Marysia Nikitiuk Sees Beauty in the Little Things

Ukrainian director Marysia Nikitiuk talks about stubbornness, imagination and the importance of living wildly.

Marysia Nikitiuk was born and raised in a rural part of Ukraine, with an imagination fit for telling and absorbing stories. Her strong affinity for the arts and writing lead her deeper and deeper into the world film, where she now resides as a writer, director and world-creator. That’s how she describes her process of realizing a vision or project into its most complete form. We spoke all about her first feature film, When the Trees Fall, a tender and poignant yet dreary dreamworld that highlights some of the darker aspects of Ukrainian culture.

Photo by Roman Pashkovskiy

How did you first get into film? Have you always been drawn to this method of storytelling?
Some mysterious algorithm must have lead me into filmmaking. Since childhood I was driven by the idea to become a writer, so I graduated the journalism school at the national university and then worked as a theater critic for 6 years. After I started writing plays, that’s when I was invited into one of the Ukrainian screen writer’s labs to write short scripts. That’s how I found my place in cinema. But at the time, it wasn’t enough. I felt a strong desire not only to create images and stories in my head, but also to materialize them. So in 2014, I shot my first short film as a director and started to work with producer Igor Savychenko in preparation for my first feature film, When the Trees Fall.

What kind of films did you watch in your formative years?
Mostly very poetic and crazy films. I was equally in love with Bella Tar’s meditative, poetic movies and mad quests of David Lynch. I also can say about Terry Giliam, Tarantino, Carlos Reigades, Jane Campion and Haiao Miazaki influence on me. Existential philosophical cartoons and sensual deep films.

On set, from Eugenia Pavlenko

What are some of your biggest influences, past or present?
It is very hard to dissect my own view by myself, but maybe a few influences could be: fairy world perceptions from Hayao Miyazaki cartoons, strong expressionism from Andrzej Żuławski, dark depth of unconsciousness from Lars von Trier, broken narrative from Carlos Reygadas, metaphor and atmosphere from Bella Tar and Tarkovsky… But I am also separate from them and I am forming my own voice.

Do you still watch many films now? Or do you gravitate more towards telling the stories than absorbing them within the same medium?
Now I watch less films, but I still do. Not only to widen my perspective, but also to watch great stories as part of the audience. I believe when we go to the cinema, we want to find some magical beautiful or astonishing world, to be touched emotionally. I am searching for something that can surprise me and inspire.

Is there anyone coming from Ukraine presently (besides yourself) that you think is making art we should be aware of?
I believe now we have a very bright young generation of directors, to whom I belong. It’s Nariman Aliev, Marina Stepanska, Roman Bondarchuk, Anton Lukich, Philipp Sotnychenko, Dmitriy Suholutkiy-Sobchuk, Maryna Vroda… the list goes on and on. And for sure Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi and Valentin Vasynovich as well.

On set, from Eugenia Pavlenko

You are quite involved with all aspects of filmmaking, including writing and casting, etc. How do you balance this?
I am very OK with this. I really enjoy switching from one type of work to another, so I get deeper and deeper to the core of my story. Step by step, you get to know your film from all sides and it is thrilling. It is far from a burden; it gives you a fuller picture of your own intention to create this or that story.

When I write, I work only with my own energies in silence and concentrate on the world of the story. When I go into the director’s role, I collect energies, visions and ideas of the whole group.

In your opinion, what makes a good script?
There is no one scheme to make a good script, because all films are different. It depends on the genre and type of film it will become. But one thing is crucial for every story: sincerity and honesty towards the reality it describes.

Your film, When the Trees Fall is such a tender yet poignant story which makes comments about some of the harsher aspects of Ukrainian society. How did you achieve this?
That was exactly my intention in making this story. I wanted to clash two realities: a childish and pure perception of the world full of magical potential as well as exhausted social norms. So I choose to tell a simple story about a teenage girl in a patriarchal world, searching for freedom, but through the eyes of her little cousin Vitka. By the way, her name comes from Italian “Vita” – Life.

Is it important for you to include societal critique with your films as well? What is most important for you to convey with your art?
Societal critique is not necessary, but I think an important message to share with others should be in the core of the film. I am constantly studying; I am very interested in anthropology, neurobiology, physics… I try to widen my perspective on the world all the time. But when we talk in films about humans, we unwittingly look at some aspects of society – that’s how societal critique appears. We could try and talk about something else, for example about whales, but we don’t know anything about how to be a whale.

What is the overall feeling you want the audience to have when they walk away from the cinema?
I want the audience to feel hope and energy to dare live their lives as they want, and also to feel sorrow about the eternal beauty that vanishes the second after it appears in our imperfect world. But for sure, the festival audience and mass audience which go to the cinema are two different types of audience. It is hard to balance between them as they have different ideas of cinema. I am trying to find this balance now in my second project film, Seraphyma.

On set, from Eugenia Pavlenko

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned being in the director’s chair?
You have to be stubborn.

Any advice for young girls or women who want to pursue a career in film?
You have to read a lot. Especially science, literature, about physics, the stars, neurobiology and modern-day philosophers. You have to know where the modern world is going – what is at the core of our world. You have to watch a lot, and you have to live wildly as much as you can, so you will have something to tell others.