Victims of war, Ukrainian children take refuge in Nazi-built barracks. In this short, poetic debut, Waking Up in Silence conflates time and space as flashes from the past pierce the innocent babble of today’s young exiles.
Interestingly, the genesis of your film isn’t in Ukraine with those young refugees, but at the massive estate in Schweinfurt where you met them. Was it the chequered history – Wehrmacht quarters to US Army garrison – that caught your eye?
We play with the fact that we expect the viewers to recognise some parts of it, but the camera is on the kids’ side.
The initial idea was to make a film on this Nazi-era building and the estate. In February 2022, the situation changed with the war against Ukraine. About a week after the war started, the first refugees came, and we met them. Slowly, this original idea for the film transformed into: let’s make something with the people now living there.
The film juxtaposes Nazi emblems – a soldier’s statue, a Reichsadler – and portrayals of childhood innocence. How did you approach this imagery?
This whole thing of history repeating itself was super important for us. You can feel that it’s like a weird spiral, moving into a new cycle of violence. We approached the barracks in this film from the viewpoint of the children, who are like archaeologists discovering these weird signs of war – of a war that they haven’t learned about yet. We play with the fact that we expect the viewers to recognise some parts of it, but the camera is on the kids’ side.
Why focus on the children?
What was interesting for us is that they’re totally in the moment. You spend time with them, and it feels like they’re like every other kid. There’s constant movement and interaction in this small space. But then there are those moments when it surprisingly bursts out of them. And they tell you a story of how they were hiding in the cellar when the bombs were falling, or they will tell you that the first time they heard fighter jets flying, they jumped into hay, and they will laugh at themselves at how stupid they were.
In the film itself, there are moments of great serenity: the long close-ups create a feeling of timelessness.
I think this timelessness is the way the kids perceive time. They’re really active, but at the same time, nothing really happens. Yet you can see little dramas happening in the small details of their everyday routines, like a phone call with a father or eating cherries and talking about the taste of a cherry in Ukraine. We wanted to have those little islands in the montage where you have this motif of a circular movement, like with the bicycle or the girl on the spinning chair on the playground. It’s just turning round and round, but you’re not moving forward.
They tell you a story of how they were hiding in the cellar when the bombs were falling
Many families still don’t know if they want to stay or not. So they’re kind of in this state of circulating around the same thoughts. If I go back, what will happen? We tried to translate that into the film: you have the moments of joy, but also of sadness and melancholy.
Mila, you relocated to Germany from Ukraine in 2004, when you were 13. Although you moved for other reasons, is theirs an experience you are familiar with?
I don’t have a good memory of that time, because you have to adapt so fast and learn so much. But me and my family lived in an asylum home we shared with other families. So I can totally identify with them, although we’re from totally different cities and social backgrounds.
How are you feeling about attending the Berlinale?
Super excited! We’ll bring some of the Ukrainian families [from the film] to the premiere. And since it’s screening in Generation, it’s a nice way to create a dialogue between those [Ukrainian] children who are new to Germany and those that grew up here. And of course, Berlinale is super prestigious, so it’s a huge honour to launch the film there.
Mila Zhluktenko and Daniel Asadi Faezi both live in Munich and met at the University of Television and Film, where Zhluktenko is still a student. The 18-minute documentary Waking up in Silence is their first Berlinale film.