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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Interview with Ella Manzheeva and Evgenia Mandzhieva about the Kalmykia film "The Gulls"



Set in a small fishing village in Kalmykia which lies on the Caspian Sea, we see Elsa struggling with the desire to leave her husband. She doesn’t know where to go and lacks the courage to leave. The ambience of this film is captured in cool blue tones and the environment is shot in a way to capture the feeling of claustrophobia. Both sound and cinematography are used to convey the inner emotions of Elsa. The story starts with an ominous message about gulls being the souls of dead fisherman and of broken canoes but also as a sign of hope.  Elsa who is a piano teacher tries to fit in as a fisherman’s wife but his family and friends make it only harder for her. The community is poor. In order to get extra money the fishermen of the village all participate in illegal fishing which is extremely dangerous. The area is known for its extreme weather changes. The men try to go out at sea and often become trapped by ice and are unable to return.

Shelly Schoeneshoefer: I am curious about the coloring of this film. Are the colors natural to this area? How was the camera used?
Ella Manzheeva, director:
It is the natural color of the area and it is a specific area were the weather patterns are changing quickly - from snowing to a spring day. For the fishermen it is quite a serious problem and they are always looking at the weather conditions. It isn’t that way in other regions. This is what I wanted to capture. The camera was always close to the main character to capture her emotions and at the same time we used wind, fog and ice to emphasize the emotional state. I didn’t want to show her feelings openly but rather through using the image of the landscape.
SRS: The music use was very effective in the film. Can you explain how that was developed?
EMD: The composer Anton Sileav did a great job. He comes from Moscow and first tried very traditional symphony music like what they do in the American films but that was not what I wanted.  Then he tried the traditional Kalmyk music which was also not right.  He did not get what we were trying to do but then he understood that it must be nature sounds and also a hint of the traditional instrumental music. He began to build from there. He spent time to look at the culture from the inside in order to understand it. It was on the fourth attempt that he got it right.  He extracted sounds from ordinary life and mixed them with music to convey emotion. We worked very close together.
SRS: I understand that Evgenia Mandzhieva is not an actress but a model who has worked for Vogue magazine in both Russia and China. How did you find Evgenia Mandzhieva to play the main actress?
EMD: I didn’t do it rationally. I saw this Finnish poster called A Windy Day by Helena Junttila and wanted my actress to look like her. Everyone said I was crazy. I saw her on Facebook of a close family friend who had died in a car accident and I said that’s it. She is the one.
Evgenia Mandzhieva: I don’t look like Elza but emotionally I can identify with her on many points. I knew the Facebook friend because he helped me many years ago in modeling since he was a camera man. I had to go to the area two months early, had to be silent and retreat in order to prepare for the role. Later I also had to mix with the people who are quite different to me.
EMD: I realized how sensitive and vulnerable she was as an actress, and felt that we took quite a risk. It was not easy for her to come out of this psychological mood of the character. It took her about a month to be back to normal. That’s how deep we went on the emotional side.
I would recommend this film to people who are interested in seeing this small Buddhist community of fishermen. It is beautiful and poetic and very emotional.

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