Interview by Natalie Hulla; posted by Dustin Jenkins
NH: Hi, how are you?
NK: Good. How are you?
NH: Pretty good. So, I remember when we had our orientation. I remember when we were going around and everybody was introducing themselves and the professors were sitting up front --
NK: Yes, it was very scary experience.
NH: Right? Everyone was having, like, a panic attack. But you had talked about what you were thinking of studying for your thesis and it was about LGBT cinema in film festivals in Russia. And the first thing one of the professors said was, ‘You’ve got a long way to go!’ So, was that daunting at all? Did you view it as a challenge the way that she viewed it as a challenge?
NK: To be honest with you, I don’t remember what I said. I remember saying something about working with an LGBT festival and strangely enough, Pearl remembered that I talked about it, so it was the thing that she remembered about me. But when I came to school, I wanted to concentrate on documentaries and their social impact. That was my essay -- that I wanted to study documentaries. But learning so many different films and film methods, I understood that I wanted to study immigration in fiction cinema. So, I decided to shift my focus.
NH: What films are you focusing on right now?
NK: It’s American-European cinema about immigration. For example, Babel and Dirty Pretty Things, Dirt, and other narratives that portray women in different service professions in contemporary environment.
NH: So, was there one film in particular or was there one scholar you were studying that shifted your focus? Was there one jumping off point where you realized, ‘this is what I’d like to study’?
NK: I took feminist film studies with Ofer, and that was my first independent study and I just had enough time to learn different feminist theories. In the end of the class, I decided to read Transnational Feminism in Film and Media. I read a couple of essays from the book and realized that’s what I wanted to know more about because these people are talking about immigration. They’re talking about different understanding of nationality and post-nationality, and how citizenship sometimes… people feel uncomfortable about leaving another country and being exposed to a different culture, or somehow their physical appearance is different from the country they live in. So, I thought that was an interesting issue, and being in another country and meeting different people and understanding how people see me -- because so many people ask me where I’m from and getting my answer, they say, ‘Well, you don’t look Russian.’ So, that difference between my appearance and how people see me, that was part of big ideas about immigration and mobility. Then I came to the idea that women travel differently. For a long time, women just didn’t travel, and this idea of a traveling woman was something very specific. So, I thought about women and spaces, women in different cultures, so that was my area of interest. I’m still in it and I’m very interested in different filmmakers and also -- I’m taking a specialized class in transnational theory and we watch films and at the same time we read fiction, so that’s been a very different experience from being in film school and learning about traveling, immigration, mobility and all those topics.
NH: Are you starting to find that politics are a theme in a lot of these films?
NK: I notice a theme that there was first a shift from male point of view to female point of view. That’s why I was interested in female mindsets, just because the number of films increased. And also, the second thing that I noticed was that these women are not victimized. They definitely can take care of themselves. For example, in Dirty Pretty Things, or in Belgian film, The Illegal, or Lorna’s Silence. These women survive and they somehow manage to take care of their lives, and at the same time, they don’t have a husband or a lover. Weirdly enough, most of the films that I looked at, these women have children. I thought, ‘Wow, they’re always mothers, so it’s very conservative.’ But then I thought it was more complicated because the filmmakers that portray women as mothers, I think they don’t want to say, ‘Well, women are somehow subjected with their motherhood,’ but they want more of women empowerment and show that women are capable and at the same time are mothers, which is more complicated, and I found these films very empowering and very important for feminist film studies, for example.
NH: Yeah, I’m a little familiar with Lorna’s Silence. That’s the Dardenne brothers, right?
NH: In our second-year productions class, Rafal invited two theater students to a directing studio to portray a scene in the film. The following week we went in and we, as students, we observed his directing style, and I was really fascinated by the story of the film. When Rafal was presenting it, he was explaining this really complicated idea of the extremes you have to go to within Europe to move to different countries and to set yourself up economically as a citizen. So, he explains the plot of Lorna’s Silence and we’re all completely dizzy afterward, and he said that the entire film is a commentary about citizenship in the European Union. Is that something -- how twisted that plot becomes -- is that something that you’re studying?
NK: Yeah. I was fascinated by Lorna’s Silence because in the very beginning of the movie she becomes a Belgian citizen. So, she’s not an undocumented immigrant and it’s a different narrative. But at the same time, the amount of hardships she goes through is a good example of how a woman who just learned the language, and she really wants to survive because she’s from Albania and she doesn’t want to go back -- she goes through different transformations because gradually she becomes involved in the life of her husband, even though it’s an arranged marriage and he’s a drug addict. First we see how she doesn’t want to touch him, but then there’s a very erotic scene that they go through and there is a two-shot in which they are together and then she becomes pregnant but she loses the baby, and in the end she’s in the wood cabin and she is alone and she thinks that she’s still pregnant, and that pregnancy was her kind of liberation in understanding that she has her life, even though she is involved in all this shady business and she has to be the wife of a Russian businessman and she doesn’t want to. She wants to keep her baby because it is her life, her individual life that she wants to preserve and she wants to keep the memory of this drug addict husband that was killed because of her. So, yeah, as you said, it’s a very complicated narrative and there are a lot of things going on there, but I think that in my thesis I want to say that you don’t have to portray these narratives as something marginal but these characters can tell a lot about life in America, for example, or life in European Union. Because the immigrants see it differently and they are in different nations, so their experiences help American society and European society [see] what is going on, but at the same time they are not just people who help to understand what’s going on in the nation but they become part of the community that is not limited to the national borders. We cannot really describe them in the terms of nationality because they are very mixed. They have hybrid or hyphenated identities -- you don’t really belong to your home country and for example, Lorna, she wants to become a Belgian citizen, but she speaks with an accent and she’s clearly an immigrant. So this society doesn’t really, I would say, accept her as a Belgian citizen or a European citizen. She’s still a marginal immigrant woman, although she would really like to become a European citizen.
NH: So, how does space play into that? You mentioned hybrid identities and it’s almost like you have your feet planted in two different places… Is that metaphorical feeling of location in relation to identity -- is that how you discuss space?
NK: Yeah, because in a lot of these films, the characters are portrayed in spaces like hotels, or for example, in Dirty Pretty Things it’s a hotel, or the airport and we don’t really see the wide shots of the city. The landscape is very different. Urban space is very different. In the film The Illegal, another Belgian film, it’s shot mostly in close-ups so we see the face but we don’t see the surroundings. Most of the time we see maybe the wall, so we are in a very closed space. And then the character becomes detained in the immigrant center and she knows that’s when she will be deported. She’s taken several times to the airport and they want to deport her, so she’s inside the car and she’s severely beaten by police agents -- or the people who take care of her deportation -- so the film really constructs this feeling of danger, of threat… Although it’s a European country, it’s not the images of Europe that we are used to. It’s a very threatening space. For example, in the film The Visitor, which is about immigrants in the United States, the characters say, ‘It’s worse than in Syria.’ But a lot of immigrants go to the United States or European Union because they want better jobs -- or sometimes it’s not a choice that they have. They have to go and make money, but there is this idea that you can find good life in America or Europe -- and a lot of people do and they get jobs and they are paid better -- but there’s still this feeling of unacceptance or different situations where immigrants feel out of place and at the same time there is longing for the country that they left, or memories of crossing… They all have different subjectivity, which is of course not American or not Mexican. Somewhere in between.
NH: I’m curious to know if there’s a feeling of optimism or a tone of optimism in the films.
NK: Yeah, that was another point of my argument. That these women, in the end, they manage to escape. For example, in Dirt, the character returns to the United States as an illegal immigrant. She makes this choice to go back even though she knows she’ll have a lot of troubles, she knows it’s better to return and work as a cleaning lady and to leave El Salvador. Or, in Dirty Pretty Things, she has a lot of troubles leaving England and she’s Turkish, and she dreams of New York. She really wants to go to New York. Finally, she does. In the end, we see her in the airport. But to go to New York, she has to get a passport and she is claiming to be Italian. You see how she’s denied of this Turkish identity because clearly, it might be easier to get to go to America with Italian passport and being represented as an Italian than Turkish.
NH: Dirty Pretty Things -- is that with Audrey Tatou?
NH: We studied that in one of my English classes a couple of years ago. How do you think some of these films would differ if they were male characters? Or, maybe not the films themselves, but the character’s journeys and stories -- how would they look? How do they compare and contrast to a female perspective?
NK: That’s a good question. I would say that… Yeah, that’s a very good question. Women that are portrayed as mothers, they have a very special bond with their children, and usually women survive because they need to take care of the children that they have in the new country. So they kind of sacrifice a lot to take care of, to protect, and to provide for them. So, yeah, I really need to think about it.
NH: I think it gets to some important insight into what motivates characters, or what motivates men and women at a fundamental level.
NK: Yeah, and also, women usually work in service jobs. They’re cleaning ladies, they’re babysitters. So, it’s more personal involvement in, for example, life of American families. We can see it in Spanglish when she becomes personally involved in the life of a new family… Women from developing countries, they are valued for their so-called ‘women skills,’ that they take care of seniors, they take care of children, they clean, so this labor really helped women in the developed countries to go and seek this outside help. Foreign women, I wouldn’t say ‘take place’ of the women taking care of their families, but they play very important roles in reproduction of society. They clean, they cook, they grow children. But they are denied of citizenship, and in many situations they’re marked as foreigners, as unclean people, or as child beaters -- like, ‘these foreign women just want to abuse the welfare system.’ But at the same time, the current economy wouldn’t survive without their labor. Sometimes they’re denied of citizenship.
NH: They’re integral to the process but they don’t get the recognition that they’re seeking.
NK: Yeah, because citizenship and nationality are things that are protected in both European countries and in America.
NH: I would imagine that if I were to view some of these films in the vein that you’re studying them, I would have an incredibly different perspective because I was born here as a U.S. citizen and I was raised here. I’ve never immigrated anywhere. I keep coming back to this, but I’m really interested in this idea of space. Just from your personal perspective, what’s your perspective of space here?
NK: My personal perspective or in my studies?
NH: Your personal perspective as an international student. What does space feel like here, when you’re out on Court Street or in Athens, I’m interested to hear your perspective.
NK: I remember that when I came here I felt very uncomfortable because I was surrounded by different people. Just everything was different. Before I came here, I traveled a lot. I had this feeling that I was in a new environment, but when I traveled it was always a short period of time, so you go and come back. But here, for about a semester, I had this feeling like I was on a permanent vacation. It took time for me to understand that in the next week, I don’t go back. So, first everything was new. When I came to Athens, I thought that it was big.
NK: Yeah, I couldn’t find buildings. I was looking for Baker Center for centuries because I didn’t know where it is. I would walk and walk and see different buildings, and it was all new. But now that I’ve been here for about a year and half, Athens became very familiar and I treat it more as home right now. I had to submit an application last week and I had to answer the question of my home address. First I had to submit my home address and then my current address, if they’re different. I thought, well, I don’t know what my home address is, because I only just left the place where I used to live, and now I live here and I don’t know where I will end up. So, that question took time to decide.
NH: The idea of ‘home’ is not necessarily physical. Is ‘home’ a notion that comes up a lot in the films that you’re studying?
NK: Yeah. The question of home. When women are discussed in gender studies, or even traditional terminology, women are connect to the home.
NH: It’s domestic. They’re always the keepers of the home.
NK: Right. So, when women migrate, they have to leave home and they usually end up in an apartment and they don’t have their space. I think that there is this break that happens. They left their families or their children behind. For example, in Babel, she leaves her children in order to provide for her family. So, they break this connection between women and home, but at the same time, they have to take care of their families, and that’s one of the new things that can help us rethink womanhood. These women are still very conceptualized in the terms of domestic labor, but at the same time they can’t really take care of their own homes because they rent an apartment. So, this feeling of home is complicated for them.
NH: It’s incredibly complex. Again, it’s like you have your feet planted in two different camps.
NK: Right. And sometimes they refuse to identify with the country they’re from. For example, Lorna doesn’t want to go to Albania. She says, ‘I don’t want to be like my mother.’ It means she wants to break connection with her country of origin. Or when the son of the Russian character says in The Illegal, ‘Why we cannot just go home?’ She says, we can’t go home. We’ve spent so many years constructing this new life in the host country, that just to go home, it’s not an option. Not because of legal obstacles that exist -- like war, or some other reasons -- they just don’t want to because they have a life in the new country. So they say that they cannot just go back. They already lost this connection with the country of origin.
NH: You had mentioned watching a lot of political cinema. What do you think drove you to be so engaged in political cinema?
NK: When I was studying philosophy in my university back home, I was curious about what was happening around me. I was really curious because I just left a school and I was like, ‘What’s happening there? What can I do?’ I saw a small announcement about a film club and I came there and the people there were very smart and at the same time very political. They used films to engage audience and to show a different kind of cinema. Not entertaining cinema, but cinema that provoked thought. This club shifted from art cinema, because first they showed Kubrick and they shifted to very, very political films. Discussions were around immigration and unemployment and youth unemployment, because we had a lot of students there, and university politics. The people that made this club, they really wanted to help students to understand that they have the right to demand their rights. Then, I think I was in the third year of my studies, and the people who took care of the club graduated, and the curator graduated. Then I took care of the club and created a film program, and I carried this political agenda of encouraging people to make a stand and say what you want, or just to think about what was happening. We showed films about economics, and If a Tree Falls -- it’s about eco-terrorists -- we showed Salvador -- it was about anti-fascist activists in Spain who resisted the Franco regime. Some other films that we thought we can create an audience that would be interested and would always be interested… We wanted to make a platform for students to come and discuss. We felt that in the university, everything is organized by the officials of the university, but there were a few initiatives where they confided in the students. We wanted to make a safe environment for students to come and discuss political things because it was really important to have a place where you could really say what you think…
NK: But then I had a lot of problems with it. The political situation changed really fast. We really noticed how showing independent films -- for example, films about anti-fascist cultures -- we could openly show this film and a lot of people came but then two years later, we decided to screen, Land -- it’s a French film about the youth that was kind of trying to understand what we can do -- the screening was the far-right activists who came. Actually, I don’t even think they were activists, they were just thugs. They came and they decided to kick the shit out of us.
NH: Oh, god. That’s terrifying.
NK: We had to stop the screening after twenty minutes, and then the university didn’t want us to continue the club. They wanted us to take a break for about a year. I was in my fifth year, so I didn’t want to have a lot of problems with it. Another time, I was screening a documentary about the ecological, environmental problems in the village where one of the oil companies operated. This oil company called the university and they said that this screening should not happen, and I went to the head of the university to talk to him about why we are screening this and they said, ‘Well, the university has a really deep connection with this oil company.’
NK: ‘You shouldn’t do this. You have to think about what you’re doing.’ And now, I wouldn’t do the screening because -- I’m in a different situation now, so at that time I saw the problem and wanted to show the film. I wanted people to talk about it, and I think that I didn’t think about the results or the complications of my screenings, or what kind of results it can provoke. After that, we finally had the screening but people from the oil company came and they wanted to participate in discussion and explain what happened in the village. So, finally, that screening had a lot of people because students knew about the situation and they came and wanted to see what happened, to see this discussion. In the end, it was all, I guess, good for us. We learned a lot. I learned a lot, personally, from all these weird situations. I learned that yeah, I can make change with films but at the same time if you want to -- you know when you show something and it provokes negative reaction, you know that you’ve touched a nerve. Then I got involved in the LGBT festival and had two screenings for them, and I was part of the LGBT group at that time. It was more difficult because we had to think about safety a lot, how not to provoke people we don’t want to come. Again, I learned a lot about how film screening -- which is ridiculous -- can make a lot of people feel very negatively about you personally, about people you collaborate with, even if they don’t know you. Several local newspapers wrote about the screenings and they didn’t really go into details, but the comments that were under this publication were, ‘Oh, they’re perverts coming into our town, we need to stop them!’ I don’t really read comments but sometimes you see how all this… You think, ‘Oh, I’ll just make a screening,’ but sometimes you make much more than a screening.
NH: Was it online? The comments? People are pretty uninhibited online. They tend not to hold back and it’s very eye-opening, reading the comment section of any political article or event in general… But that really calls into question the power of film, this exchange of ideas. This idea that an institution was going to try and shut down a film screening.
NH: From my perspective, I can’t imagine that happening. Clearly, it happens.
NK: During my studies at Ohio University -- for example, I went to the screening about ACT UP activists at the Athena theater. A lot of undergrads were there and university professors made it. I cannot imagine this situation happening in Russia. It’s just out of the other world. It’s a completely different situation. I was happy that it was happening and it gives me hope that it will someday be possible.