Darya Zhuk's Crystal Swan is receiving its exclusive digital premiere on MUBI, and is showing May 23 - June 22, 2020 in most countries.
Crystal Swan is a love letter to friends I grew up with.
During my coming of age in Belarus in the 90s, I felt that all my friends around me had been dreaming of coming to the West. This yearning to explore the West permeated my youth.
I first conceived of a film about the American Dream standing in a long line to the U.S. embassy in Minsk, much like the second scene of Crystal Swan. I was getting my student visa to go study in the U.S. The air was full of suspense and high stakes innate to good drama that I imagined this one queue of people waiting for their dreams to come true could itself be a great documentary. But it was prohibited to film at the embassy, so it took me a couple more years to look for another way to bring this idea to fruition.
Later, I’ve heard several of my girlfriends share wild stories about tricking the visa process in pursuit of their American Dream. That’s how the film’s setup was born. This wild story with fake documents really happened!
Velya herself is not quite me, but maybe more my alter ego. I come from a different background and family, and I was never that outspoken, wild and brave. Actually, I cringe every time someone lies on screen, and Velya has no problem with that. I definitely had friends like Velya though. This was something that was hugely helpful in the development process, as I think it’s very hard to write about yourself.
What about Velya’s dream of going to Chicago? I suppose somewhere deep inside I was too timid to admit I wanted to be a DJ. I did eventually go to explore the Chicago house scene myself while studying to become an Economist at a college in American Midwest. The rave scene we had in Minsk in the 90s flourished, though not many people are aware of it outside of the country. Velya’s DJ boyfriend is definitely very real, he is based on a composite of several boyfriends I myself had.
The search for an actress to play Velya was a painful one. In the hands of another actress, this film could have been a solid drama. The spunk of Alina Nasibullina brings it to life in an unexpected way. We found Alina very much in the last moment, a drive fueled by a very enthusiastic and passionate casting director I had from Moscow, Dasha Korobova. Ultimately, I was looking for someone who had a defined colorful personality, something they tell emerging professional actresses not to be at a young age. So it’s hard to find. You mostly see actresses that are ready to be molded into a form you provide. I needed a seed of a spark already there so I could explain less.
Alina sent in a tape where she was just playing an alter ego version of herself (I know this now after striking up a friendship with her). The catch in this trick was that she didn’t record a scene reading but a personal introduction, so it seemed like that was exactly who she is. Her character on tape was quite insolent in her “Hello, here I am! And my name is Alina,” and made a huge impression on our team.
Seeing that Alina reminds me of early Madonna in person, I sent her off to watch Desperately Seeking Susan to share my general obsession with feminist comedies. That’s as much structured collaboration I think as we had. Our collaboration on set was based on total trust and total faith in each other. I loved her so much on screen, she felt couldn’t fail.
We shot in Minsk and outside of Minsk. It’s my hometown, I was very attached to have this story be set there even though a few times producers pushed to move this story elsewhere. Tourists visiting Minsk often describe it like a time capsule, and I also thought it would be easy to re-create 1996 in the shooting year of 2017 (21 years later)—but it wasn’t quite the case. Soviet brutalist architecture is there but with tiny adjustments that drive you crazy; CGI is the only way out of the bind—as well as careful selection of the shots, I suppose.
The town of Crystal is an imaginary location based on a real small town three hours away from the city that indeed boasts a crystal factory. It was too far for us to shoot there, we had to keep the production lean and had to combine various locations to represent the town. The crystal factory shown is also an authentic one in a town, called Borisov, that is closer to the capital, with the decor untouched by our team and true to the 90s.
If I was making a film based in contemporary Belarus about a character dreaming to emigrate, I wouldn’t be able to pull it off due to censorship, external and internal. Setting this story in 1996 was a way in to talk about a turning point of Belarusian history and also to explore current issues.
1996 was the last year when demonstrations were still allowed and indeed the last year when people felt free to say what they meant. Since then, the dictatorship cracked down on these freedoms substantially. (A gentle reminder: Belarus’s president came to power in 1994. We’ve had the same ruler for 26 years!) It was a turning point for Belarus as a country. When realized in Belarus, the film created a space to talk about what has changed. Or more precisely, has anything changed? This is a question I wanted the audience to answer for themselves.