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Cannes Film Festival
Short Film Corner 2021

Leyla Bulatova 
Canada - 4 min

What's your background? This question is a conversation starter in America, but what are you supposed to answer if your heritage is not a well-known indigenous minority of Russia. The story follows the director's family through Russification, the October Revolution, and heritage reclaiming wave.


Hi Leyla, thanks for talking to The New Current, how have you been during these strange Covid times?


Toronto was in lockdown for 15 months at this point; thus everyone got the time to get creative including me. I started working on the "The background question" in the 1st half of the lockdown.


Has this time offered you any new creative opportunities?


Yes! 2020 gave me time to reflect and try new things like motion graphics for collage animation and writing scripts. I'm currently in pre-production for my next short, have been shooting editorial and creating video collages.


Congratulations on having The Background Question part of this year's Short Film Corner, how does it feel to be able to present your short film at Cannes?


You might think I'd say I'm excited but I am thrilled.


Will there be any nerves ahead of the festival?

As I am sitting comfortably in my office, I'm cool as a cucumber but as the dates are approaching I feel nervous, especially with the fact I still don't have a Shengen visa to enter European Union, and I applied for it in April (as a Russian Citizen I am required to obtain the Shengen visa to enter EU).


When you are about to start a new project what are some of the first steps you usually take before shooting?


I do research: read academic articles , talk to friends about the subject to get a different point of view, surf the net for visual references. For this project a lot of visual decisions were inspired by the pictures I had as I collaged and animated images to create a story


How did your documentary The Background Question come about and what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?


As a mixed indigenous person with Tatar Dad and Mordva Mom, I always had a hard time fitting in in Russia. For many people in Russia my name and appearance clearly indicate that I am not Slavic. However, upon my arrival to Canada, I suddenly became Russian. I don't want to be seen for something I am not. There are about 180 indigenous groups in Russia alone who have different ethnic and cultural heritage, who speak their indigenous language and celebrate their traditions. I think I need to communicate this to people.

The subject of personal identity was particularly sensitive for me and now I am very glad I took the time to unpack it for myself and show the viewers how diverse East Europe really is. 

Did you have any apprehensions about making a film that is so personal?


I feel comfortable talking about myself and my perspective but I felt anxious when I was talking for my relatives and other people in general. I did conduct interviews but no one is absolutely objective. I filter the information  through my perspective and say it in my words. I hope nothing got lost in translation.

Moreover, I have people very close to me in Russia who had to change their first and last name to gain traction with their career. Now they are perceived as Europeans in the Beauty industry and it might affect their career if the general public finds out. In the early 2000s everyone wanted a hairstyle, dress, makeup from Luciano Feretti not Ramir Bikbulatov. In order to succeed , one had to change their non Russian names to be accepted as a professional in the world of Fashion and Beauty.


Looking back, is there anything you would do differently on this film?

Maybe I would look for help. I wrote and animated the piece. I think by getting help I would be able to tell a longer story


Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

To be honest, not really. I had an interest in visuals and graphics. I used imagery by itself as a storytelling tool then I realized it is limiting me when it comes to explaining particular ideas and terms. 


What have been some of the biggest lessons you've taken from making your films?

Proof read the credit copy! When you are working on one piece for a long time it is easy to miss things. But on a serious note I met a lot of indigenous people who live in the Western world and have similar experiences when it comes to discussing backgrounds and origins stories. I realized there is a community out there.


Now you can be reflective. Is there any advice you wish you had been given before you started making your first film? 


Not to be afraid and go for it. The subject of personal identity was particularly sensitive for me and now I am very glad I took the time to unpack it for myself and show the viewers how diverse East Europe really is. 


And finally, what do you hope people will take away from The Background Question?


That the world is full of things and people that might be not what they seem. That indigenous peoples live all over the world. That many indigenous groups are  trying to preserve their culture, language and identity in and be a part of our exciting current world.

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