Polina Moshenska was born in Kiev, Ukraine and moved to Thessaloniki, Greece after a chance encounter with her future Greek husband at a film festival. From 2011-12 Polly worked as a First Assistant Director on the film Life Span of the Object in Frame by Oleksandr Balahura but a year earlier had already started working on her most ambitious project to date, Tsvetayeva and Mayakovskogo (Streets, 2016). Such was her vision from the very beginning that she took her time making this film (with the collaboration of her husband Giorgos Gerasimidis, amongst others) until she was finally happy with it. Streets is so far the anchor point of her oeuvre and it has been playing festivals across Europe and Russia in 2016 and 2017. It even caught the attention of British film critic, broadcaster and latterly film director Mark Cousins who was on the Jury at the 86. Festival of film and Urbanism in Slavutych, Ukraine, a small town built to re-house the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the disaster there. It was awarded the Palm of the North award and by coincidence Mark Cousins had studied Film at Stirling University where Polina’s husband Giorgos would later study Media Management. More recently Streets has been screened at the very democratic (every film accepted) Portobello Film Festival in London, in August, and the prestigious Art Doc Festival in Moscow, in December.
Now with Streets and other experimental works accomplished, Polina is currently setting up the development for her most personal and longest film to date, a feature-length documentary with the working title of Greek Wife which is at treatment stage and hopes to get the green light for production early in 2018. Intermittently since the summer Polina has spoken about her career and influences which has culminated in the following interview of this already unique and resonating talent.
When did you start to have an interest in films and what were the first films that made an impression on you?
When I was teenager, I suppose. Before I was more into painting and reading and then my interest naturally turned to music and film, with a little help and influence from my older sister. With her or without her (a bit secretly) I started to discover at the last moment the films of Jarmusch, Kusturica, Almodóvar, Truffaut and others, and at school also Tarkovsky, Forman, Antonioni and Gilliam.
What made you decide to make films and when was this?
I realised that I want to share my kind of observation, to show every day or routine things and gestures as important because they can be so, they can be very impressive, beautiful, strange and poetic. It was in University when I started to do some first shots.
So, from the beginning you always had a plan to represent these observations rather than go for conventional narratives?
I liked writing a lot: short stories, poetry and essays. And after writing a bachelor and then a master thesis about film and moving images in my university (I studied Cultural Studies) I felt a bit tired of “conventional narratives” and wanted to focus on observation, sensuality, perception and non-dialogue things in a visual way. That’s how I got into an experimental mood and then towards documentaries. It was connected to my inner needs and vision and now I feel that relations with narratives transform into some new way, so it is an active process.
At what point did you feel you had enough ideas to make your first short film and what was this?
I started to make video-art works and received some feedback from my friends, artists and film professionals. My working experience as director and production assistant on different projects (experimental films, fiction, commercial) clearly showed me what direction I would like to move in.
My first film was Bridge, which was made together with my friend, cinematographer Maryna Liapina in 2014. We knew the style and the look it would have and we wanted to re-create a special mood of the location (under a bridge in the Kiev industrial area) with its air, people and objects.
Indeed, looking at your first short film Bridge (2014) and then Phronesis (2015), in the observation, sensuality and perception, there is also this feeling of tension and an abstract sub-narrative of sorts, in like it is what in our own imagination we might bring to it. For instance, being alone under a bridge can be an unsafe place day or night. Phronesis introduces an academic character deep in thought that we can easily align to.
Thank you for sharing your impressions, I am glad to know that these films create such extra mood and thoughts. Probably, that’s why I wanted to make films about a bridge to show the particular place but through its atmosphere; and in Phronesis observe a state of mind that is dreaming and thinking at the same time.
What about the choice in these two films for using black and white, static cameras that zoom, pull and pan and the sparse use of diegetic sound while music and industrial noises are brought into the mix?
It was more about choice that the images and sounds insisted to have as a form and concept themselves. I started to think about options but at the very beginning it was kind of clear-given as the only way. As for sound and music in Bridge we (with Maryna Liapina) used the piece specially made for the film by the Ukrainian band Elektroklew, and in Phronesis it was a track by my friend Vasilis Avdelas that suited very well the state of the video and there was also an implicit presence of something Greek in it, which helped the landscape images.
Simultaneous with all this work has been your project on Tsvetayeva and Mayakovskogo (Streets, 2016). I understand this took six years to make and was made intermittently with your other work so far.
Yes, it happened to be a long process with some breaks and waiting periods. I started the project research in 2010, and the result appeared to be quite different from the initial idea. The film is a really independent project; it was in its nature but also its subject and a bit of experimental format was not very interesting to potential investors from the industry. So I fully realised my own responsibility to make it. At the same time there were two producers, me and Svetlana Zinovyeva, a great and experienced documentary producer as well as cinematographer, she helped with an access to chronicle materials (together with a historian Mykola Popelukha), copter shooting and supported me all the way. Generally, the work was based on my strong wish and motivation to make this film happen and the enthusiastic help of close friends and colleagues. The cinematography was by Maryna Liapina and Max Flood, the music (this is a really big, long but exciting part) by three composers and magicians: Anton Baibakov, Vasilis Avdelas and Jorge del Pozo. The design was made by the talented Dasha Podoltseva. And at the end the film wouldn’t be what it became without the big contribution of an editor Giorgos Gerasimidis, who made the last significant touches to the materials. So all this work, without a commercial element, took all these years. I consider this experience as a positive thing for the film and for myself. This long time gave the film its final shape and structure and I made some useful conclusions regarding ways and possibilities to work more effectively.
What festivals has Streets played in so far and what was the reception to it like?
The first one was at the same time the most important one – 86. Festival of film and Urbanism organised by Nadia Parfan and Ilya Gladstein, distributors, producers and filmmakers themselves. Jury members, including Mark Cousins, decided that film is worth the Palm of the North award which was a great honor for me. This fact gave me feeling of confidence and strength to move on and don’t give up. After there was Market program of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival and the Doc Market at Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, more recently it was in the program of the Covellite International Film Festival in the US and the London Portobello Film Festival, which were very exciting participations for me. In October there will be another screening at the Aegeandocs International Documentary Film Festival on the Lesbos island in Greece. It looks logically to start with a festival in Ukraine and, probably, finish in Greece as the film is co-production of these countries in a way. And it will be also shown at the International Documentary Film Festival, Artdocfest, the largest and very important festival of documentary films in Russia.
Being the longest and most ambitious of your work to date, do you see it as a reference point, a signature for your style?
I hadn’t been thinking about it this way during the work, I just wanted to finish it and not postpone for another few months, because there was a risk for it not to be finished at all. It was just a short film about the Kyiv streets; it could not last for such a long time that would make everybody tired of it. But in the sense that it was my first documentary film, it meant a lot. It dots the ‘i’, even in some human values, contexts and gave me a better understanding of my film style and cinema-life taste.
Streets also inter-cuts with some old film stock. Was this found footage or did you need copyright release to use it?
There are chronicle materials from Kyiv Pshenichny fund, short fragment of the films, Rodinka (Director – L. Drozdovskaya, 1992) and from the film Lady and the Hooligan by Mayakovsky himself, from 1918. They are all in titles, and with the chronicles materials we worked in the archives and paid for the fragments.
Looking at Streets I see some reminders with the work of British directors William Raban and John Smith, and also the Cuban director Fernando Pérez, particular with his Suite Habana from 2003. Are you familiar with any of these directors?
Thank you; it is very interesting and useful reminders and names! I have decided to deepen my knowledges about British cinema. And even got some books in the Bloomsbury book stores in London recently. So I need to learn more about William Raban, as well as about Fernando Pérez, I was not familiar with them working on the film. Regarding John Smith, I watched almost all of his filmography at Dok Leipzig 2015, some of the films I really liked a lot and at the same time felt some kind of support generally, because let’s call it experimental documentary style was and still is very close to my perception of filmmaking.
So to your most recent short film Women in the kitchen (2017), what was your motivation for making that and how would you describe it?
I would say that this is a video-art more than a film. I wanted to capture three women at their kitchen, cooking or making something to eat. That’s it; the episodes are made with different cameras, with tripod and without, and reflected the time, the mood and the style of these women and their places.
Finally, what is next for you and what are your plans for 2018?
I have been working for more than a year already on my first middle/full length documentary project with a title Greek Wife. It is my personal story, and this is a real challenge, but I just feel that I have a need to deal with this subject. So it is about my personal and everyday life and in the background – the realities of two countries – Ukraine and Greece. I am currently collecting the material and getting ready for the editing. So my plan is to proceed with the project in the best way possible and to manage any other challenges that 2018 may bring.