Roxy Toporowych is a Ukrainian-American filmmaker whose feature debut Julia Blue is screening now as Klassiki’s Pick of the Week as part of our Ukraine Spotlight. Telling the story of the romance between photographer Julia and soldier English, the film captures the tension at the heart of post-2014 Ukraine. We spoke with Toporowych about her background and her approach to representing Ukraine to the wider world.
Dima Yaroshenko and Polina Snisarenko in Julia Blue (Roxy Toporowych), 2018.
You’re a first generation Ukrainian-American. What did Ukraine mean to you growing up? What was your experience of Ukrainian culture as a child?
In the diaspora, we believed we were Ukrainian before we were American. We learned to speak Ukrainian, I went to Ukrainian school Monday through Friday, I went to Ukrainian Saturday school, followed by Ukrainian dance lessons, and in the summer I went to Ukrainian summer camp. My parents and grandparents were refugees, they fled post-World War Two. They came to America in the 1950s. That generation wanted to preserve Ukrainian culture, because they saw what was happening in Ukraine and later in the Soviet Union. It was always important to keep Ukrainian traditions alive. It was just part of my life, the fabric of my life, to have Ukrainian culture be part of this American culture.
You were in Ukraine from 2014 on a Fulbright Scholarship. How did you get from there to having completed this film four years later? How did the idea of making the film develop?
When I applied for the Fulbright in the fall of 2013, there was no Maidan. A few months later, the revolution happened and then the Russians invaded and annexed Crimea. Originally, I wanted to work with kids, to teach them about storytelling using cameras and videos. But when you land in a country at war, that wasn’t a need. A lot of these kids were being internally displaced. I found myself in a very strange place where I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was roaming around Kyiv trying to work out how to use my skills as a storyteller to help people who were now in a crisis.
Long story short, I ended up meeting my cinematographer Sashcko [Roshchyn] that summer. Talking with him, I realised that the most powerful tool we had was filmmaking. So, we hatched this plan to make a film together. I was very impressed by the young people in Ukraine, the people in their twenties. They were activists but they were still leading their own lives, studying, going out on Saturday night, and then working in a military hospital on Monday morning. So, I was trying to show this different life that young Ukrainian adults had. And the reason it took so long was that I didn’t have funding!
I knew that in order to tell the story of my people, I had to frame it with a very universal theme. And the most universal theme I could think of was a love story.
The film encapsulates so much about post-2014 Ukraine. It touches on the energy and optimism but also the trauma and the pain of those experiences, and it does so first and foremost through the romance story. Why did you choose to join these stories together through the romance narrative?
Growing up Ukrainian-American, people didn’t understand – they didn’t know it was a culture or a language, they always presume that you’re Russian. I knew that in order to tell the story of my people, I had to frame it with a very universal theme. And the most universal theme I could think of was a love story. Everyone gets love, whether it’s good or bad. I knew that if I framed the film in terms of something that generic, frankly, then I could throw in all the little details that I wanted to about Ukrainian culture and people in that specific time and place.
Do you think of this film as being primarily for an American (or Western) audience, or primarily for a Ukrainian one? Is it two different films depending on who’s watching it?
I do think it is two different films, depending on the audience. One thing I wanted was for it to be done in an American visual style, to look like an American indie: handheld, not over-lit. Frankly, I wanted the American audience to see the beauty of the country. For the Ukrainians there are some added layers to the film. For example, the character English actually speaks in Russian at the start of the film, and then he switches to Ukrainian. I’m happy for people to get whatever they want out of it. What’s important in a movie is that it connects.
Dima Yaroshenko in Julia Blue (Roxy Toporowych), 2018.
Presumably that has something to do with the use of the western Ukrainian countryside in the Carpathians, the symbolic importance that that location has in the film?
It’s important because I wanted to show the two sides. Ukraine has always had these two sides: eastern Ukrainians are Russian speakers; western Ukrainians are Ukrainian speakers. By having English be from the east and Julia from the west, I wanted to unite the two. Frankly, the western sections of the film – that’s my family village. My whole family are in those scenes. They threw a wedding for us, popped in some actors, and filmed it.
You mentioned meeting your cinematographer, Sashcko Roshchyn. I’ve read about how crucial he was to the process of you embedding in Ukraine and developing the film. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Sashcko?
Sashcko was my best friend in Ukraine, and kind of my factometer. I’m an American – I grew up Ukrainian, but I didn’t live there. So, a lot of the ideas, the story ideas or even the way someone would say something, I really relied heavily on Sashcko to make sure it felt authentic. He and I worked together on that. I met Sashcko in December 2013 when I hired him for two days to shoot footage of the Maidan, but I didn’t know him at the time. When I came back a year later, we reconnected. At the beginning of the film, when you see Julia’s memories of the Maidan, a lot of that is Sashcko’s original footage. Sash is extremely talented and has a beautiful eye, as you can see.
On that question of authenticity: how exactly did you go about achieving that accuracy in terms of the eastern Ukrainian experience, the experience of soldiers in the Donbas?
I ended up going to military hospitals and talking to people. One place I ended up going was the Poltava military hospital with a wonderful journalist called Olha. One soldier there told me the story about the little girl [that is used in the film as English’s backstory]. I couldn’t believe it. I just talked to people. Every time I got a cab in Kyiv, I would ask questions. Dima Yaroshenko [who plays English] is from the east. He would also tell me, “Roxy, like this, not like this.” So, I collaborated. You can be a director and come in and yell at people. But if you don’t listen to them, then you’re in trouble. I wanted it to feel as real for the cast and crew as it would feel for me and for an audience.
Watch Julia Blue on Klassiki until 28th April.