Oscar-winning film director and new ambassador of United24 talks about fundraising for Ukrainians

12 February, 07:15 PM
Michel Hazanavicius in Kyiv (Photo:@United24)

Michel Hazanavicius in Kyiv (Photo:@United24)

Famous French director, Oscar winner Michel Hazanavicius visited Ukraine this week. He is now an ambassador of the United24, a fundraising platform initiated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The director will be involved in the “Reconstruction of Ukraine” direction of work. During his visit, he made the first contribution to the reconstruction of the destroyed high-rise building in Irpin.

In January, he also handed over EUR 125,000 ($134,000) for the reconstruction of a hospital in Izyum to the Olena Zelenska Foundation of Ukraine’s first lady. He raised the money for Ukraine by holding a charity auction.

Hazanavicius spent 24 hours traveling by rail in order to get to Ukraine. As the director admitted, it was the longest journey by railway since his childhood. When asked if it was not scary to go to a country engulfed in war, and whether anyone had tried to dissuade him from going, Hazanavicius smiled in response.

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“No. Not at all. I am proud that I was able to come to Ukraine. I took the trip as an honor, not as a risk,” he said in his interview with NV.

— What did you know about Ukraine before the beginning of the Russian aggression?

— Ukraine is not a foreign country to me. My grandmother was born in the city of Kovel. Besides, when I worked on the movie “The Search,” which was partially shot in Georgia, I was able to work with several actors from Ukraine.

Photo: @United24

— We, Ukrainians, are now returning to our roots. Do you know your roots well? What do you teach your children?

— I come from a Jewish family. All four of my grandparents were born in Poland, in Ukraine, and my paternal grandfather was born in Lithuania. It is very important for a person to know their roots. My family’s history began with the Holocaust – my parents’ parents, my parents – we all come from this terrible history.

Of course, I told my children something. But the mother of my two youngest children is from Argentina. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic situation, because it’s a completely different world, a whole different culture. Therefore, I do not really want to get ahead of events, I know that at some point they themselves will be interested in the history of the family, but yes, I tell them things, introduce them to the history of the Jewish people through books, for example, the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Of course, I want them to know their roots.

Photo: @United24

— You visited Irpin and Bucha. What impressed you the most in Ukraine?

— When I was in Bucha, the city made a very heavy, depressing impression on me. Of course, I have seen photos from Bucha before, mass burials, bodies on the road, but communication with people makes a completely different impression – it is, on the contrary, powerful.

But there is something that impressed me the most – the people we talked to in Irpin, where there had been fierce battles with Russian troops and where they were stopped. There were war heroes among them who behaved like normal people, not like people obsessed with war. After all, people who went to fight can be deeply traumatized by it, because they saw death up close.

But they are not like that at all. They are very cheerful, they have a great sense of humor, they are completely normal, they have this life force that is so much more than what they have had to go through. They don’t try to pretend. The mayor of Irpin showed me a photo of the first days of the war, when the defenders had no protection, no military uniform. All they had was weapons. They were dressed as ordinary passers-by on the street or as ordinary workers, only with weapons. This contrast between ordinary people and an extraordinary event has fascinated me.

Photo: @United24

— You organized a charity auction to raise money to help Ukraine. What arguments have you found for your colleagues to persuade them to donate items for the auction?

— I wanted to make not just some kind of entertainment show, but rather to make people feel satisfied that they did something useful. And in no way did I want people to feel guilty.

So, I wrote a letter in which I said that there was no point in me telling you what was going on. You already know everything. I am trying to raise money because they need it for many purposes. Also, Ukrainians need to know that people outside of Ukraine support them. I wrote that I was looking for some objects and things from their films or from personal collections. I wanted unique items, so I asked not to send signed posters.

Some did not respond for some reason, some responded very quickly. Sometimes I had to send another letter because I wasn’t sure if the recipients had received it. But if someone didn’t answer, I didn’t pressure them. And those people who participated in the auction did it with great dedication.

Some were very quick to respond. For example, Tom Hanks. It took him about 10 minutes to answer. I was surprised. I’ve learned that usually when you push people to expand their scope, they respond. But my job is to make films, not to collect money. It was a new experience for me. We didn’t know what to do, where to start. Therefore, since you do not know, that is why you do nothing. But when you do start doing something, eventually something happens. And it turned out that people were happy to participate.

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Michel Hazanavicius at a meeting with the President of Ukraine (Фото: @United24)
Michel Hazanavicius at a meeting with the President of Ukraine / Photo: @United24

— How was the auction held? Was it easy to find buyers?

— Finding buyers was another difficult part of the job. Speaking of Tom Hanks, he sent me, actually not me, but you, for Ukraine, a typewriter, because he is a passionate collector of typewriters. And to begin with, you need to find at least one person who will be interested in purchasing a typewriter. But one person is not enough for an auction. You need at least two people who will compete for this typewriter. It's not that simple. After all, I bought this typewriter. (Smiles.)

In general, in search of buyers, I contacted the Artcurial auction house. They helped me a lot. I also called everyone I knew and everyone I knew who knew people who had money. And I asked: “Call your rich friends. Bring them to the auction.” And that’s how we raised this money.

— You became the first ambassador of United24 in France. What exactly are you planning to do?

— Yes, and it is a great honor for me to join this work. This is a real challenge for me. I have a rather narrow field of activity, because I am not a politician, I am not the owner of any industry, I do not have a lot of money, but I really wanted to help. And I hope to do my best where my help will be most effective and useful.

— The title of your film Z, which was supposed to be the opening of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, coincided with the letter Z, which the Russian invaders use as a swastika. How quickly did you realize that the name must be changed?

— Yes, we saw that the situation was developing very quickly. We discussed it with producers, distributors. After all, we had everything ready: posters, billboards, trailers with the letter Z. At the same time, we had bloody posters with zombies, because this is a comedy about zombies. Therefore, it would be very unpleasant to release such a bloody poster with this letter.

Some said, well, it’s just a letter... no one will connect these two events. But I said no: “This is very cruel to Ukrainians. It would be a good signal if we change the name.” In addition, several Ukrainian directors and producers wrote to me and the organizers of the festival with a request to change the name. It’s good that they wrote, it helped to make a decision. The letters became an additional argument in the discussion, because, frankly, it was very difficult to prove that this change was necessary.

Photo: @United24

— Do you share the call for a boycott of Russian culture in the world?

— This is a very difficult question in my opinion. Personally, I have not found the answer. Regardless of the nationality of culture, I strongly hope that culture is the last field that connects people in conflict or countries at war. The last bridge, so to speak. Culture is a way of sharing ideas.

But I understand Ukraine’s position. However, it seems to me that a boycott is the last and worst decision. Therefore, I would not really like to resort to it. For example, last year I watched a film by a Russian director, I don’t remember his name and title, but the film is about Stalin and a parallel is drawn with Putin. I would like as many people as possible to see this film. But I understand that if we open the door, it will stay open, and that’s why it’s a difficult question for me.

After all, if we are talking about propaganda, then, of course, the answer is very simple. It is clear that today’s Russia has turned everything into propaganda, even sports. But deep down, perhaps because I myself am a representative of culture, I hope that culture should be an exception. But I’m not sure I’m right.

— As a director, have you seen anything here that could become an idea for a future film?

— I consider myself a director of comedy films, and what is happening in Ukraine is a deep and powerful story, and it is not about comedy at all. I really want to make a comedic, light film. I like to bring pleasure, joy to the audience in cinemas.

I have heard many interesting stories about the destinies of inspiring people, but I still have a year to finish my new film, and working on it requires a lot of time. It will be an animated film, an adaptation of the book by the French author Jean-Claude Grumberg. It’s a story about the life of a boy from a French-Jewish family during the Holocaust. On the way to Auschwitz, his father managed to push him off the train, and the child was found by a childless Polish couple. This is a beautiful and deep story about love and children.

Five films by Michel Hazanavicius that are worth watching:

Agent 117: Cairo – A Nest of Spies (OSS 117: Le Caire, Nid d'Espions)

Spy comedy, 2006

The picture is a parody of spy movies about James Bond, Fantomas and other popular adventure films about agents and spies. The movie is based on the works of the French writer Jean Bruce. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Aure Atika and others.

The Artist

Romantic comedy, 2011

A black-and-white silent film about Hollywood in the second half of the 1920s, when silent feature films were replaced by sound. The picture tells about the romance between movie star George Valentine (Jean Dujardin), who is at the peak of fame, and young extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whose road to fame is just beginning.

The picture won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Costumes and Best Original Music, and was nominated for five more.

Godard Mon Amour (Le Redoutable)

Biographical comedy, 2017

The picture tells about the affair of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard with Anne Wiazemsky, who is 20 years younger than him, in the late 1960s, during the making of his film La Chinoise (1967). They are happy and decide to get married. However, La Chinoise was received ambiguously by society, which leads to an internal conflict in the director. And the 1968 protests that engulfed France only intensified Godard’s psychological crisis. Starring Louis Garrel, Stacey Martin and Bérénice Bejo. It was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the 2018 César Award.

The Lost Prince (Le Prince Oublié)

Adventure comedy, 2020

A family adventure comedy about the relationship between a father and a daughter. Every night as Sofia falls asleep, her father Djibi takes her into “Storyland”, a fantasy film studio where their extraordinary fairy-tale adventures come to life starring Djibi in the lead role as the heroic Prince Charming. The main roles in the film were played by Omar Sy, Bérénice Bejo, Sarah Gayet.

Final Cut (Coupez!)

Comedy about zombies, 2022

Michel Hazanavicius had to change the title of this particular film after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a French remake of the 2017 Japanese film Shooting Without Brakes.

The events in the film take place in an abandoned factory where a horror film is shot. During the preparation of a particularly difficult shot, filming is interrupted by the awakening of the living dead. So, the crew is trying to save the film. Starring Romain Duris, Bérénice Bejo, Finnegan Oldfield.

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