As Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, local filmmaker Olga Zhurzhenko fled Kyiv, where she had been working on an animated feature, and drove to Odessa to be closer to her family. She was growing worried as she was joined on the roads by her colleagues and other Ukranians leaving the capital city.
A member of the Producers Guild of America, Zhurzhenko was supervising a team of 13 working on an animated movie called “The Peasants,” made by the Polish studio Breakthru Films, which recently made the Oscar-nominated “Loving Vincent.”
Zhurzhenko has been supervising animators at the Kyiv-based studio for their latest project, which employs the same fully painted techniques seen in the 2017 Van Gogh animated biography. That work had to stop as a result of the invasion, she said. She said she was also developing another TV series and possible feature film.
The filmmaker had returned to her home country in 2018 after three years in Los Angeles, as Ukraine’s film industry began to blossom.
In recent years, Ukraine has developed as a hub largely for Eastern European filmmakers and has been a location for HBO’s series “Chernobyl” and Netflix’s “The Last Mercenary.” Tom Cruise even visited in 2019 at the invitation of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and scout locations for his next film.
The country bolstered its support for the film industry in 2020, offering a 25% to 30% cash rebate on feature films, documentaries and animated films as well as TV features , commercials and music videos.
As she traveled by car away from the capital city, Zhurzhenko spoke to The Times about her hopes for her work — and the uncertain future of her country.
Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Were you surprised to hear the news of the invasion?
I was surprised. I was ignoring the signals. I wasn’t reading the Twitter of Biden. I was so busy producing films and developing projects that I ignored the news.
How are you feeling at the moment? Are you worried?
I’m getting worried every time I hear some bad news, but generally I make my best [effort] to stay calm. Once I was able to get a hold of everyone I care about and saw how much support we get from all over the world, I felt better and less worried. I received calls and messages from as far as Australia and Chile and as close as Slovakia and Poland with offers of help and asylum, for which I’m intensely grateful. This keeps me calm.
My studio, which is where we’re producing an animation together with our Polish partners, it’s located in Kyiv. My family lives over 350 miles to the south, in the most southern city of Ukraine, in Odessa. I share my time between Kyiv and Odessa, and I happened to be in Kyiv this week and now I want to rejoin my family.
There is a huge movement of people all over. People are trying to leave Kyiv. The majority of my team, they’re all from other cities and they’re just trying to join their families.
What were you working on before the invasion?
We were contracted by a Polish company called Breakthru Films, the producers of “Loving Vincent.” They are producing a second feature in this animation technique called “The Peasants.” They have studios in Poland in Lithuania and in Serbia, and they contracted us. So we have 10 painters working for them in the Kyiv animation studio.
I am the producer of the Ukrainian studio, so I’m supervising the animators who are painting the shots and then animating them. We physically had to stop doing the animation right now because we cannot move our work online because we have physical canvases, physical paint, physical brushes, physical cameras that are shooting what painters are painting. So the painters went home to their families.
Our Polish partners are really great. They invited all of us to work in their Polish studio. So we will wait two or three days. If the [military action] becomes bigger, we will move out to the Polish studio.
What was the state of the film industry in Ukraine before this?
The state film agency was stably financing films for a number of years now. Of course, there were things that people were not happy about, me included. I wasn’t always happy about the selection. But, generally, the industry was really growing in a fast way because the state stabilized the financing of production and also last year they added the financing of development.
With the state incentives for foreign film production, has there been much demand from American companies to film in Ukraine?
Since the Ukraine introduced the cash rebate, there was quite a bit of interest, especially from some European productions. I received some requests from the U.S. as well. But it is a long process. We just introduced the rebate two years ago. So there hasn’t been many projects on my end, but I’ve heard of some being shot.
How has your work been affected by what’s happening?
You will be surprised, but it hasn’t been affecting my work. So this week was big because the state film agency has their deadline for applications for production financing, and yesterday I [submitted] three applications. Tomorrow is the deadline for development financing by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation. I emailed them and asked them, “Are you going to move the deadline because of the situation?” and they said, ‘No, we are business as usual. Please apply.”
What impact do you think this is going to have on film production over the long term in Ukraine?
I think it depends on how big this becomes and how long it is. If it is a couple of days and it’s over, then we will go back to normal and produce even more quality content because there will be even more financing, I think.
Right now, we are seeing the result of our country investing heavily into quality content. I think because there were so many films and series produced recently in Ukraine with patriotic thoughts, people are standing up right now and being really clear about what to do and how to do it.
How do you feel about the future of your country?
We are concerned because we read Newsweek and other English sources, where they say that it is possible that there is short time left. But at the same time, where I am in Odessa, the locals are really, really strong. Everyone who is able has actually already signed up for local defense. The mood is so strong that people are ready to fight and stay and stand as strong as possible. So we didn’t leave yet, we are still in the country, and we believe that our army will save us.