How ‘Crystal Swan’ Told an Edgy Story in a Repressive Country

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “My creative friends in [Belarus] were like, ‘Wow, I’m really amazed that they let you show the film,'” says director Darya Zhuk

A version of this story on “Crystal Swan” first appeared in the Foreign Language Issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

First-time director Darya Zhuk’s drama “Crystal Swan,” one of the sleepers in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, is set in the early 1990s and stars Alina Nasibullina as a young DJ desperate to get a visa and head to the United States. While it is not autobiographical, Zhuk did find herself waiting in many long lines when she secured student visas to study in the U.S.

The film is only the third Oscar submission ever from Belarus, and the first in 22 years. This interview is one in a series of conversations with directors of this year’s foreign Oscar contenders.

The lead character in this film is a combination of your experiences and…
DARYA ZHUK: And the experiences of my friends, yeah. I grew up in Minsk, and after the fall of the iron curtain in 1991, there was a push to get out. Like a lot of the countries from the Soviet Union, we were trying to adopt a democracy. In ’91, ’92, ’93, ’94, it looked like, Oh, wow, we will really do this. We will follow the Western rules!” And then it swung back, slowly but surely.

So then the floodgates were open, and we had a huge brain drain in the mid ’90s. A lot of my friends live all over America and Europe, so it seemed like a very relevant story to tell. And even now, the numbers are back up — the numbers of people emigrating is comparable to the early to mid ’90s.

Why did you decide to turn that experience into a film?
I just felt that these people didn’t have a voice. None of the films that have been made in Belarus were for me. They were not reflective of my experience or the experience of my friends. I had a conviction that an audience was hungry for younger, edgier, festival titles. What was being made in Belarus was films to support the government, to please one person.

What were the particular dangers of shooting in Belarus, which is now considered a repressive dictatorship by most international observers?
They let us do what we wanted to do, but it wasn’t without problems. The distributor did ask me to make certain adjustments just to make it a little more palatable. At one point they wanted us to take out the opening title that says the film takes place in 1996, and just say it takes place in the ’90s. Because the current president [Alexander Lukashenko] was in office in 1996, so it could be seen as criticizing him. But the film still says 1996.

And my producer said we had to wait until the very end of the shoot to do a scene where the lead character is in a bus and she looks out and sees a street protest. That was risky. Any time somebody tries to do a protest, even if it’s a sanctioned protest, a lot of people end up in jail. The last one of those was March 27, while I was shooting. This type of political free speech is not allowed.

I talked to some friends who are creative people who live in Minsk, and they were like, “Wow, I’m really amazed that they let you show the film.” And closer to the Oscar deadline, there was more stress. One producer wrote an open letter to the president saying, “You just submitted a very liberal picture, how could you have done it?”

The film has a lot of humor and a wonderfully light touch, but toward the end there’s a scene of sexual violence that changes the tone and casts everything in a darker light.
It’s like, that just could not not happen to this character in this particular circumstance. It’s such a common problem that in a way it also made the film for me. It is about this very individualistic character being taken down by her environment. You can have big dreams, but just because you want it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. There are so many forces that are working against you, and things you don’t control.

But in a final scene with her assailant’s younger brother, there is a glimmer of hope.
There is hope, absolutely. That was important to me. I do firmly believe that change is possible.

The fact that it’s a period piece puts a little buffer there and allows people to think, “Oh, it’s about the past.” But in fact it’s very much about the present.

To read more of TheWrap’s Foreign Language Issue, click here.