Taya Zubova: "Civil Society in Russia is Destroyed"

In "Witness Trauma", documentary filmmaker Taya Zubova tries to understand the nature of this trauma, exploring it. She is also convinced that the main question everyone should ask themselves is, "What can I do?" The new hero of the  Witnesses February 24 Project.

Tell us about yourself

– My name is Taya. I'm a filmmaker. I used to live in Moscow. Actually, I'm from Rostov-on-Don. What do I do? I have been a director all my life. Shooting, editing. I've been in advertising for 15 years. I shot commercials for big international brands. After that I shot short feature films. I emigrated a long time ago. After '14. And I taught online for a while. I had my own school of shooting, editing. And then since the beginning of the war, I went back to making movies, but from now on documentaries. Because, now there are only such opportunities. It's not the time for feature films, it seems to me.

Your first thoughts and feelings on February 24?

– When I read the news, I couldn't believe it, nor could everyone around me. I was in Slovakia at the time. We were all shocked. It felt so depressing. I couldn't believe it, but on the other hand, you see these testimonies. And you have to somehow understand what to do. There was a very heavy background and a sense of guilt and a sense of responsibility. But it seems to me at that moment the feeling of guilt prevailed. Then, as I worked through it and took action, it turned into a sense of responsibility. At that point I wasn't filming, I was teaching, and it had already become clear that I was closing my school. I was looking for an opportunity to do something, to contribute in some way. In the early hours, in the early days I had my actress from Kiev, I had a lot of acquaintances, I had a huge number of students from Ukraine. I was looking for itineraries, making websites. We helped people as much as we could.

But still, you have some kind of mission and there's a sense that there are tools. So I started collecting stories. But it became clear that people from Ukraine at this point cannot share these stories. The Russians are just in shock. The background is very heavy. And I began to think about how to collect these stories. It was clear that we needed testimonies, eyewitnesses to all these events. At some point I realised that the easiest way to collect these stories now was through documentary filmmaking, documentary filming. I know you're doing a YouTube channel and collecting this as stories. But since I'm from the film world after all, I wanted to do it in the form of films, so there would be more additional footage. And that's when the idea of making specifically documentary films about immigrants and refugees was born.

You made a film called "Witness Trauma". How did you search for characters for it?

– It's probably important to say here that I don't have any sponsors or patrons or foundations or anyone at all, any producers. I am one person who wanted to speak and wanted to record. At that point, the anti-war committee's Ark project had just appeared. I wrote to them and probably because it was the second day of their existence, my message was seen. I wrote directly that I was ready to do an exhibition, make a film, shoot. It became clear that I could find heroes who were in the same place. And the interesting thing is that you have just these first heroes in Witnesses. If you flip through your feed, just the first Witnesses story is a story from this shelter. I don't and didn't have any funding at that time. There was only money for the trip, for the plane, for settling in Istanbul. And there I found a cameraman. But I had access to the characters, and at that point we made a film called "Witness Trauma " which has already been released, and which you can see on the website of 'Novaya Gazeta. Europe," and I traveled with them to different countries for a month and showed it. I've been to six countries now. I had people crying at all the screenings, so much it resonates for those who left.
The film I'm making now is much tougher, of course.

Who will your second film be about?

– When I went with the screening of "Witness Trauma," I came to Montenegro. The "Asylum" project helped me organise the screening of my film  project, so I got to know them. It's a foundation, but it's essentially a shelter. Not only for Russian emigrants, but also for Ukrainian refugees and for emigrants from Belarus. Everyone lives there together in several houses and everyone interacts with each other. These are all people who suffered from war. And they all have a strong anti-war stance. And it seemed to me that this is a very strong metaphor: despite the horror that's going on right now and the government trying to fill us all with hatred on a person-to-person level, if we talk from heart to heart, we can find common ground. In spite of all this background, that as soon as possible must stop, and the war must stop.

How audible are the anti-war voices of Russians in the world?

– It seems to me that civil society in Russia has been destroyed, imprisoned, intimidated. There are very few of us. And we now need to learn anew to unite, to build connections. The more of us there are, the stronger they will sound. It seems to me that right now it's not that there aren't enough of us, there's almost no one to hear us at all. It's good that there is someone who speaks out. We need to strengthen these horizontal connections.

Do you feel personally responsible for the war in Ukraine?

– When the war began, I had a feeling of great guilt and great responsibility as a director. Why? I was leaving after the events in Crimea. I didn't want anything to do with it. I left and thought that that was it, I was going to live in Europe now and build a new life. And that was, I think, my big mistake. But on the other hand, you know, I talk to a lot of people my age or even younger. They're deeply depressed. They say, 'This is all because of us. We did not go to rallies, we did not protest enough, and so on." They are now starting to talk to older people. I say, where do you think this moment was? Where did it go wrong? Was it because we didn't come out eight years ago? Didn't come out enough? I'm listening more now to people who remember the '90s, they say this moment, it was in the '90s. It's very difficult for me because I was 10 years old at the time when it was all decided. So of course it's cool to say that yes, there's guilt. Yes, there's responsibility. But it seems to me that something went wrong in the nineties, and the people chose what's happening now.

What are you most afraid of?

- We were just talking yesterday about how fear stops action. So you have to act, maybe there will be less fear, and then it will be over sooner.

Why do so many people in Russia support the war?

– Because for so many years a very complex, very powerful propaganda worked. Including those roots that were laid in us by the Soviet past, even by the tsarist times. We talk a lot about the consciousness of slaves. Intimidation, which now takes place with the help of propaganda, was placed on this ground, on the ground of great-grandmothers' memories of repression. What does it offer? It offers no sense of responsibility. It offers some kind of "just sit on the couch and be good!"

What can we oppose this propaganda?

– It would be great if people would support us. Because everyone says, "Oh, some foundations out there! Oh, some philanthropists out there!" It's not like that. We have to support each other. The same ordinary people who want to speak out, they need to see that they can speak out, I don't know, on a YouTube channel. If I'm making a movie, if people are responding to that movie, they're crying, it would be nice to support me so that I can capture more of those stories.

You see one interview, you see another, you see a movie, you think, "What can I do?" And if as many people as possible think about what they can do, then civil society will build up, and we will actually do something.

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