Elena Andreicheva became the first female winner of the Academy Awards of Ukrainian origin since Ukraine gained independence. She was born in Kyiv but at the age of 11 moved to the United Kingdom where she still lives.
The Ukrainian-born filmmaker received an Oscar for Best Documentary (short subject) for the film "Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)" along with American director Carol Dysinger.
Hromadske spoke with Andreicheva about the origins of the movie, her first steps in the industry, the relationship with her homeland, as well as her future plans.
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The Oscar-Winning Movie
Andreicheva's Oscar-winning film tells the story of a class of young girls from disadvantaged neighborhoods who live in war-torn Afghanistan.
The origins of the movie date back to 2007 when the London-based production company Grain Media, that would later go on to win numerous Oscars, shot a short documentary in collaboration with Skateistan, an international non-profit organization that uses skateboarding and education to empower children in developing countries.
A decade later, American channel A&E commissioned Grain Media to create a longer follow-up that would explore the girl’s experience at Skateistan. It was at this point that the studio approached Andreicheva to produce the future Oscar-winning work.
Together with Dysinger, the Ukrainian producer set out to bring the girl’s experience in “as natural a form as possible.”
“That was our main obsession with this project.”
Shooting in Afghanistan
Whilst Kabul is not the epicenter of hostilities and there was generally nothing noticeable happening, Andreicheva admits the constant need to stay alert at all times. This process involved finding out what was happening behind the scenes to ensure the team was not in danger.
“We couldn’t just pop out of the car and do a little bit of filming. That’s a real problem in a documentary because sometimes you need to be very responsive.”
This fact places limits on filmmaking, which is a big challenge for a genre like documentary, she tells us.
A Happy Coincidence
Andreicheva left Kyiv at the age of 11 when she took advantage of an opportunity to study in the United Kingdom. She followed the natural British education path and ended up studying Physics at university. But not having a career plan – and choosing the subject just because it seemed “interesting and difficult” – eventually helped her find true vocation after she got a master’s in science communication which helped her develop journalistic skills among other things.
“I realized […] I was more interested in some of the philosophical aspects of [physics], some of the history, the context where science sits in the world in our everyday lives. I wanted to be more involved in communicating the ideas of science rather than becoming a scientist myself.”
It was her master’s course that led Andreicheva to grow an interest in documentary work and later consolidate her knowledge in her first couple of jobs.
“As I built on experiences, I was reassured it was the right thing for me to be doing.”
“Documentary can make a difference”
The Kyiv-born producer is of the opinion that documentaries can make a difference albeit with a lot of hard work. She cites the experience of the director in the latest movie, Carol Dysinger, who spent 15 years making films in Afghanistan with an overt focus on the conflict, but it was only this film that opened up the locals:
“With the injection of skateboarding, some hope, and female characters, people were more willing to talk about the subject.”
Andreicheva believes that topics that can inspire change or get the conversation going need to be presented in a smart way. For her, it is important that the impact of the film is thought through from the beginning. At the same time, she argues that for others it may work out just fine not to have this mission in mind at all.
“The world doesn’t quite understand what’s going on in Ukraine”
Speaking about the situation in her motherland, Andreicheva says “You can't help but feel unaffected by what's been going on”. She calls her experience a challenge as she can only monitor the situation from a distance and through the reporter’s lens. Although this fact did not prevent her from plans to make a movie in her homeland.
“It is a big responsibility because I haven’t lived continuously in Ukraine for many years. I do feel like an outsider.”
She does not, however, rule out using her experience to collaborate with Ukrainian filmmakers. These people would have to add “real understanding of what life in Ukraine is like” and the “context of the conflict” to ensure the film feels authentic.
Drug Trafficking in Eastern Ukraine
Shooting in Ukraine would not be something new for the filmmaker, however, as she spent some time in eastern Ukraine in 2013 looking into drug trafficking in a project for the BBC. It just happened that some of the big shipments of drugs destined for Europe were seized in Ukraine.
Andreicheva recalls “huge resistance to anything to do with corruption on the border, in customs, and in the border control sector” at the time. But she notes things changing since, and Ukraine becoming more open.
“I hope I am a strong feminist”
Whilst her earlier major work “Stacey Dooley: Saving the Cybersex Girls” (2015) sends a strong feminist message and draws attention to the issue of exploitation of the vulnerable, the producer is uncertain whether she is a strong enough feminist.
Although the “partner theme” is something Andreicheva plans to continue exploring, she admits there are strong women who can tell their own stories. Yet there are groups that can’t – the producer believes they need help for their voice to emerge. She hopes her recent maternity can help her expand on the issue.
“Becoming a mom changed and deepened my perspective being a woman and understanding all the variety of experiences women go through.”
In her future projects, the filmmaker hopes to continue along those lines by also touching on the topic of domestic violence among others.