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An Interview with Matej Silecky, director of Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother
By Al Nigrin
originally published: 10/06/2018
New Jersey Film Festival Premieres Matej Silecky’s Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother this Sunday, October 7, 2018!
Here is my interview with Matej Silecky:
Nigrin: Your deeply moving documentary film rings to light the little-known story of Ukrainians, who were torn from their homes, and their nation, when the Nazis invaded the territory of Ukraine and clashed with the Soviet army at the height of World War II. Please tell us more about your film and why you decided to make it?
Silecky: I developed the concept for Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother during my last semester at UC Berkeley, as an oral history project to be undertaken in the year following graduation. To say that it blossomed into something larger than initially planned would be an understatement! While I do have Ukrainian “roots,” I was not active in Ukrainian organizations growing up – the demands of training as a competitive figure skater precluded that. Thus, the film did not evolve from being “Ukrainian-American” at all, but from a dance I performed in at UC Berkeley: the piece was "Turangawaewae," choreographed by Jack Gray. As Mr. Gray described it:
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"Turangawaewae is the Maori word for Standing Place. It is a cultural concept of belonging and power. It means literally that your genealogy affiliates somewhere that connects you to the land where your ancestors lived, breathed, fought, loved, ate, hunted, dreamt and placed their stories of triumph and failure into the mountains, rivers and ocean. Even though we now find ourselves in the new generations of mixed descent, being raised away from where our blood and DNA comes from – the concept of Standing Place is important. It means that regardless of these things you have a right. The human right to belong to land. Not the land that you have bought from the Bank. But the Mother. The Earth. The country and nation that keeps your secrets and lineage close to her heart. Through blood and tears, oceans and desert, mountains to plains. The beauty of our earth is that we see the rise and lowering of the sun every day. The enlightenment of the moon and the passage way of the stars and galaxies that helped our ancestors navigate their futures across continents.”
I feel that this Maori concept is broader than any one heritage or culture, and that it resonates with the diaspora and refugees of many peoples. Baba Babee Skazala developed and evolved to share the stories of children whose childhoods were disrupted by war, whose homes were lost, families often killed, but who found ways to re-connect with their own “Standing Place” and find “home,” in the spiritual and physical sense. Ultimately, these are stories of resilience, of keeping your center “When Home is What You Carry in Your Heart.”
Nigrin:As many cultures die off, the Ukrainians that emigrated to the United States after WWII have done a great job of preserving their language and culture. The many Ukrainian clubs and societies all over the United States are a testament to this. Why do you think this is case?
Silecky: Prof. Alexander Motyl & Andrew Fedynsky discuss this in Baba Babee Skazala, attributing much of this success to making the most of the opportunity provided by the DP camps: developing vital political, artistic and cultural Ukrainian organizations – to create a civil society that was Ukrainian.That organizational structure was then transferred to North America when these refugees were finally able to emigrate. I use the word “opportunity” here intentionally: Many of the memories shared with me were extremely traumatic and horrifying. It would have been easy to just give up. But, these people created an opportunity out of hardship, showing incredible strength and resilience. They share joy while creating traditional arts and maintaining traditions. That is inspiring to everyone!
Nigrin:Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union back in 1991 but in many ways they are restricted by Russia. The recent annexation of Crimea is a case in point. Do you think Ukraine will ever be able to get out from under Russia’s thumb?
Silecky: I’m not a political expert, and Baba Babee Skazalais definitely not focused on the politics of these territories, but understanding the history of this region – the centuries of territorial disputes and the ongoing fight for independence – adds greater poignancy to the efforts of the Ukrainian diaspora to maintain its culture. I believe this is why there is an affinity with those from other former Soviet republics and nations bordering Russia. Many of them have also experienced similar losses and displacement.
If you read my Blog linked above, you’ll see that my work on Turangawaewaecoincided with the recent (re)annexation of Crimea. Here we are, over four years later, with more of the same. That is why I chose to focus on these stories of individual and community resilience: we can’t single-handedly solve the problems of history, but we can choose how we individually respond to them.
Nigrin:The special effects in your film which recreate the past are really wonderful. Tell us more about more about how you created these.
Silecky: It isn’t surprising that an historical documentary would utilize archival photographs and video, and we are very fortunate that Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother includes many previously unavailable clips from the The Central National Cinema, Photo & Audio Archives of Ukraine in the name of H.C. Pshnychnoho. However, individual memories are a critical component of this film, and I didn’t want them to be solely reflected through another’s camera lens or a filmed recreation. Memories have sharp moments and blurred edges, they can be vivid and ethereal at the same time. Thus, I felt that animations and special effects would better depict the memories.
Once we had a rough-cut edit, I worked with Andrij Korvach, an artist and friend from Kyiv, Ukraine, to develop animations depicting selections from individual stories. We worked to make them historically accurate, but not fully realistic animated scenes, because that is not the way memory typically functions. There were many iterations of the animations, with much give and take to balance realism with story quality, include symbolism and accurately interpret the speaker’s words. We then used parallax effects to create limited movement, again representing the non-linear way memories emerge rather than seeking to create a replacement for archival footage.
I also created the weaving ribbons AFX both for explanatory and symbolic reasons. Most obviously, the weaving ribbons show the travel paths and intersection points of those whose stories we share. They help to explain the connections among this community across continents and through the years preceding World War 2 to the present. However, many Ukrainians will likely also see that the AFX mimic the ribbons of the “Vinok,” the traditional Ukrainian wreath pictured on our movie poster. The history and symbolism of the vinok is complex – each flower and ribbon have unique meanings; wreaths were specific to age and region. Here, ribbons representing the earth, sun, sky, wisdom, and so on – connections to one’s Standing Place – are a part of what is taken along in your Heart when you are displaced. In essence, they are woven together by the members of the community to create a beautiful tapestry of life.
Nigrin: Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to our readers?
Silecky: I encourage anyone who is interested in more detail about how this project evolved and our experiences during filming to read through our Blog posts (https://kitsunetaleproductions.com/blog/) and feel free to send me comments and questions! As to truly memorable stories, I can only thank these inspiring people, who let me into their homes to move things around, set up lights, put a camera in their faces and pepper them with questions, for being willing to take the time and go through the emotional effort to share their stories with me and preserve them for future generations. Baba Babee Skazalais just a taste of the memories shared with us, a film to bring these stories to a broader audience than academic researchers. We completed about 35 interviews, and of course we couldn’t have 35 people in the film. Many of the memorable stories we couldn’t get into this film are just as compelling as the ones that are here, and we are hoping to find support to share these via a multimedia presentation in the future.
Here is the EBTV New Jersey Film Festival Video Interview I did with Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother Director Matej Silecky and Producer Julie Parker:
The great short film Eli will precede Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother. Here is more info on this screening:
Eli – Collin Gerard (Vancouver, Canada) A terrorist attack raises uncomfortable questions about immigration, identity and morality. When a group of disillusioned strangers encounter Eli, an elderly man, can the harrowing events from his past influence their future? 2018; 11 min.
Baba Babee Skazala: Grandmother Told Grandmother - Matej Silecky (Verona, New Jersey) A deeply moving documentary that brings to light the little-known story of Ukrainian children, who were torn from their homes, and their nation, when the Nazis invaded the territory of Ukraine and clashed with the Soviet army at the height of World War II. Spending their childhoods as refugees in Europe, these Ukrainians later immigrated to the United States, creating new homes and communities through their grit, faith, and enduring belief in the importance of preserving their culture. 2018; 70 min. With a Q+A Session by DirectorMatej Silecky and Producer Julie Parker! Co-sponsored by the Rutgers University Cinema Studies Program!
Sunday, October 7, 2018 at 7:00 p.m., Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University , 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey
$12=General; $10=Students+Seniors; $9=Rutgers Film Co-op Friends