Ukrainian Drama ‘Black Level’ Has No Dialogue, But Plenty of Emotion

“From the very beginning, this was a total experiment,” director Valentyn Vasyanovych told TheWrap

"Black Level" Q&A with director Valentyn Vasyanovych at the Landmark Theatre hosted by The Wrap.
"Black Level" Q&A with director Valentyn Vasyanovych at the Landmark Theatre hosted by The Wrap./Ted Soqui

In photography, the term “black level” refers to the darkest part of a visual image at which no light is emitted from the screen. For Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych and his film “Black Level,” the name speaks to the despair one feels in their darkest moments.

“For me this film is about loneliness, about losses and about responsibility for your parents, but also about how this responsibility hinders you sometime from moving forward,” Vasyanovych told TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman.

At TheWrap’s Awards and Foreign Screening Series at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles Thursday, Vasyanovych spoke via a translator about how “Black Level” evolved from a documentary with no screenplay or budget to Ukraine’s official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar race.

The film is about a 50-year-old photographer named Kostya who goes through a midlife crisis when his girlfriend leaves him and his father has a stroke. Vasyanovych cast Kostya’s real father in the film alongside a roster of other non-actors in order to capture the realism of the story.

“They don’t have that in their faces,” Vasyanovych told Kostya as they searched for actors who had convincingly struggled through an illness in the past. “Your father does have all of that written on his face. So it took half a year to persuade him.”

That wasn’t the only storytelling trick Vasyanovych employed for “Black Level.” Vasyanovych was the director of photography on “The Tribe,” an acclaimed Ukrainian film from 2014 that contained no dialogue or sound since it was set in a boarding school for deaf children. “Black Level” has people who can speak, but remain silent. Vasyanovych eliminated the film’s dialogue in order to explore how people communicate beyond words.

“From the very beginning, this was a total experiment, and I wanted to tell the story with moving pictures exclusively.” Vasyanovych said, speaking of a scene early in filming. “I liked what it was giving me, but I didn’t know if it will fit the film or if the film would come together. This film was sort of a gift to me.”