A teacher desperately clings to her humanity, despite the chaos of war around her threatening to destroy everything worth being human for.
Hi Alexandra thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during these very strange times?
First and foremost, I am very grateful that everyone around me is currently healthy. I am hoping to shoot my short film ‘Beyoncé, Almighty’ in the next couple of weeks, which I'm making with producer Sabina Smitham and Film4, with the support of the NFTS and Pia Pressure. If we don’t have to postpone due the worsening Corona-situation, I'll at least feel that this year hasn't thrown me back too much with my work. We were starting the pre-production of the film in March, when the lock-down happened and we had to push the shoot to October because of it. Having to prep the film during the last challenging months has made me be very aware and grateful of the immense support of our financial partners and our great cast & crew.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
No - but it offered me time to focus on what I want and need to do (creatively).
You are a graduate of Directing Fiction MA at National Film and Television School, how did your time at NFTS prepare for your filmmaking journey?
I felt and still feel very supported by my fellow students and teachers, who I am still turning to for advice. I met incredible collaborators at the NFTS that are now part of my core team. I also really appreciate having been surrounded and supported by fellow directors. Having graduated now for over two years, I constantly meet new producers, DOPs, and other filmmaking partners - but it’s rare that you can build relationships with other directors, learn from them, share your worries, read each other's scripts…
Nina got a Special Mention for Foreign Film at The Early Bird Film Festival (2019) what has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your film?
NINA is one of the films I made that I am most proud of - and also the film that got into the least amount of festivals (to be precise: into exactly two). Film festival circuits are such a tricky and unpredictable journey and many of my other shorts had much ‘bigger’ international recognition. Getting into the Early Bird Festival meant to me that I’m not insane and there are at least a few other people who like the film. Then, actually going to Bulgaria with my co-writer Rebecca Martin and being part of this incredibly welcoming festival at the end of last year, gave us the opportunity to discover their amazing film program. Having been able to watch the other great films there, made us especially proud to receive the Special mention.
What does it mean to you to be at Barcelona Short Film Festival's amazing lineup of short films?
We are surprised and honoured to be selected for this great festival and to be able to showcase ‘Nina’ along all these other amazing films. I am also very happy for the entire team who worked incredibly hard to make this film come true, to be recognised for their work.
"To be honest I still can’t believe that we got so lucky as I think that she lifted the film to a completely other level..."
Can you tell me a little bit about Nina, how did this film come about?
‘Nina’ was my first project at the NFTS. Though the film is shot in London, the story is set in the Ukrainian war. Usually, I shoot on real locations because the ‘history’ of spaces and the feeling of real atmospheres are crucial to me… For a range of reasons this wasn’t possible for NINA and we decided to embrace the challenge of creating a believable Ukrainian war scenery in London. Shooting in a studio was never an option - also because I think that with limited budgets it’s very difficult to get this right. So we decided to build our set into an abandoned council estate in London.
My production designer Ewa Galak did an incredible job on this and I still can’t believe her dedication and ability to make this work. I didn’t know her well before we started working together (as in the 1st year at the NFTS you get assigned most of your team members) but when she actually went to the Ukraine ‘to research’ the look and feel of the locations, I knew that she’s not just the right person for this film but that I want to work with her forever (which I am actually doing because she is also my production designer on my current film). Nowadays, I am so grateful for the experience of having to compromise in shooting that way because it taught me a lot about filmmaking and all the ways we can create filmic ‘illusions’. We were obviously faced with many issues apart from the production design - the main one was to find our Russian cast. Though we had found a great supporting cast, we were really struggling to cast our main actress for ‘Nina’. Still not having our lead one week before the shoot (and even considering to completely change the script for that reason) we expanded our casting brief to other countries and ended up flying the great Ekaterina Medvedeva in for the shoot. To be honest I still can’t believe that we got so lucky as I think that she lifted the film to a completely other level - and also taught me a lot about acting and directing.
You co-wrote Nina with Rebecca Martin, what inspired your screenplay?
‘Nina’ was Rebecca’s and mine first collaboration. Since then we co-wrote every NFTS film and are currently working on a feature and a TV series together.
The film was inspired by our conversations about how people obtain their humanity and dignity in difficult, life-threatening situations. So often, characters in war-or catastrophe-films are facing the challenge of ‘what it means to be human’ by becoming ‘a hero’. However, the strongest people I know and met in crisis, are quieter in their choices but nevertheless as powerful. I think that being strong and being human means to have a sense of dignity. And this can express itself in the smallest of things: like shaving your legs and cleaning your windows - despite living in a war zone. It also expresses itself in your sense of duty towards things and people you are committed to - be it your family, your work, your promise to take care of someone or something.
All those thoughts and conversations with Rebecca (also about the specific role of women in those kinds of situations) lead to us creating a story about 'Nina', an English teacher who crosses a snipers alleyway each day to visit her last remaining pupil, Vanya. Incompetent yet full of charm – and life – he is one of her anchors to better times. Stripped of everything that she loved before the Ukrainian war, 'Nina' fights her own emotional battle to remind herself of normality.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently on this film?
Many things. But I’m good with that - I think this is why we make the next films - to fix mistakes from previous work and make new ones.
As a writer/director how flexible were you with your script, did you prefer to stick to what was written or were you open to changes?
I am very fluent as a director. For me the script is just a step (though a very important one) in the process of creating something which gains life and evolves at every step of production.
Where did this passion for filmmaking come from?
I don’t know - it just feels natural to me to explore and communicate thoughts and ideas through filmmaking.
How much has your approach to your films changed since your debut short?
I used to be very precise and rigid in the execution of my films and wanted to have everything exactly the way I had originally imagined it. Over the last years I learned to embrace the change. Now, I actually love it and I think that reacting to new challenges as well as exploring the film with every creative collaborator on the way - is what I enjoy the most.
Make more films..."
What would you say was the most valuable lesson you've taken from making Nina?
To not give up.
Should filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
If they want to.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Find friends, make films. Make mistakes. Make more films (& don’t lose your friends on the way).
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Nina?
I hope they engage with it and have an emotional experience of the film.