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Olma Djon—How Independent Cinema Can Help Us Reconnect With The Past

In the frozen countryside of Kazakhstan, a family is struggling with the barriers of communication. A little girl, Sholpan, is refusing to speak, whilst her father Bolot is desperate to find a way to bond with her. An estranged mother spends her days preparing food—the only way she seems to relate to her family.

The silence of the child, the desperate attempts of her father to establish a dialogue, the obsessive and repetitive sound of the mother chopping vegetables; Olma Djon is an ambitious independent feature film which is able to awake emotions by digging inside the human psyche in such a beautiful, poetic way.

If the whole film is a metaphor for communication barriers, other symbols and hidden meanings are spread throughout the narrative. 

Around the house where the family lives there is a garden where Shoplan often goes by herself, surrounded by the constant silence of the countryside and of her own mutism. One day a sound interrupts the quietness, the sound of the wind mixed with whispers and the mysterious ping of something moving on the other side of the fence. 

Shoplan spies behind the barricade, where her gaze catches a single apple tree blooming with fruit between the other withered trees surrounding it. The red of the only fruitful tree stands out against the white snow in a suggestive way. Behind it, the source of the sound that attracted Shoplan’s attention is revealed. A mystical figure is dancing in the middle of the field: it’s the village shaman. The sound of her bracelets and necklaces, hanging over the traditional clothes, is the calling of the ancestors, a message coming from the little girl’s origins, the voice of a whole tribe.

screenshot from Olma Djon

The hidden garden with the magical apple tree becomes the key to unlock the family’s communication, the hope for new bonds, made possible by acknowledging the past of the dead existing in the spirits of the living.

Thanks to her young age, Shoplan is free to hear the calling of the shaman and to get in touch with her in a painless way; her spirit is pure and open to the ancestors’ voice blowing in the shaman’s voice.

screenshot from Olma Djon

Bolot’s journey, who soon appears to be the real protagonist of the tale, is rather hurtful and unpleasant. In order to hear the message coming from the past and to establish communication with his daughter, Bolot’s soul has to become young again in the maternal arms of the shaman, who will force him to reconnect with his ancestors in a esoteric and arcane journey through his subconscious. 

Settled in the empty lands where countryside families live in isolation, the film is a wisely directed maze, which develops throughout the dreams and memories of an entire country. Where the communication is missing, obsessive repetitive noises take over and provide a soundtrack for the desolate lands, a background for a family that lost connections with its roots and needs to find them again. 

Through reconciliation with the past, Bolot finds a glimmer of hope and is able to finally communicate with his daughter.

Meet the director: Victoria Yakubova

Olma Djon, Uzbek for “love apple”, is the first feature film directed by Victoria Yakubova.

Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, Victoria was forced, at the age of 13, to leave her homeland and immigrate with her family to Israel.

During her Military Service in the Israeli Army, Victoria coordinated the graphic design department of the Army. In 2002, she finally left Israel to move to France and study film.

By quoting Alejandro Jodorowsky, Victoria stated:

my homeland is in my shoes

25 years since she first emigrated, Victoria found herself again in Uzbekistan, where the ideation of her first feature film started coming to life in her thoughts. Olma Djon is the result of her reconciliation with her homeland.

 “Olma Djon tells the story of finding our roots again. We are like trees, and if we want our branches to grow and give us fruit, we must go deeper to the earth and take care of our roots. Today I have many homes and that is why my home is in my shoes”, stated the director.

The film was produced by Victoria herself and her husband Hervé Schneid, also editor of the film (Europa, Alien Resurrection, Amélie), in collaboration with the Kazakh producer Arielle Assenova.

Interview with Victoria Yakubova and editor Hervé Schneid

I had a long talk with Victoria and Hervé, about the Olma Djon experience and the future of independent cinema.

Valeria: Victoria, Olma Djon is your first feature film. After many adventures, it brought you back to Kazakhstan, the neighbouring country of your homeland Uzbekistan. You stated that Olma Djon is the gift of your reconciliation with your roots. How did your origins influence the ideation of the script?

Victoria: I think people are always fascinated by their own roots. For me the surprising part is that just when I thought I lost my homeland for good, I returned there and found out I was not done with it. 

I realised that the western life didn’t really belong to me. Step by step, I was brought to myself again. This happened thanks to who I call my cinema father, Satybaldy Narymbetov. Hervé was the editor of the film he was making in Kazakhstan at that time, and I was supposed to be the interpreter. By surprise, Narymbetov ended up becoming a mentor for me, and helped me get back to my real essence. It felt like I needed an authorization to be myself again, and Narymbetov freed me from the chains that I was carrying around. For the first time after a long time I was clean, ready to tell stories in a pure way.

on the set of an independent production

Valeria: You quoted Alejandro Jodorowsky, “My homeland is in my shoes”. First your family was forced to emigrate to Israel. Then you decided to leave to achieve your dream of studying film in France. How has this relocation affected your filmmaking career?

For many years I felt I was a victim of this immigration. Later I had the chance to find out how lucky I have been. 

Victoria: In Israel they didn’t accept me in any film school. I was dreaming of becoming an actress but it was forbidden for me, and I was soon forced to go to the Army. There I suffered and felt in the wrong place for a long time, but eventually I got the chance to become a graphic designer during my Army service, that somehow transformed a bad experience into the chance of being creative.

Life is a strange thing. I had everything , I became a pretty good web designer in Israel, I was in love and happy, then one day everything ended up. Then from one day to another I found myself without work, and the next day my love life was over too.
I lost everything. After a week of crying , I understood that was the perfect time to rewrite my life. My biggest dream was studying Cinema in Paris. I was 25.

on the set of an independent production

The Yin and Yang of independent cinema production

Valeria: Olma Djon is produced by yourself, the Kazakh Arielle Assenova and your husband Hervé Shneid, also editor of the film. Hervé, you have been working as film editor for over 30 years (Amélie, Europa, Delicatessen), with many film directors (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Lars von Trier, Volker Schlöndorff, Pablo Larraín), but this was your first experience on the production side. Which challenges did you have to face, working on an independent production?

Hervé: A lot of challenges. Being a producer was something I had to get used to. Before I thought that producers were just people with a lot of money bossing around. Becoming one made me realize it is a real job, and a very difficult one. I learnt by trying.

Regarding this being an independent production, well, there is yin and yang in everything.

On one hand, an independent production faces a lot of issues and constraints; on the other, this gives you a lot of freedom. An incredible freedom.

In France, by law directors always have the final cut. But even given that, it often comes with a good amount of fights and stress. Being free to decide yourself can be an amazing feeling, even though it means you are the one having to make the tough choices.

For the making of Olma Djon we have been surrounded by passionate people, incredible people that we now consider family. We were lucky to find professionals that worked with us because they believed in the idea and supported it. 

Producers don’t easily put their trust and money into independent films, and when you get to produce your own, then the hardest challenge starts: distribution.

on the set of an independent production

Valeria: Where do you believe independent cinema has the best chances of finding distribution?

Hervé: In film history there are always eras of great films followed by lower periods. Then a new wave comes, with new technologies.

We can already see the value of alternative distributions channels: Netflix producing Scorsese, the new Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film I am working on is also produced by Netflix. These distribution channels have more freedom and can take higher risks, as they rely on subscriptions and have a secured income from those.

Being producer and editor at the same time

Valeria: Hervé, besides the challenges faced during production, how did you approach the editing of Olma Djon? Did your role as producer affect your role as editor?

Hervé: I always felt very free in the cutting room. I was able to be the editor and only that when editing the film. I never let the producer in. I guess I was the producer only when I needed to buy more hard drives to save the project, but when coming back to the editing room, I was back to being the editor one hundred percent.

I even tried not being too much around on set, as I believe the great thing about editing is having a fresh eye on the material. If you know how complicated it was to get that one shot done, you try to force it in at any cost, and that ties you to choices that are not always the ones that work the best.

The editor needs to have a new look at the material and help the director have a fresh look as well.

on the set of an independent production

The genesis of Olma Djon

Valeria: With a budget of only €50,000 you had to do all the filming in 9 days of set. Even though the time was limited and the weather conditions were severe (temperatures of -20℃ and mostly outdoors shooting), you managed to pull out a consistent storyline, yet give it a very authorial look and abstract meanings. Victoria, were you forced to make changes along the way, or had you already adapted the script and the shooting plan based on the circumstances?

Victoria: Every time I went to Kazakhstan , I felt inspired. Faces, smells, colours, energy, the people’s soul!
I was invited to Eurasia International Film Festival to talk about my friend and Israeli director and actress Ronit Elkabetz, who passed away in 2016.

I went there with a script for a short film. It was an Uzbek story about my grandmother’s marriage. There, my cinema mentor Satybaldy Narymbetov convinced me not to shoot that story.
I gave up easily , too easily , because I trusted my teacher. On the other hand, my friend Ermek Shinarbaev, a Kazakh director, was supporting the idea of me shooting what I had in mind.

Then I met the actor Aziz Beyshenaliev, Bolot in Olma Djon. He came to our place one evening when all my short film’s crew was there. When Hervé saw him, he told me “he is your hero”. I wasn’t so sure about it, but then I heard Aziz talking about his childhood in Uzbekistan, and in his voice I recognised my own stories.
You know, it’s all about an inspiration. Aziz inspired me, and I felt through him I could express all the emotions I wanted. From that short film’s script I then created Olma Djon; I owe so much to Aziz. He not only inspired me, but supported me all the way.

The film was supposed to be shot in the autumn, with a predominance of yellow and orange colours. The day before the first shooting there was a problem with the camera and we had to postpone the whole plan. The idea I had of the film could not be realised anymore. Therefore I decided to wait a bit longer and come back in the winter, when everything would be covered in snow. 

There are so many unforeseeable factors that can affect the shooting of a film;

a director has to be able to transform problems into chances. 

When I came home after 9 days of outdoor set in the freezing countryside of Kazakhstan I was sick one month with pneumonia, but I had my film.

How to separate marriage from work

Valeria: Victoria, how was working together with your husband, and Hervé, how was collaborating with your wife?

Victoria: I learnt how to separate the wife from the director. 

We would wake up in the same bed as every morning, have breakfast, follow our routine as a couple. I would leave our apartment a bit later than him, and arrive at the editing studio as director, leaving the wife home

Hervé: I discovered Vika in another light. I learned so much with her and discovered her as an amazing director. You get richer inside by editing a new project, you always learn something and become a better person. We did this together and it meant a very good path for our lives. 

Films are part of our lives; not only the result, but the whole process.

I am glad we went through the making of Olma Djon as we did.

Olma Djon’s festival journey continues

Olma Djon has been screened and awarded at many international film festivals—our very own Rome Independent Cinema Festival, as well as Williamsburg International Film & Music Competition, Festival of Kazakh Films in Paris, Rome Prisma Independent Film Awards, Torino Underground Cinefest and FestShortBerlin. 

We wish you all the best with the film’s journey, and with your future projects!

  1. When i saw the film at Rome Independent Cinema Festival I enjoyed it very much and I think
    the article perfectly makes meaning of the film, maturation of the idea and backstage work.
    Very interesting this article, also with regards the prospects of independent cinema

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