Writer-director Darya Zhuk discusses her feature debut Crystal Swan, and creating her charismatic, dynamic, unforgettable protagonist.
From the very first frames of Crystal Swan, your eyes are transfixed by protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). She walks onto the bus with swagger, scowling at the world, clad in bright clothes and a garish blue wig. She’s on her way to a party where she’ll DJ House music — a passion that is her only escape from an oppressive life in 1996 Minsk.
Velya is so charismatic, so cool, and so resolute; it’s easy to buy (and root for) the desperate measures she goes to in order to get what she wants. Velya is so determined to get an immigration visa (so she can follow House music all the way to Chicago) that she tracks down the fake number she put down on her visa application to a distant country town. She must convince a family of strangers to let her sit by their phone for a week, waiting for the call. It’s a seemingly impossible mission, but one that Velya accepts with ferocity and fearlessness: this is what it takes to get the life she believes she deserves, so she’ll do it, whatever the cost.
In her feature debut, writer-director Darya Zhuk proves an inspired and original new voice, taking dark subject matter in a bleak post-Soviet setting, and making it colourful and energetic. Many filmmakers would give into the darkness, but Zhuk acknowledges that this would simply feel untrue: the people themselves don’t give into the hopelessness around them, so why should her film be grey and drab? Velya dresses herself in bright primary colours; interiors are furnished with pinks and pretty patterns; young people find excitement in raves and angry music. There are so many pockets of life in the world Zhuk depicts, so we always feel in touch with the liberation that Velya is fighting for.
At the London Film Festival, I spoke with Zhuk about creating such a memorable character in Velya, what costumes can reveal about a character and the world they live in, and how House music came to be a part of Velya’s story.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of the project?
Darya Zhuk (DZ): 10 years ago, I heard a story from my friend who had a similar situation happen to her: she had a hard time getting an [immigration] visa and she decided that because she didn’t have an occupation she needed to come up with a fake one. She actually had to go to a small town and sit by the phone. It was pre-cell phone times, so that’s just crazy.
Also, I always wanted to do something about immigration. I realised that Americans don’t know what their own system is like, what it takes to even come as a tourist and how difficult it is to get a visa if you’re from a poor, small country or post-Soviet space.
I stood in a visa line so many times, and I always thought it was so charged with emotion. People are willing to tell you their life story. They’re strangers, but after standing in that line, you were all related because you all had one desire to go to America or to travel. It’s also a little bit uncomfortable, because these people are adults, and suddenly, they have to prove that they’re worthy. They lose their confidence in many ways and feel vulnerable and open.'A visa line is so charged with emotion. People are willing to tell you their life story. They’re strangers, but after standing in that line, you were all related.'Click To Tweet
7R: Velya is such a bold, memorable character; she’s been burned into my mind since I saw the film. Why did you think that this story needed a character like her?
DZ: I love her. I’ve known women like this, I’m still friends with them. I’m always fascinated by them and a little bit afraid. I, myself, am a little more rational and strategic in how I go through life, but I always loved her flamboyant, “everything’s gonna work out” naïveté. She’s just so cool and so crazy and lovable and charismatic.
I needed to find someone who’s strong-willed, who can represent that time. [Velya is] still born in the Soviet Union so she’s unlike the young people that you would meet today in Moscow or in Minsk. I definitely feel that they are lighter and airy, more interconnected, less desperate. [Velya] had to have that chip on her shoulder — “I want it, and I want it so bad”.
I also needed someone who I could believe would do this crazy thing. There needed to be an edge to her, so I was looking for someone who has a charismatic personality. That’s something you don’t often find in a young actress. A lot of them are like, “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. I will embody that personality.” You always want to find someone who already has that side of their personality a little bit.
And then I met Alina. She’s very different now, a year and a half later, but it just happened that, [at the time,] she was in a similar stage of her life [as Velya]. She was going through something where she also felt like she wanted to reject everything that was around her. I know she was working off that emotion.
7R: After you cast Alina, did your perception of the character change? Did the script change?
DZ: Definitely. With my previous casting possibilities, it was a lot more of a drama, but because Alina was so funny… she could do comedy and irony. She made this film a lot more of a drama with elements of comedy because she could play with that tone.
She came onto the project at a very late stage. She was the best possible choice. I had already lost hope. I was like, “I have nobody to shoot, nobody to work with!” So we worked on [the script and the character] during the shoot, which I wouldn’t advise. But we were just going for it with her. She was very hard working. If somebody can give you that much on the 16th hour of the shoot, it’s really, really magical.
7R: The costumes are so bright and memorable; they say so much about her character.
DZ: There are always these tropes and cliches like, “It’s the ‘90s! We all have these colourful hairpins!” etc… There are all these things that repeat that we all associate with the ‘90s, but I remember that the 90s was a mixture. There’s a little bit of the ‘80s, not everybody’s dressing super fashionably, so there’s always a mix of other times within that. We tried to create something that’s also reminiscent a little bit of the ‘80s, but it is of the time.
I remember loving bright clothes because that was the way you would mark yourself to say you were from a subculture. In Belarus, we had little to work with. There were cheap Turkish clothes, or you would find something that post-Soviet factories produce that could sort of be wearable, or you would sew the clothes. You would have one skirt you’d wear all the time, two or three outfits that we would cycle through. I know in Western society it’s not OK to wear the same shirt the next day, but in Eastern Europe, it was fine, because that’s all you had. So you can imagine how in school, we all smelled pretty bad. It was really sweaty.
That’s actually how the costumes came together. The blue scarf is the scarf that my costume designer made herself. And we found the red coat and thought that the shape of it was still of that time.'In Western society it’s not OK to wear the same shirt the next day, but in Eastern Europe, it was fine, because that’s all you had. In school we all smelled pretty bad.Click To Tweet
7R: You’re dealing with bleak subject matter, but the film is so fun and colourful visually. Why did you decide to take that approach?
DZ: Sometimes, you go against the grain. I decided that the subject matter is so bleak that maybe we should use humour or irony to tackle it. I’ve seen extremely bleak films; there are so many other directors that attack it from that standpoint. A lot of times, the producers would say, “Oh, you’re making it that bleak film.” There’s such a push back against it.'I decided that the subject matter is so bleak that maybe we should use humour or irony to tackle it.'Click To Tweet
If you observe the reality in Eastern Europe, that’s a cliche. We think it’s very grey and bleak. It’s actually not bleak. People make their lives colourful. Why do they have these colourful carpets? I didn’t put that carpet up on the wall in the film. This is the apartment that a grandmother lives in, and that’s her reality. She has pink walls and a bright carpet. It’s a bit surreal at times how they cling to the colour in their lives.
She’s so optimistic, the main character. So it appeals to her subjective point of view of how she sees reality. She has that optimism, but then it’s a very confined frame, the 4:3. It’s like the elements working against each other and creating tension.
7R: How did you decide to go for the 4:3 aspect ratio?
DZ: The beginning and the end of the film initially included archival footage, and the archival footage was shot in 4:3 because it was from the ‘90s, shot on an old video camera. Eventually, that idea [of the archival footage] was let go because that material didn’t quite work as a part of the film.'She’s so optimistic, but then it’s a very confined frame, the 4:3. It’s like the elements working against each other and creating tension.'Click To Tweet
But I was always like, “What if it’s 4:3?” And then I remembered Andrea Arnold talking about Wuthering Heights (2011) and how it’s such a great frame for a single protagonist film.
My DP [Carolina Costa] initially was like, “Oh my god, you understand I have to scramble my mind to shoot in 4:3?” The depth of frame changes, the way you construct the elements…. But then in a couple weeks she was like, “I cannot imagine this film in any other way.” We worked with composition to create some overhead space that hangs on Velya, making it more of a claustrophobic frame where she’s like a bird that can’t fly out of this cage. She really wants to but the visual language is not letting her get out.'We worked with composition to make it more of a claustrophobic frame where she’s like a bird that can’t fly out of this cage. She really wants to but the visual language is not letting her get out.'Click To Tweet
7R: I noticed, every now and then, you use these repeated overhead, static shots. It’s almost like you’re watching the character from a balcony as they cross the frame. Where does that come from?
DZ: She’s always a part of the wider world. Yeah, she’s a single protagonist, but the world of the film kind of works against this American idea that you have a dream and you always get what you’re dreaming about. In this coming-of-age story, you realise you don’t always get what you want. The collective community wins with their ideas of how life should be lived.
In a way, it’s a film about how this dreamer is taken down but not broken. She gets a different type of inner liberation through intense violence. Those shots puts her inside this frame in an oppressive, dictatorial, authoritarian way.'It’s a film about how this dreamer is taken down but not broken. She gets a different type of inner liberation through intense violence.'Click To Tweet
7R: You mentioned Andrea Arnold. Did you have any other influences?
DZ: Carolina and I had a whole body of references as we were creating the visual language. We watched Lucrecia Martel. I personally really like early Jim Jarmusch as a reference for this film. And, of course, Pawlikowski. I like Aki Kaurismäki: he’s always minimalist but funny. He also talks about dark subjects in very much his own way. We also watched The Conformist (1970) with Carolina. She also went to film school so we had a whole body of references.
I really like American indie films from the ‘80s, I have to say. That made it into my Eastern European reality in a lovely way. We did watch The Cranes Are Flying (1957), a classic Soviet film about love and war.
It’s a mixture of things. You pick up inspiration in unexpected places.
7R: I really love the way Velya always has her headphones with her. She’ll wear them any moment she can.
DZ: It’s a way for her to escape reality. A way to just go into your own world and say, “Fuck off to this world.” That’s what the first scene is about, like, “I don’t care what you have to say.” It’s such a great representation of her.
She was into this very particular subculture that we didn’t know much about [at the time] as there wasn’t much access. So the music is this ultimate freedom, because House music is about freedom. It’s about this whole other minority community. It was black and gay way back in the day in Chicago, and they were fighting for their rights through this music. She doesn’t know the context, but she perceives House to be the answer. It’s this fascination with western values. For me, it was a reminder of what she wanted and where she wanted to go, and also a rhythm to dance to.
7R: Was House music always going to be part of the film?
DZ: No, actually. It slowly merged into the film. House was my own fascination at the time, coming of age in Belarus. I loved this subculture, and I thought I needed to reinforce what she was striving for. So that eventually made it into the script.
I started listening to it again, and apparently, it aged badly. I knew I’d have to listen to it a thousand times before I finish this film. Eventually, I found a couple of tracks.
I know subgenres don’t mean much to most, but to people who are really, really into this music, it does. At first, I thought that maybe she listens to Detroit Techno. There’s some other parts of this music that are still very popular and still relevant. They haven’t morphed much into other subgenres.
But then I met Alina, and I was like, this person cannot possibly listen to Detroit; she’s a lot more fun. She needs something more accessible and bubbly. So that’s how I decided on this particular subgenre.
Mina Shum (Meditation Park) and Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan) also talked to us about using vibrant and dynamic costumes to deepen their style and characters. The Party’s Sally Potter likes to write a few lines about a character’s costume in the script to help the costume designer — to her, costumes are so important to define a character. Gillian Armstrong’s documentary Women He’s Undressed explores the life of costume designer Orry-Kelly. We’ve even interviewed a costume designer: Keith Madden discussed his work on On Chesil Beach for our Special Issue on the film. Read our analysis of the very best costume design of 2017.