professional script-development program Equinoxe in Bavaria, Germany, Trofimenko says. “I had the opportunity to work on finalising the script with experts from around the world…America, Europe, Asia, Australia – they all agree this story must be told, they find it universal and understandable to everyone, because it’s about confrontation.”
Her second project, one she is still seeking funding for, is a story of redemption. “Lucifer decides to return to the ‘light’ and become God’s favourite angel again as he was at the beginning of creation. To prove his intentions to God, Lucifer takes human form, that of an acclaimed and rich artist who travels to India for charity. It is in India he meets a very special human who seduces him.”
There is lot more to come from this silver-screen storyteller. Stay tuned.
Advice from the steely Trofimenko
When Trofimenko announced her intention to direct to her dad, his reaction was less than favourable. “Vika, go through the theatre credits and find at least one female director named.” Her reply was curt. “‘I’ll be the first…’ Clearly I was not the first, but still, the film-direction landscape is still male dominated.”
In September, she took her project Yakov to Bavaria for a script workshop. “Of eight projects from around the world, there was only one author that was a woman – me and my Yakov, the other seven projects were by men. They were surprised. We need to learn to claim some of this territory for women. It’s a challenge. And nothing is impossible. The main thing: do not stop, no matter how hard it is, the main thing is to continue, which is in a way the most difficult thing. Do not give up, try again and again, go on no matter what.”