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My story - Thea Marti

Ukrainian born film director, writer and producer Thea Marti spent three months in a SWAN Emergency residency at Katrinebergs Folkhögskola during summer of 2022. Right now she's on a one year scholarship at London Film School. This is a conversation about being a traveling filmmaker, keeping creativity alive, the importance of feeling safe and being a part of a community.

Text & interview: Maria Söderberg

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Can you tell me about the time you spent in Sweden?


I had a really good time in Sweden. I had so much love. I arrived in July 2022 and I left in mid September. Ukrainians are a very proud people. We don’t like when other people feel pity for us. In Sweden it was a nice energy, it was calm. Sweden is somehow similar to Ukraine, in some ways. I was very productive in Katrineberg, but I know that other artists felt really disconnected. I’m fortune because my family is safe. My hometown Cherkasy is a place nobody cares about, it’s nothing strategic there. But people coming from Kherson and these parts of Ukraine… I probably can’t fully understand how they feel. But for me, personally, I felt safe and good. 

 And I remember everyone was so nice when I left Sweden. They told me: “Of course, go to London! Don’t worry, you can always come back”. 


London is in many ways more difficult than it was in Sweden because it’s such a big city. A lot of people, but nobody cares. Less connected, for sure. More anonymous. I´m still less connected than when I was in Katrineberg. Maybe because I was in a small community in Falkenberg. And through the film school I was in contact with local film makers. I appreciated that if I wanted to be on my own, I could. But if I wanted to be in a community, I could choose that. While in London, it’s not really the same. I mean, there are a lot of things to do that can disrupt – shows and culture life. But over holidays, especially Christmas, I was a bit sad. When people are leaving for holidays to see their families and friends and you are staying it’s like… I have my downs, when I’m not 100%. But I try to be cheerful. We have to keep our drive as artists.  If we put our heads down, there is nothing left. So I guess we have to. To sit and write, edit, do my films and develop my ideas. I cry sometimes, of course. It’s so emotional. But I want to underline that I never was in Ukraine when the war started. All this really touches me emotionally, but I know I’m lucky. I come from a region that is not that affected, my family is safe, so I don’t want to be dramatic. I can’t really say that I have experienced the war. 

You are a film director, writer and producer. Tell me how you became a part om the media industry? 

Actually, that was a really nice journey. Back in Ukraine when I was a kid in high school, I wanted to be an actress. I thought acting was something beautiful, a lot of attention and a nice world to be in. I tried for a drama school in Kyiv, but I failed and felt that I didn’t have any talent. I was very upset. But I was good at organizing things. When we had some rehearsals for a play a friend said: “Why don’t you direct? That’s a lot about managing things”. So, for some time I did some directing for theatre plays, but in the end I’m a very academic person and I need to study. I decided to try film and video, and not theater. Theater is a big deal; you need a lot of space. With video you only need a camera. 


In 2008 my dad bought me a mini camera. I was an only child, so I was like: “Oh, dad. Come on! I need a camera!” No one uses these kind of cameras anymore; it was with a small dv cassette, and you had to transfer all the material to a computer. Anyway, I asked friends from the university if they wanted to do a short film, and they said yes. And that’s how it all started. We shot that short film, and it won an award in Rome. It was a Candid Camera kind of film, just going out in the street and doing the film. A little plot about my friend who was going out at night. Pretty much about everyday life in Kyiv. The name was Happy Nation. Eight minutes long.  Terrible quality if I would watch it today. But it gave me an award and when I was in Rome, I thought it was huge. Having this award as a 21-year-old. I felt it was like a sign. So, I kept on doing films. And here I am. 


Is that the reason to why you are Rome based? 


Well, I lived in Rome for many years. I graduated there because I decided to study film and television in Italy. I did my degree and I got back to Ukraine, young and hopeful. I wanted to do a revival of the industry. I grew up in Cherkasy 200 kilometers in the south from Kyiv.  It’s central Ukraine. I came back from Rome and thought that since Cherkasy don’t have a film scene, I could contribute with some changes. I did a short film, but it was very difficult. I involved a lot of people from the theater and friends. It was great as an experience but when I wanted to take it to another level it was just so difficult and hard finding jobs. We took part in public funding competition, because in Ukraine we have kind of a film institute. The only public body that finances featured films. But we never got any money. After all, we don’t have that big industry. Instead, I was trying to do some co production projects in Europe. I went to Spain during Covid and I wanted to return to Ukraine in March 2020, but I couldn’t. I was a little bit stuck. And now I haven’t been in Ukraine for a while. But I have always been safe. I am safe. I’m lucky and I can’t complain.

Where do you find your creativity and ideas? And do you think that has changed during the last year?


Ok, good question. I guess the ideas come from the world around me. I observe people and places since I travelled so much. I´m happy I had the opportunity to travel in Ukraine before the war broke out. I realized that my country is so big and I don’t know it very well. I grew up in the central part of Ukraine, but north, south, east and west are so different from each other. I did a three-month travel in Ukraine during 2015. I get inspired by what I see when I travel, people I talk to, stories and my personal experiences. And if they have changed during the past year? My stories are in general really dark already. Not all of them. But mostly. Not horror but gloomy. I realized now, when I was talking to my Ukrainian colleagues at school that they are even darker than me. But I understand that. They grew up in this context, and some of them came directly from Ukraine. When I was in my twenties, I wanted to do horrors and stuff. It was this very talented director, Roman Balyan. He is from Armenia but he worked in Ukraine for many years and is amazing. I had the chance to talk to him when I was like 25. He was asking why I was doing so gloomy and dark stories. He said that humans need hope. “You are human and an artist, you need to make space for hope”. And I think somehow, that changed my perception. I think, that even if my stories are gloomy and dark and maybe a bit hopeless there should still be some space for light to come in. That’s what I share with my younger colleagues here in London. You should do horror but leave some hope, because we need it. Everything is so dark already. 


I haven’t seen my family for a long time so, that impact me a lot. And we are not as free to travel as we are used to be. There are no flights to Kyiv. The travelling takes time since we must go through Polen or maybe Hungary.

"...but leave some hope, because we need it. Everything is so dark already."
Thea Marti
How would you describe Ukrainian liftestyle, philosophy and beliefs from your point of view?

I’m a very idealistic person. I want to highlight the good sides and aspects. We are a very proud people and talented I believe. Here in London, there are a lot of Ukrainians gathering to share ideas, culture and food. And I think that gives a good picture of who we are. A lot of hospitality. We are open. If someone is in need we are there. We are loyal. And proud. Whether that’s good depends on the situation. If it’s dignity, it’s good. We are attached to our land, the language, the songs. I participate in a choir here in London and sometimes we sing Ukrainian songs. It’s like collective therapy. People getting together, different backgrounds, singing songs. It's beautiful. We should do more of this and think of how we can make the world a better place. 


The question of language is very interesting since a lot of Ukrainians speak Russian. Have you noticed that Ukrainians rather not speak Russian nowadays?

I grew up in a Ukrainian speaking family. But some of my friends have been speaking Russian since forever. And I don’t blame them, it’s their language. But personally, if I would speak in public, I would do it in Ukrainian. But cancelling the Russian language is not completely a good idea because the culture is so vast. We grew up with it. It’s a personal choice but I mean… Gogol, one of our most prominent writers he wrote in Russian and nothing can change that. So, I think that right now a lot of people just switch to Ukrainian even if they don’t speak it as good as they speak Russian. I notice when a person is not used to speak Ukrainian but because of this political situation makes an effort to speak it anyway. It's nice, but on the other hand… I don’t judge people who speaks Russian. That’s what I’m trying to say. That’s not the main issue. In Belgium they have Flemish and French and in Spain they have Catalan and Castellano and they can coexist. People who want to speak only Catalan are free to do that. Language is a cultural construction, cancelling a language is not wise in terms of cultural development. If you feel better in expressing yourself in a certain language, that’s fine. 

"To create a community takes away things that bothers them for a while. Even if it's only two hours of singing."

Thea Marti
What impact do you think art has when it comes to spreading hope?


- I think it’s important to keep creating things. And I wish I could back to Ukraine and produce something that’s different from the war films. Now all production is very focused on the war, and that’s understandable. It has always been like that. During the second world war there were so many war movies. Propaganda more or less. Promoting values, which is great but there are so many stories that can be told that goes beyond all this. I’m very attracted to fantasy and sci fi. I like the unreal. Reality is so harsh sometimes, maybe we need something that is more like a fairytale. Even if it’s not real, it still makes you believe that the world is a great place to be. Now I take part of the Royal Opera house project here in London, as a part of the Ukrainian choir. I think it’s a very powerful project because they allow people to get together, to sing together. To create a community takes away things that bothers them for a while. Even if it’s only two hours of singing. I think it’s important to keep on doing projects like that. Whether it’s music, visual arts, exhibition for Ukrainian artists in collaboration with foreigners. And film of course. Things that enhance the feeling of a community. That gives some hope and light. 


I’m trying to develop a short film. It’s a bit gloomy, my style, but with inspiration from the Greek mythology and the prophet Cassandra. Cassandra was curst by Apollo so that her true prophecies would not be believed. My idea is that Cassandra, the prophet that nobody belives, gains the power to speak and people finally listen to her. Then something good happens. Usually, she says that something bad will happen but when she says that something is going to be good than everybody believe in her. I hope to shoot it in London, while I’m here. But it’s expensive. I’m trying to find some art funding support. There are opportunities to funding but London is a big place and many people want the same thing as I do. They don’t have specific funding for Ukrainian artists, but they have for original film funding and London film funding. Different options. While I’m in Film school I have access to the Film School facilities, network and equipment. I must figure out how to produce this story that I have in my mind. 

What is the main goal with your work right now?


To do as much as I can. To write, to shoot, to produce. It’s a good moment for work. Since I was a kid, work and studies were ways to overcome distress. I love the capacity of being able to dive into the work and disconnect from the environment and the world outside. It’s useful and I think that artists have this privilege. When we are into something it’s very engaging. This creative flow makes us forget about everything else. It’s mindfulness and beneficial in terms of mental health and wellbeing in general. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges being an artist in different countries?


Sweden was one of the easiest countries for me as an artist to be in. Maybe because I was Ukrainian in times of war. People was very supportive. It depends on the mentality in the specific country. Sometimes it’s just easier to work with people when it comes to structure, workflow and work ethics. The way of doing things. Italy and Spain, they are messy. I don’t mind, I love both. They are fun, warm and messy. It’s not a good idea being an artist abroad and expect to keep on working in the same ways you are used to. You must have some kind of cultural understanding of the new context. And try to integrate to it. It’s impossible to get away from oneself and become totally integrated but try to understand how people operate is fundamental. I did a short film in the Caribbean. That was a challenge because it was totally different from what I was used to. Their laid-back style of life. People don’t worry, they just chill out. “What film? Tomorrow already?” And it was difficult because the more I pushed, the more they resisted. In Paris or London people are more like: “Yes let’s do it!” You must have the cultural understanding. Spending some time to only observe how people live might be a good idea. And then try to implement your practice within this context. Might be very exhausting but still an experience. But a cultural baggage is not heavy to carry around. 

"But a cultural baggage is not heavy to carry around."
Thea Marti
What are your wishes for the future?


I want the war to stop obviously. Everyone wants that. I want to see my family! It’s been a long time since I saw my mum which is hard. I hope to see her this spring - cross my fingers. When it comes to work, I don’t have any specific wishes - or maybe win an Oscar as the first Ukrainian director!


Where are you going after your year in London?


I have no idea. I can stay in London a little bit longer if I want to or go back to Sweden. I’ve been invited to the Bergman estate at Fårö. I’ve been looking at that place for a lone time because they shoot the Tarkovsky film Sacrifice at Gotland. And I’ve been thinking, I want to go there one day. I applied to visit the Bergman estate and this year they gave me a yes. I’m super happy about that. 


Didn’t you write a script about Queen Kristina when you were in Sweden? I remember I read somewhere that she went to Gotland in your script. Do you plan to shoot that film on Gotland?


I would love to! I know they have some financing for film making at Gotland whether you are local or not. But if it’s a story about the island they can give you support. The Bergman estate is a big deal and Queen Kristina is one of my favorite characters of historical figures. She was before here time, very open and free spirit. But I haven’t finished the script. I only did the research when I was in Sweden. But I would love to develop it. Especially if I get back to Sweden, for a short or long time doesn’t matter. But I want to return to Ukraine and I have this idea for a TV project, but we will see how everything goes. Hopefully the war will end soon. We are a resilient people.

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