Interview with Hanna Polak, Director and Producer of Something Better to Come
Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Editing and Posting by Sabrina Hirsch
Your documentary Something Better to Come follows Yula, a Russian girl living in a Moscow garbage dump during a 14-year period. What made you decide to tell this story?
I met the homeless children in Russia in 1999 and I was so shocked. The very existence of homeless children on the streets of Moscow. This was something that completely changed the course of my life. I went back to the railway station in the evening because I met those children during the day and I was told there would be many children in the evening. I went back, I brought some food and some clothes, but I wasn’t expecting that I would see such a massive amount of children living on their own. Children with nobody basically, with no adults. Just struggling to survive on the streets, being really vulnerable, of course, victims of different criminal offenders and mafia, sniffing glue. This was a total moment of change in my life because I knew I’d be unable to live if I didn’t do something about it.
I started to go back to that street, I started to help the children. I organized a group of friends who started to help me. Together we tried to motivate the children to enter some orphanages. We would take them to hospitals. We would bring food, clothes, and medical assistance. We had a psychologist working with us. At the beginning I used my own money, but I started to look for organizations that would like to do something for the children. We had the International Women’s Club in Moscow involved in collecting clothes and basic first aid things. Also the Anglo American School and the American Embassy, and this way the information spread. Of course it was very slow – it was just a group of volunteers.
The children from the streets of Moscow took me to the garbage dump to show me that there was another group of people, including children living there. They showed me how to enter this place without being noticed. You have to illegally get in through the fence or on a garbage truck, and you have to move very carefully because there is a lot of security: people with walkie-talkies and so on. So this is how it started. I was the only person who would come to the garbage dump. There were no organizations there. On the streets you could still see the Salvation Army or other groups of people. Very few. There was almost no one working with the children, but there were some people who would do some activities with them. Doctors Without Borders would reach out to the group of homeless people in Moscow. It was on a very small scale but it did exist, and at that time at the garbage dump there was literally no one.
First of all, no one knew that a place like this existed. Then, when I approached organizations to go there, they said, “We have so much work in Moscow.” It was also difficult because it wouldn’t be sanctioned. Everything would be illegal, so basically I was the only person who, over those years, would try to enter in these illegal ways. What I saw there shocked me because people were living in completely primeval conditions, not even having water. In winter they would collect snow, or they would go and dig a hole to find this dirty water, which you can see in the film, which comes from this huge mountain of trash that is poisoned with all these chemicals. Then, of course, when the winter comes, it’s minus 30-degrees Celsius.
Being there I started to think of different ways I could help these people. Besides direct help, could I do something that would bring the attention of policymakers, of the government? Because I had been acting in theater and taking photographs I thought maybe the best way would be to make a film, to start shooting footage of the way of life of these people and the children. So, I started to collect footage.
Your Academy-Award nominated documentary The Children of Leningradsky also tackles the topic of impoverished children living in Russia. In which way did your approach to that story evolve from one film to the other?
I was shooting the footage for both films simultaneously in those two different places and I very quickly realized that those two stories, those two groups of people are very different. Both films portray homelessness, but the children who were living on the streets of Moscow were very different. They were city kids. They were sniffing glue. There was a lot of crime going on. Pedophiles exploiting the children, drug mafia having the children work for them. It was a different group with different problems. The garbage dump children basically came from villages, the countryside. They were simpler. They had a completely different environment. They were enclosed and they didn’t wander around the streets of Moscow begging. They didn’t have this kind of nightlife that the street children had.
When I tried to edit the film I immediately recognized that the two experiences didn’t match; the garbage dump had to be a separate story. I concentrated on The Children of Leningradsky first. Then when I finished the film it was very successful. As you said, it was Oscar nominated, but it also got two Emmy nominations. It got awards all over the world. It was screened at different film festivals and in the European Parliament. I was also going around the world and advocating for the children. I was in Zimbabwe and in South Africa, I was in India, I was in Mexico, I was in many countries in Europe. I cooperated with a Polish charity organization that helps underage drug addicts and together we developed some programs. They even received money from the European Commission for a pilot program for underage drug addicts in Russia, so there were a lot of activities going on in my life around the subject, another reason why I could not only work on Something Better.
I did not come to the street or the garbage dump just to shoot. I would come always with help, so I would bring medicine, I’d take people to hospitals. Whatever I could do, I would be doing. Often times, I’d come and I had the camera, but the situation would turn around and I wouldn’t take out the camera because they needed my help in some way.
You directed, produced, wrote, filmed, and edited Something Better. What is your process for being involved in various key aspects of crafting a film and what advice do you have to filmmakers hoping to also play multiple roles in their own projects?
The process is a lot easier if you can have a team of people to work with from the beginning. However, I have to say that with this subject matter and this scale of difficulty, it’s almost impossible. I started to film at a place where I would never get permission to even enter, not to mention film. So because the film was a long-term project, I didn’t have a crew. I tried to look for cinematographers, people who would be partners during this process. A few of my friends contributed for a very short time, even for a day. This is why there are quite a few names for additional cinematography, but I had to film most of this material by myself.
In the process of filming I went to the Moscow Film School to become a cinematographer and learn what to do with the camera. I was forced to do this because I had no funding. No one would give me funding for a film like this. Some of the television stations I approached with the project—quite a few of them, actually—would tell me, “Oh, the stories about people like this have already been told. We are not interested.” This was the general answer and it left me in a situation where I knew I would not get a cameraperson or the equipment. Concerning the filming at the dump, I couldn’t get what I wanted or wished to get. I could not bring the tripod because it was too dangerous. I didn’t have a sound crew, so from the beginning I tried to make-do the best I could with the sounds I could record myself: a shotgun on the camera and an omni-directional mic as well. Then I had to have my own lighting equipment because, of course, at the garbage dump there was no light. I had to film all of this and do it illegally. I’d sneak in and out and bring the smallest equipment possible. I did work with a very good friend, Piotr Rejmer, who is the post-production person of all my films and very good technically, so he advised me on some of the pieces of equipment available at the time.
I also tried to take people with me for my protection, but these were people who had no idea how to film. Sometimes I would give them the second small camera, but often there was nothing I could use from that. In a few cases I used some of it. For a while, my Polish friend, Mariusz Margas, shot with me and that was very helpful.
We’re also talking about the situation 15 years ago. The equipment now is much more accessible. You can have a cheap camera now, but when I was filming it was much more difficult. Fortunately there started to be mini DV and DV Cams, which I was using. Then of course there was HD, but the first HD cameras cost around $100,000, so it was impossible to rent or buy them for an independent production. The first camera I bought was too big, so I got a smaller one. At the Moscow Film School I was able to study under really great masters of cinematography so I was in good hands concerning my own education and that inspiration I could get from them. I was a student of Vadim Yusov, the DOP of Andrei Tarkovsky.
For Children of Leningradsky, I was the director and sat next to the editors as they worked. For Something Better I had no crew or funding for a long time, so life was forcing me to do many things alone. I tried to find an editor with the little money that I could raise myself. I got some people but they would only come for a short time, so then again it forced me to do the editing myself. Later on in the process I met with this great Polish editor, Marcin Kot Bastkowski,
While I worked on the project I applied for a lot of grants. I was a finalist for the McCarthy Foundation. I was a finalist for Tribeca twice. I was a finalist for Chicken & Egg. I was a finalist for many different grants, but I never got the money. In the end we got Chicken & Egg funding, but that was in the second round. I was the one sitting and writing all these applications and making pre-cuts and trailers for the grant organizations to view.
It was a very difficult process because with a huge film like this you really need time and you really need partners to create the story. When I started to apply for grants it was kind of premature. I didn’t yet have the narrative arc. I was basically sifting through the footage and getting some of the scenes out. I worked with various editors, including Steven Okazaki. These were short encounters, but they were very inspirational. I also knew Albert Maysles very well. He was a great friend of mine and had helped me on my previous film. Some of those things still resonate for this project.
Eventually I met Jan Rofekamp from Films Transit. He has a great heart and he’s very kind; he partnered with the project in 2012. Then I met Sigrid Dyekjaer from Danish Documentary Production and she became a co-producer of the film. It started to get easier because finally I had a partner. Then I met with HBO Europe and it was a great combination. Hanka Kastelicova and Iza Lopuch from HBO would come to the editing room in the later stages. Also Mette Hoffman Meyer from DR TV was a great supporter of the project for a long time. It was kind of like a snowball. In the end, I finally got this really professional and fantastic crew in Denmark, Europe, and the U.S. I worked with Lars von Trier’s sound people, Kristian Eidnes, and Brian Dyrby, on the sound. We also received fantastic support from the Polish and Danish Film Institutes and got other broadcasters on the board. It’s amazing how the project grew.
As I was watching Yula’s extraordinary journey on screen, I wondered whether you’d always known you wanted to make the film about her or if she became the protagonist for you as the story evolved.
Very quickly after I met Yula at the garbage dump we connected. We had not been in touch for maybe a month and she wrote me this message, “Did you forget about me? How are you, my dear friend?”. I had a close relationship with her from the beginning. She was very small but she was very brave. She was very intelligent and she was very stubborn. I was helping many children and people, and she was one of them. She was not the only person who I tried to motivate and deliver to whatever was needed: clothes, medicine.
At the same time, I already had children staying in my apartment. Many children who were from the streets of Moscow, so there was no room to bring more people. Yula would never come because she was living with her mother at the garbage dump, and so she wouldn’t leave her mother behind. I didn’t have the money to rent a bigger place or to help more. I was wondering what I could do for them when I came up with this idea of following Yula’s life, and following the people of the garbage dump. I wanted to make the film about the community, about the whole group of people, but Yula was the most outstanding character for me.
It was very difficult to shoot at the garbage dump. There were no mobile phones at the time. Oftentimes Yula would be gone when I came. The garbage gets moved and the people move too, so I often lost Yula. To me she is an example – she is someone who portrays the life of the homeless living at the garbage dump. I had other amazing characters I also put in the story, and I had a lot more footage of them, but I had to cut their stories down. Still, though, they had to be there. Without them Yula’s story would not be complete, because they were reflecting her life. They show different aspects of her future, her past, and her present. So basically it was very important for me to put those two together.
Something Better To Come is a film about Yula, about her growing up in this environment, and it was very important for me to make it an observational story. Nowadays we see so many things that rely on voiceover to explain the story. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to make it very easy for viewers to go through this experience. I understand that in the beginning the film may be very difficult, because you get into this environment and you’re not really guided. You’re kind of put into the garbage dump and you have to see what that life looks like. It’s kind of like a cinema verité film. I wanted people to grow up with Yula and to feel what it was like and experience her reality.
During parts of the film, you seemed to be in danger of being hurt by both inhabitants and authorities at the dump. Can you talk about that experience and how you handled it?
The garbage dump is surrounded by a fence. It’s protected by the police so no one can come inside. It becomes a lawless situation within the fence of the garbage dump. Different things would happen. Women would get raped. And, of course, the heavy machinery is always in operation. People are very often buried in trash. It can happen at night when they are sleeping in their small huts, which they build not far from the garbage, where they collect recycling materials. Sometimes, those driving the bulldozers can’t see the people within the massive amounts of trash, and some of the drivers are not careful and don’t care. These accidents are rampant – they basically happen all the time.
The people are there without permission so they cannot call the ambulance. They can’t bring the attention of the outside world—journalists, medical assistants, the external police – to their home. They have nowhere else to go, so they put up with it. This creates a situation in which there are different criminal activities. The mafia controls the recycling centers, the places where the people come and sell the recycling materials they collect. They sell it for pennies. In the city they’d get more money for it, so there’s a big business going on. Yet another reason why no one like me, someone with a camera, is welcome. These people are paid with vodka, as you can see in the film. And this vodka, it’s too cheap to be considered real vodka – people die like flies after drinking it.
For these reasons I was always in danger when I entered the garbage dump. I was in danger from the heavy machinery. When I film I can be looking through the viewfinder and simply would not see the bulldozer approaching from the side or from behind, and it happened that I was almost run over by these machines. And then there are toxic gasses, which come from underground because everything is rotten and releases gasses, and then you breathe them. There are also hundreds of wild dogs. Sometimes the federal police would come and shoot them because they’d become too dangerous, even for the workers of the garbage dump. Of course there are nice people, many of whom are portrayed in the film, but not everyone there is a nice person, so you can be in danger from these people. And you know, the very nature of the place is such that if you get killed, you disappear in the garbage. This garbage dump has existed since 1964, so it’s a huge mountain of trash. No one would ever find you.
You’re vulnerable, you have your equipment, you’re with a camera, you’re not welcome, you’re a woman, there are feral dogs, there is toxic waste from hospitals, industrial waste. The garbage dump is also a huge mountain, and I could not get to the top of the garbage mountain the legal way, so I would approach it from the side.
It’s 14-15-storeys high and you have to get to the top of it to reach where the people live. In the fall and in the spring it’s completely muddy and you slide. It’s a horror to get up. And then in the wintertime it becomes icy. It was always like climbing the Himalayas.
And then you had your equipment, too. Right?
With the equipment too. I would wear a jacket because of the winter and I’d be sweating from the effort. It’s hard to imagine the endeavors that were put into making the film. People see it comfortably in the cinema. They may like something. They may not like something. But in fact, there was a tremendous effort put into it.
One of the most engaging aspects of the film for me is how your camera found such beauty in the dump and showed us the profound ingenuity and resilience of its inhabitants. What was your approach to filming Something Better and portraying these people’s stories?
I was interested in the poetry of the people- their kindness, their resilience, their hopes and dreams. This was my angle, one that I wanted to explore, so I knew that I had to dig into the footage and look for the narrative. I wanted to tell the story of this community.
You filmed for 14 years and no doubt had a wealth of footage from which to craft the film. What was your editing process like and what advice do you have for filmmakers also telling stories that follow subjects over a long period of time?
When it came to editing I could have made another film like Children of Leningradsky, but I didn’t want to. I already had done a film about homeless children. Also the times changed, I released Children of Leningradsky in 2004. Now the world is much more troubled and in many ways, so I was thinking that I wanted to tell a different story. I was looking at how to shape the story. The garbage dump is in the background, but I decided to make this film about coming of age, about “growing up” in the sense of becoming a mature person, a person who is deciding about her own life. I wanted to make an uplifting story about the choices you can make. And of course, Yula’s life has also shaped the film this way since I followed and documented it.
The editing is a very important part of a film and a very creative process. In the case of working on a documentary it’s absolutely challenging, especially on such a long-term documentary, when you have so much footage, when you have a number of characters you’re following, when you basically don’t have a real picture because this is not a documentary in which you can really estimate what exactly you’re getting and how you will put it together. Then there is the challenge of filming in a forbidden place, so you’d like to get this footage or that footage, but you simply are unable to do so. I knew that I had to edit it because I was the one who understood the people, I knew what kind of story and what kind of feeling I wanted to get.
It is a 94-minute film, which has to have a consistent narrative and story. You’re dealing with 14 years of footage, which you need to edit in chronological order, as Yula grows up, changes, and is going though different stages of her life. This kind of time-lapse story is really difficult for editing and very, very rare. Time itself plays a big role as a protagonist when somebody is changing like that. It’s like Boyhood, but Boyhood was planned. It was filmed with the idea from the beginning. They had scripted it. It’s simply a different film. They had time to prepare, they had money, they had some crew, and they had actors doing it. Here you have a total unknown, that you try to navigate, wondering what life will bring and what you would be able to capture on the film. It’s a completely different level of difficulty. In real life people change or die or disappear, and you have to deal with all of this in the editing. Of course you cannot know that Yula would not be the one to disappear, or the one to tell you, “I don’t want you to film me anymore.” All of these things were big question marks. In 2010 I decided I was going to edit the film because I had this massive amount of footage. I soon realized how difficult this film was to edit, and I went to meet Czech filmmaker Helena Trestikova, who has chronicled people’s lives for many, many years. She made Katka. I met Michael Apted and talked with him. He made the 7 Up series. I met with the people behind the Russian 7 Up series of Sergei Miroshnichenko. I met with all these people because I was looking for inspiration, for some understanding of how they’ve done it themselves.
My guess is that the Russian government is not too keen on what is portrayed on your film. What has been the reaction to Something Better there and do you think there will be any repercussions for Yula and her family and/or for you?
It is not a highly political film. Of course it portrays some downsides of the country, of the situation, but I made this to inspire people to change something and I’m really hoping that people will understand that. I think in the Russian government there are people who understand the situation and are working to better the country. Putin has addressed the subject of children on the streets of Moscow, and some new orphanages were built a couple years ago. Children started to be swept off the streets. You don’t see huge amounts of children on the streets of Moscow today, so I do think that bringing attention to the subject can change it for the better, and I have this good faith that it won’t be perceived as an attack on the country.
In the end these homeless people are very beautiful and kind, and as we can see in the film, some are very talented. I’d rather people see that aspect instead of taking offense over me making the film.. We know that people like this exist everywhere. They exist in the United States. There are homeless people everywhere, but I wanted this dump to be placed in time and space, so I used political and historical references. I was looking for moment in the history of Russia of the past 15 years that people could relate to. By chance, when I started this film in 2000, Vladimir Putin became president, so the film is actually 15 years of him ruling the country. I feel this is a portrait of a part of Russia. The time plays it’s role in the film like this. So these historical references, like Vladimir Putin’s election, and other events, are important to mark the flow of time.
I’m hoping that the authorities will look into improving the situation of the people, not hassling them. Yula’s is an inspirational story – she is a hero. Her maturing to the point of taking her life in her own hands is a universal story. She didn’t wait for her life to change by itself. She started at some point to work on the change, and she got what she wanted. I think that she should be rewarded, not in any way persecuted or hassled. For the years lost of her childhood in the garbage dump she should be rewarded, so if anybody wants to hurt her, it would be a truly inhumane behavior. I have great hope that there will be people who will want to help her. She doesn’t have skills. She still needs more support in her life.
What is Yula doing these days?
She has very simple jobs. She was cutting metal for a while.
Yeah, we see that in the film.
Cutting metal is a seasonal job, one she only does in the Summer. She’s been working at stores in a packing position – it is something very low-paid and very simple because she doesn’t have skills. She’s regretting that she never attended school. She cannot move up in the professional hierarchy. This is one thing that I would like to do for her. I would like to collect some funds and hopefully make it possible for her to attend some professional courses, maybe start a small business for herself. This is something that we’re still looking into for the future, so that something better will be coming for her in terms of what she can achieve on her own. She talked to me about some instances when she was working and she wasn’t paid because people would cheat her at work. She was left with an apartment, with rent, with a child who needs food, and no money. It’s not an easy life when you have low skills.
Well, let’s talk about money. You’re currently launching a Kickstarter campaign for the film. Can you tell us about it?
What we’re trying to do right now is have screenings in the United States to bring the film to American audiences and to film critics, to the attention of the Academy members. The film has already won 23 awards. I’m also getting fantastic feedback from the audience. They love the film. One of the top professionals in Hollywood reached out and said, “I love the film. I’m in the fiction film industry but I just want you to know that I love the film.” I want to bring the film to the audience here in the United States. I also have a mission attached to it because I want people to be inspired by Yula’s story in their own lives. I think that what is unique about Yula is what she has done. She can inspire people to try hard, to get out of addiction, to free themselves. Even in the worst situation of your life you should not lose hope, you should fight for something better.
I want this film to get people to discuss homelessness, and for the issue to be taken care of. It’s not only about homeless children in Russia but it’s about homeless children everywhere. This film also touches on the emotional homelessness of the children. The children may have parents, but they may not feel loved. This is a big subject and with Children of Leningradsky I got a lot of letters from people who said that, because of the film, they would take better care of their children, or they decided to become social workers, or they adopted a child. I hope this film will travel because it’s such an important social issue, and this is why we are launching the campaign. We’re really hoping that with this funding we can hold more screenings.
We are also seeking people interested in hosting more screenings and who are interested in helping us make people aware of this story.
We don’t have an American broadcaster yet. We don’t have American distribution, which would take the film to theaters and make it available on Netflix, for example. We are in the process of finding distribution right now, and this is why we feel the film is not very well known in the States. All we are trying to do is get this film on people’s radars. I think it’s a film that will be there for years to come.
I agree. I think this film will have a long stay in people’s hearts and minds. What advice do you have for women filmmakers wanting to embark on daring, perhaps even dangerous projects, like yours?
One piece of advice is to try to work around your deadlines so they don’t kill you. When I was alone, the project was very difficult and stressful, but I didn’t have deadlines I had to stick to. Then when I got involved with the broadcasters and had deadlines it become very hard to meet them with a huge project like this. I worked day and night. My advice is to sleep more than I did and to have a healthier lifestyle. A project like this can really kill you.
I think the rest lies in the nature of the person. If somebody wants to embark on a project like this, they’re going to make the film they want to make. Nothing can stop them. I think the most important thing is building a team because we need partners. Find a producer who cares for the project deeply, because it’s a long marriage. The marriage with the editor and the marriage with the producer are very long lasting, difficult ones. The other thing is not forgetting about ourselves because we’re doing so much. People keep telling me all the time, “It’s only a film. Take care of yourself.” Of course I am not able to use this advice, so I don’t know if other people will. I will not stop until it is done best of my abilities.