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Cool Hands in the Delta

In his most recent documentary, ‘Delta,’ director Oleksandr Techynskyi tiptoes through the icy and dangerous waters of the Ukrainian Danube. From Decat o Revista, a quarterly magazine publishing narrative nonfiction from Romania.

by Gabriela Piturlea 21 November 2018

As the Danube flows into the Black Sea, it creates a fan-shaped delta straddling the border between Romania and Ukraine. The sparsely populated delta is one of the largest and most important wetlands in Europe, in addition to being the home of numerous species of birds, animals, and plants. However, a lack of environmentally conscious policies, which would include stricter regulations aimed at tourists from Kyiv and Bucharest, is threatening the delta's fragile ecosystem, while the locals struggle with poverty. “Delta” received the special mention of the jury in the Black Sea Docs category of the Pelicam Film Festival, which took place this June in Tulcea, a Romanian city at the gates of the Danube Delta. 


Map of the Danube Delta. Image via Spiridon MANOLIU/Wikimedia Commons.


A villager tries to cut off a goat’s head, but the knife that he had sharpened doesn’t seem to help, so he has to wrestle the animal to the ground. A man wants to cut down a tree, but his electric chainsaw only starts once he asks for help from God. A boatman loses hope in the engine that broke down and left him in the middle of the waters, and he rows, half-frozen, to the shore. “Everything is broken. That’s how things are in Ukraine,” Oleksandr Techynskyi says with a half-smile. In his cinematic world, people pass their evenings by the fires of gas tanks [used to fuel stoves], drinking homemade wine, and their days filling buckets with water blessed by the local priest, trying to survive in the corner of a world that’s constantly shrinking.   


Techynskyi is 38 years old, and spent his childhood in Yakutia, a region in the Russian Far East. He started his career in the medical field, focusing on psychiatric emergencies, and then moved on to photojournalism, via a local newspaper. He worked for five years for the Russian daily Kommersant, which had opened an office in Kyiv, where he covered a myriad of topics: politics, sports, the economy. He resigned in 2010, partly because his new editor made him feel like a photo courier whose opinions didn’t matter much, but also because he felt that he wasn’t using his abilities to their fullest potential.

His first documentary, the “Sirs and Misters” short film, is an intercultural story about Uman, a small town south of Kyiv that became a site of annual pilgrimage to the tomb of a Hasidic rabbi buried there. “Imagine that in a couple of days 20,000 people from Mars would arrive in Tulcea – with a different culture, different traditions, different opinions.” Taking a closer look, Techynskyi discovered that, beyond the conflicts frequently covered by Ukrainian media, there were people in that town who were willing to facilitate the communication between the locals and the visitors. Once he turned his camera on them, a new chapter in his life started.



DoR: You graduated from medical school and worked in the psychiatric field. Why did you give that up?


It was a nice adventure for a young guy, but then I left, because actually they paid nothing and because I understood I would become as crazy as our patients. I saw my colleagues who had worked there for 20 years or more, and who were absolutely cookoo [insane].


I was dreaming about photography, but you know what it’s like: your parents usually have another opinion about your future, so I spent some time fighting, and then I took the decision to jump into photojournalism.


How did you decide to make a movie about the Delta?


Actually, I had planned to make “Delta” (2017) before “All Things Ablaze” (2014), but then Maidan [the 2014 revolution in Ukraine] happened. My friends and I were working for a German newspaper, and our editors decided to do an experiment consisting of daily videos. We told them from the beginning that it wouldn't be some classic television journalism; we were not going to compete with Reuters or AP. If we were to do this, it would be in a cinematographic style. They agreed, since it didn't cost them a lot. In the end we did a movie, and it was a big thing. We won a prize at the DOK Leipzig [one of the oldest documentary festivals in the world].


I was wondering how the photojournalistic experience influences the vision of the documentary filmmaker, in your case?


You know, I’m the kind of guy who has no questions in the beginning [of something]. When I hear answers, it gives nothing to me. Mostly I don’t really believe them. Maybe they are 5 or 10 percent true, something like that. I actually prefer to see, and then to understand – to understand not from words, but from deeds. And in my work I try to appear in a situation where it is possible to see. I’m not the kind of guy who will listen to witnesses. As I came from photojournalism, I prefer to be a witness myself. 


Why did you want to go back to the Delta?


To film those guys?


Yes. Leaving aside the fact that they were already your friends, that you were interested in their world.


I think that everything starts from the place. And of course, talking honestly, I was tired of all that violent shit. After Maidan, I had to work as a photojournalist and fixer and translator in the war zone, and that war topic was never-ending. And there was also this fear: will I get drafted [into the military] or not? Some people came home from work to find a piece of paper, and the following day they would be in the trenches. It was very stressful. So the voyage into the Delta also came as a chance to cut myself off and explore a topic that was absolutely not connected to the news.


Photo from the Pelicam film festival, via Decat o Revista.


Here [in Romania], the Delta is usually presented as some kind of heaven on earth, a unique touristic destination. And the lives of the people living there are often completely ignored. I was wondering if the same holds true for Ukraine.


In present-day Ukraine, everybody ignores everyone. Of course there are a lot of people who care, but there are many more who only pretend to care, and a lot who just don’t care at all. There are people back there who promote the Delta as a tourist destination, but for most Ukrainians it’s quite far, and it's hard to get there, especially if you don’t have a car. So it is not growing into something big. Otherwise, that’s a good place to experience rural life. It’s nicer to film in the Delta [than elsewhere], because they have the river, making the picture a little bit more exotic. But from my point of view, the situation in the Delta is similar to that in any other region of the country, except for the big cities. 


Your movie is a winter movie – it’s always cold, there’s a lot of fog, a lot of ice in it. Is this how you wanted it to be?


Yes, it was my choice.


How long did it take you to shoot it?


I filmed for two winters – in the first one I went there alone, and in the second one I went with a sound engineer. But from the moment I got the idea of the project it took four, or five years [to finish it], during which I would visit these people [who appear in the documentary] from time to time, to check if they were still alive – because anything could happen. But the question was …


We were talking about choosing to film in winter.


Yes, everybody is happy in summer. It’s easier to live in summer. I think that people show their true character in difficult situations. An extreme situation will somehow open the person to you. 


It [winter] also emphasizes poverty, and loneliness.


In summer, the green leaves hide everything. You can't see what’s behind. The temperature is pleasant, you have the river, you have good food, fruits, vegetables, but all these things are hiding the problems. But in the wintertime, it's another thing. 


What was it like for you to penetrate into that world?


My first visit there happened in January 2007. Two of the characters [of the documentary] were going to go to the Delta, to cut some reeds. I went there because I had nothing to do, but I had my camera with me, so I asked them to take me with them. They were planning on spending two nights in the Delta, in a small house made of reed. They were skeptical [about my participation], but they took me with them and it was okay. I was helping them, I was drinking the same quantity of alcohol, smoking whatever they were smoking, and we had those conversations. The interesting thing is that people want to tell their stories. If you're patient enough to listen, everybody will tell you their story. If you are really interested. And I was really interested, it was interesting for me how they live there, and who they are. I think that's why they let me in. Also, during the first winter of shooting, I spent less time filming, and more time working with them [helping around].


What’s your position on helping out? There are photojournalists and directors who try to stay away from the action [as opposed to getting involved].


I think there’s some kind of border that you can't cross. But I also think that you need to be flexible. It's not like: “I'm from another world, I'm not helping.” Then why do they have to help you? It’s a personal choice. After all, how could I influence those people? Okay, I can help them a little bit, but I can't build them new houses. I'm not doing that. Of course I'm trying to be polite, I'm trying to be careful, of course I'm trying to be helpful. It’s a very complicated topic. I think that each documentary filmmaker sets his or her own border concerning ethics.


Why did you say during the Q&A that took place after the screening that you would first need a drink before being able to talk about how this movie changed you?


It’s not an easy question. To answer it I would have to dive deep into the darkest corners of my soul. Of course it influenced me, but it’s hard for me to analyze myself. Some people need psychoanalysis to get those things out. The main thing I learned is that to be a happy person you don't need a lot. I knew that before, but now I believe it even more.


In the end, why did you choose to tell people's stories instead of trying to save them?


Maybe because I'm the wrong person [to save them]. I don’t pretend that I saved a lot of people, but I think that I did enough during my medical career. Now I'm going to tell their stories. That's the idea.


I don’t know if we are really able to save anyone ... It's such a complicated topic. I mean, of course we are, but ... It’s hard to say why I went through this transition, maybe this is how I am constructed, somehow.


Do you feel that you went from, in a way, being fed up with people to being fascinated with them? How do you see them now?


At least now I can choose the intensity of the interactions. When I was working in the ambulance car, I had no choice. “There is a shift, my friend. For the next 24 hours, whatever comes, it's yours. Whatever piece of shit will fall in your arms, you'll have to take care of.” That was my duty. Right now I’m in a more flexible position and, most of the time, I can choose. I can choose when to stop, or if I want to rest and start anew, or never start something again. Also trying to save myself a little bit. I have a family, so I have to also think about them and not to damage them while trying to save someone else. It’s important to find a balance. Of course, to each his own. Right now I’m trying to find my own balance.

Gabriela Piturlea is a freelance content creator, with a keen interest in movies, photography, and in those who live to tell other people's stories.

This article was originally published in Romanian in Decat o Revista, a quarterly magazine publishing narrative nonfiction from Romania. Reprinted with permission. Translation by Ioana Caloianu. 
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