Interview with Julia Shlenskaya, director of ‘Once Upon a February’

Today marks one year since the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. A year in which the world seemed to take a giant leap backwards, with the upheaval causing trauma and tragedy for millions of lives.

‘Once Upon a February’ by Russian filmmaker Julia ​​Shlenskaya is an intensely personal project that makes a brave attempt to come to terms with the shock of the invasion. Julia is a diverse contemporary filmmaker and artist who, through her work, challenges viewers to reflect on their inner worlds and explore a range of emotions, memories, fears and insecurities.

The film deftly explores the absurd and nonsensical nature of the war through the eyes of a young boy. Through a bizarre and reflective series of montages, Julia asks her audience to reflect on the incomprehensible nature of the war and the way people have reacted. ‘Once Upon a February’ forces us to look inward as the war rages on. Rocks Blog had the pleasure of talking to her about creating this film as a means to open up a discussion about this incredibly important subject matter and her creative craft.

The film uses surreal language, the only language that can even partially illustrate an overwhelming range of feelings that we are forbidden to talk about or express in words.

As a filmmaker, I can only imagine how hard yet crucial it is to explore such a monumental issue. Where did ‘Once Upon a February’ start for you?

The day the war broke out I was working on another film. It was about an elementary school teacher, an adult immersed in a child world. It was supposed to show the contrast between the joyful, naive world of children and the heavy-burdened, grey world of adults. In this movie my character was constantly in doubt and entangled in his desires, which eventually faded over time. This film was supposed to be a reflection on how people sometimes abandon their bright and beautiful children’s world to that of a dark and ordinary, boring adult world.

Then the war started. Everything turned upside down. Emotions began to tear me up. I didn’t know how to continue with my day to day life, how to live in a country with people, who pretend that nothing has happened. Those thoughts were driving me crazy. The media was discussing the war so rationally, so seriously trying to justify this act of aggression. This is how the idea for this film was born.

After coming up with the initial idea, did you write a loose narrative structure to follow?

The story in this film is not complex and very straightforward. But it is not possible to present it in a chronological or retrospective way, because these structures don’t highlight emotions and feelings, which are the main focus of the film. It’s about the ‘right here and right now’, the present moment. Current emotions that we live through every day. We can’t fully reflect or talk about those feelings, as they are not fully experienced or understood. Therefore, from the very beginning, I knew I wanted to have a loose way of presenting this narrative, a way, which is focusing on images and emotions.

Seeing it through the eyes of a child perfectly encapsulates the insanity – what direction did you give your performers for them to bring out the surrealism?

I don’t usually reveal the exact emotions that my actors should live through. I want to see their take and their performance. I treat it as an experiment, the result of which I see on location there and then. I give them certain tasks and study the results. The actors don’t usually know what exactly they are doing and what they were supposed to do, so they give a natural reaction. Also, each actor has their own individual charisma, which I try to spot beforehand and use in my movies.

I love the collection of nods to the absurdity of the situation – how did you come up with these and work them into the film?

I’m turning unintentional into intentional, and this is how the surreal illusion is created.

Most of these nods were planned in advance. They were inspired by news, announcements, and events. I believe that mundane and often overlooked little things such as gestures, mistakes, etc are often the best sources for inspiration. I’m turning unintentional into intentional, and this is how the surreal illusion is created. I knew I needed to construct a figurative world in my story, so I became a patient observer of the outside world. I am very curious about news, stories, music, art – they also were a great source for collecting images for my film.

The close-up shots bring us right into the emotions of the characters. How did you decide on the angles and shots included?

In this case, I used the close-ups as a tool to help create an immersive atmosphere.

I always prepare a storyboard with the angles in advance. However, when I arrive at the set, I try to look at the storyline with a fresh pair of eyes, as if I’m a different person, operating with intuition and relying on emotions that need to be translated into a frame. I only use storyboards as a starting point. In this case, I used the close-ups as a tool to help create an immersive atmosphere. You become close, can almost feel the madness, feel that it’s real and overwhelming. This is exactly what I felt, after the war started, and feelings that I wanted to express with my work. Close-ups work as a magnifying glass that helps to see and convey emotions.

The whole film seems to be guided by the choppy and abrupt editing. How was this approached?

I studied under the guidance of Sergey Ivanov, who is a renowned expert in the editing world. He taught me that editing is both an emotional and a structural tool, which helps show what was intended. The events that inspired my movie were so sudden, abrupt, unordinary and shocking, that I wasn’t ready for them. I show all of this through my editing.

The colour seems to have been sucked out of the room – how did you work on the grade and tone?

Beige was a very common color for Soviet interiors from the 80-90s. These plain, lifeless interiors are a product of the time. They have their own style and atmosphere, which is achieved through the colours, sounds, smell, and items, that mostly everyone had at that time. It was important for me to set a specific mood and connect to the USSR legacy.

What do you hope for your film?

The main idea of this film is to ask questions and try to interpret emotions, so that in the future it can create a therapeutic effect for another person.

This movie is therapy. It represents feelings which were taken out from within, in order to offload their intensity and be able to reflect on them. Many people in Russia are in shock and puzzled with the emotions, while many are still trying to figure things out. Many 20-40 year olds are on the verge of leaving Russia. it is impossible to live in such a surreal world where their elderly relatives support whatever the government or media says. In childhood we were often taught to obey the elderly and respect them, and this makes the whole situation more complex and problematic. The main idea of this film is to ask questions and try to interpret emotions, so that in the future it can create a therapeutic effect for another person.

‘Once Upon a February’, a surreal micro drama, will be screened at Brighton Rocks in June this year.

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