Polish filmmaker Hanna Polak was unable to turn away from the homeless children she found living in and around Moscow. Her Oscar-nominated short film Children of Leningradsky (T/F 2005) explores the culture of children living in and around that city’s major railway station. But this impressive and moving work would prove to be just the beginning of her involvement with these stories. Over the course of 14 years, Polak followed Yula, a homeless girl living in Europe largest garbage dump, just outside of Moscow. In the resulting Something Better to Come (T/F 2015) we follow Yula from ages 10 to 24, as she confronts both adolescence and a daily struggle for survival while dreaming of a better life.
This bracing yet profoundly optimistic work is playing right now at Cinema Village in NYC. Last week I got the chance to speak with Polak via Skype about how this extraordinary film came to be.
True/False: Hi Hanna! Could you start by talking about how this project got started and what it looked like to you at the beginning? I assume you didn’t go into this expecting to film for 14 years.
Hanna Polak: At first, I didn’t really mean to film at all. I met homeless children on the streets of Moscow, and I was completely hooked. It was something really outside of my comprehension. I had met runaways, but not children who had really no one taking responsibility for them, no orphanages, police, parents. I could really not even understand the situation, kids living on the streets in big groups on their own, some of them as young as 4. This was the first time I directly came across a situation like this and of course I was deeply moved. A small group of children introduced me to a big group of children at the railway station. Along with some friends, I brought them some food and eventually started organizing some classes. Ultimately we made the short film Children of Leningradsky to try to help the children in this situation, living in this railway station.
We also filmed at the garbage dump, and we knew right away that these were two different films, and we had to make a decision. It was a different group of children there and they had a different group of problems. The children who lived in the garbage dump were mainly from the provinces. They were much simpler, there was much less crime, and sniffing glue and those sorts of things. So we didn’t end up filming as much at the dump while we finished the first film.
T/F: How did you first introduce the camera to the people living at the dump?
HP: In the beginning when I came I didn’t have a camera with me. It took me a few months to know I even wanted to shoot a film. I started to shoot still photographs at the garbage dump. I had to use a very small camera because of course being at the garbage dump was illegal, so what would they say about shooting?
T/F: One of the really fascinating things to me about this film is how you can see the contradiction in the children, how in some moments they behave like normal kids, while their situation has forced them to take on adult responsibilities.
HP: It is interesting because I felt many times the children are stronger than the adults. We see it of course with how Yula helps her mother, but I have seen it many times. They are small kids but in a way they are really adults. I think maybe this is why I found it so easy to have a relationship with them. With these kids you can talk as equals in many regards. This equality was something that was very quickly building a bridge.
We would organize drawing contests, and you would see those children would immediately become children again, drawing with great attention. In these moments they forget about being adults. Of course, there were other moments where they would have to show their strength. They would try to be very cynical on the outside, they don’t care, they don’t need anything.
Then there were moments of weakness where they would want you to adopt them. It was a very difficult situation for me. I would always explain to them, “you are very dear to me, I’m trying to do things as a friend. But you have to understand that I’m not from this country, I have no legal possibility of adopting you, but I will try to put you on your feet.” I knew how much they needed someone in their life who would act like a parent, and in moments like these you can really see that the kids are kids. But a moment later they would drink, they would smoke, they would organize a place to stay, they would have to protect themselves and live in the very cruel world of crime and prostitution.
T/F: When you are making a film over this stretch of time, you are of course evolving as a filmmaker too. Was it hard to keep the film consistent stylistically?
HP: I think the most difficult part of this film was really the editing. Of course, I was developing as a filmmaker during those years and the shooting conditions were always different and very difficult. It’s not like to take a tripod and a camera and film whatever you want. You have to sneak in and out, sometimes run away, sometimes protect the material, sometimes even use a hidden camera.
Of course, I can see how I developed as a filmmaker very much over the project. I could see early when I was talking to people, since I was so concerned about the suffering of the people, I would ask them about that, but what I found eventually is that it was better to ask people about the beautiful moments, because we see so much suffering and bleakness already. So it was always better when people talked about the beautiful parts of life.
T/F: Yeah, it was really striking how you captured a sense of communal life, a life filled with music and animals, lived in such dire circumstances.
HP: Yeah, I liked go there for these moments, for this atmosphere, for this sharing when they would open their hearts for each other. Sometimes life is more simple at places like this, because people don’t complicate it. This feeling of sharing and building a community is their only chance to survive, but it is something that often we miss in our regular life. So yeah, I felt this contradiction, you go into the middle of this darkness and then experience this incredible friendship-love-care-humor-simplicity-acceptance. All of this was totally striking for me, and this is what I really wanted to make the film about, that humanity is endless. Even in the worst places people take care of what they look like, using make-up. They love music. The people are so talented and so amazing and so philosophical and so warm.
T/F: So the hardest part was the editing?
HP: Yes, the most difficult part was really in the editing when we had to make a story. What I didn’t know was how difficult it was telling a time-lapse story. I went to a master class with people like Michael Apted and Czech filmmaker Helena Trestikova, who often works on long term projects. I also spoke with Katja Wildermuth about her experience of working on Sergey Miroshnichenko’s Russian version of the 7-Up series. All these people had the experience of working on a time-lapse story.
It’s really hard. If you make it chronological, it becomes boring, if you break chronology, then you make people really confused. We are dealing with a situation in which, in one and a half hours, more or less, you have to tell 14 years. You have bits and pieces of someone’s life. There are always some things missing that you’d like to have.
So with all this material I have in my bin, I was overwhelmed for a long time. I had worked on other films and made other stories, and I know editing is always very challenging, but this material was absolutely overwhelming. When I tried to work with an editor who didn’t speak Russian, it took me over a month to translate just the basic materials, working day and night.
I tried to construct this universe of Yula, not to make a film on her alone, but to show this place where she lived and the people around her.
T/F: So of course, we can follow the passage of time in the film through Yula’s face, but did you think it was important to provide the audience with more markers of time?
HP: Yeah, of course. Yula was changing so much, she changes the color of her hair and at times she’s almost not recognizable, so it’s a huge challenge. For the passage of time I use radio and a bit of historical events that were happening in Russia. I didn’t want to be political about it really, but I wanted to place this story in Russia and I wanted it to feel like time is passing. She is changing, but of course the world is changing around them to. Sometimes its subtle things, like a clock ticking. You see people celebrating a new year, and another time it is summer, all of this builds. In this kind of film it is very important to give these small touches of time.
T/F: Without giving too much away, we do see that there was something better to come for Yula, but her situation at the end of the film is still far from perfect. If anyone wants to help Yula now, or children currently living in her former situation, what’s the best way?
HP: The best way is the Norway based charity Active Child Care. You can send them money via PayPal and contact them if you want to donate specifically for Yula.