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  • Writer's pictureNataliya Apanovich

I'm making a film

A few years ago, I decided to make a documentary about my maternal grandmother after she fell and broke her hip. The incident reminded me that she isn't eternal and that with her passing, a part of me will be gone too, a part that I wanted to learn more about.

I am not a film maker. I have neither experience nor education in film. I dabbled with making YouTube videos but that quickly got old. I learned what I could and saw no purpose in continuing. I never thought I would make a film. It is something only people in Hollywood do.   

My husband and I left for Belarus in early 2022 with a Go Pro, two i-phones, and a drone. I decided not to bring my $5,000 camera because I didn’t know how to use it. I bought it right before we left for the trip and didn’t have enough time to learn it. Oops. I had no clue I also needed professional sound equipment. Another big oops.

Needless to say that the quality of what we shot that winter in Belarus was less than acceptable. But it was still good for the film. Later, when I assembled a real professional team to do the filming for me, this footage served as a point of reference for my vision. My vision stemmed entirely from Honeyland. I knew I wanted something just as intimate, personal, and magical. I played with funky framing, angles, and light. And because it was my grandma that we were filming, I could get up close. We filmed her in bed, undressing, and dressing. The quality was horrible, but the content was excellent. Drone shots were the best work that winter. I terrorized Matt into redoing every single shot - no sudden jerkiness, at least10 seconds of a smooth flight, moving shot, still shot, fast shot, slow shot…..We argued a lot and it didn’t help that all the batteries were constantly dying. But the drone shots are the only shots that will end up in the final cut.

After returning to the U.S., I knew I needed a lot more footage than what we had shot and that it needed to be of much better quality if I ever wanted the film to be taken seriously. I decided to form a team to do the filming for me and without me. It is called long-distance directing, if such thing even exists. It wasn’t safe anymore for me to go back to Belarus. Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks after we left Belarus. Because I had no clue how to go about forming a film crew, I turned to my fixer cousin in Belarus. He quickly identified a Belarusian cinematographer living in Poland. His Instagram was full of professional quality videos that I could only dream about. I wanted him to film for me but, after a few conversations, it became clear that it was dangerous for him to return to Belarus and that he was way outside of what I could afford. I had to drop him. I turned to Facebook. I joined a group for Belarusians living in the U.S. and through it came across a Belarusian musician. After stalking him online, I found that he was involved in video projects in Belarus. I contacted him and he recommended a videographer. I contacted him and he recommended a sound person. I contacted him and he recommended someone else. Long story short, our team of four was ready for action.

Directing long-distance and without any film industry lingo and in a language that you don’t speak every day is beyond intimidating. I was scared of our team Zoom meetings because they made me feel stupid. I had difficulty expressing myself, finding the right words, and knowing what was culturally appropriate to say. Was I too critical? Was I providing enough direction? Are they taking this project seriously?

I have been financing the project entirely by myself. Which the film industry says is something you should never do. I am able to do it only because I am paying Belarusian prices. I knew I couldn’t sit around waiting for grants and donations to start making their way into my bank account because who would give grants and donations to someone with no prior record of making anything? Nobody. I knew grandma wasn’t getting younger. I had no time to sit around and wait for funding. I needed to film, so I sacrificed some areas of my life to be able to do it. Like not buying a house.

Now, after shooting over 60 hours of footage, forming a film crew in Arizona as the scope of the project expanded, and developing a 20-minute proof of concept (that everyone raves about!), I feel relieved. I am starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. I am starting to dream about which film festivals I will submit to. I am starting to call myself a filmmaker.

Making a documentary while also being a full-time academic who is building up her resume to move away from her mediocre salary is something you would do to yourself only if you are insane. My weekends are reserved for writing grants (yes, I’m still hopeful that one day someone will be like “if she had enough brains to get a Ph.D., maybe she has enough brains to make this documentary”) and team meetings, which happen at ungodly hours due to time zone differences. But making this film is also the most meaningful thing I’ve done in my life. I am super thrilled to be able to explore such profoundly deep themes as disappearance of a culture, nature, and people. Life. Death. Family bonds.

I can't wait for my grandma and family to see it.

To watch the 20-minute proof of concept video, click on the button below.

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