Jennifer Higgie Your last film, Harmony (2018), is highly allusive and dreamlike, although it’s rooted in reality. How did it come about?
Frederick Paxton The producer of the film, Maria Babikova, is Russian; she’s also my wife. We wanted to make something that reflects the everyday life of Russians but from a fresh angle; we wanted to push against preconceptions of the country, which is why we chose to shoot it in Maria’s hometown, Chelyabinsk, a medium-sized Russian city in the Urals on the edge of Siberia. As a child, Maria trained as a rhythmic gymnast at a school called ‘Harmony’; we decided to film a young gymnast there. As a counterpoint, we also focused on a young male ice-hockey player; the ways in which the boys in the film talk to each other, and how the coach interacts with them, helps you understand the climate these young people grow up in.
JH What filmmakers have influenced you?
FP Yuri Ancarani’s films Il capo (The Chief, 2010) and The Challenge (2016) had a huge impact on me. Seeing them was revelatory: they’re documentaries that use the non-linear language of art. It was the first time I had seen the two worlds – art and documentary – come together. I’ve also been inspired by the Italian photographer Davide Monteleone and also Gianfranco Rossi. His documentary Fire at Sea (2016) focuses on the migrant crisis from the perspective of a young boy from a local fishing family living on Lampedusa and a doctor who treats migrants arriving on the island. I’m also very interested in Richard Mosse, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky – artists whose work pushes against conventional perspectives and accepted narratives.
JH What’s your relationship to journalism?
FP I’m a massive consumer of journalism and I’ve worked with amazing journalists: their job is so important. But I get frustrated with the limits of conventional documentary formats. It’s a troubled relationship: journalism doesn’t take art seriously and art is suspicious of journalism – but they really need each other. When we’re so oversaturated with news, I want to unpick stories with a journalistic rigour and combine that with the freedom art allows.
JH You’re currently filming what could be described as a portrait of a building, with the working title Colouring Book. What’s been its evolution?
FP I was in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine on a photographic assignment and came across this building known as Razukrashka, which translates as ‘colouring book’. It’s an ironic name, as it’s covered in murals and has been shelled so many times it’s been ‘coloured in’. I couldn’t get it out of my head. The building is a leftover from when the Soviets annexed that piece of Ukraine. It embodies different kinds of power; about 15 or 20 families who work for the factories around there live in it.
Life in the block mirrors the ongoing conflict. Soviet ideals meet political divisions and neighbours with sons fighting on both sides of the conflict shelter together from the shelling. Many have no other choice. Staying in the cramped, dilapidated tower allows them to continue working at a vast, inferno-esque coking plant nearby. It is one of the few remaining ways to survive in the city.
The film follows characters living in the building, telling the story of the geopolitical conflict through intimate insights into their day-to-day lives. This tower block, stuck in the middle of a forgotten war, will give viewers an insight into the broader conflict, the changing dynamics of Europe and the people left behind who are struggling to survive.
JH How do the inhabitants feel about you filming there?
FP The complex nature of the building demands a level of patience and reflection that, perhaps, a traditionally formatted documentary might avoid. The intention is not to probe the residents in search of interviews and answers, or to amplify the chaos or embellish the effects of conflict. The intention is to become a part of this building, to be with the residents as they get ready to leave for work and to sit with them at their evening meals. The environment is filled with extreme emotions and does not require the narration dialogue of a factual documentary. What is needed is the space to watch, listen and reflect on the lives of these residents.
For me, the process is not interesting if you’re simply taking advantage of the people you’re working with. I visited the building many times before I began filming, in order to get to know the people living there and just hang out. It became clear during this period who felt comfortable being part of the process and who didn’t. The crew is also important. I am collaborating on the research with a friend of mine who was born and grew up in Avdiivka, just north of Donetsk, as well as a brilliant Moscow-based journalist.
JH How are you approaching the filming?
FP I’m interested in researching various systems of understanding the world. Framing them from an art angle allows me to explore a variety of subjects from a highly personal perspective. Skeleton crews increase the possibility of filming in seemingly inaccessible locations, meaning that more intimate and natural moments can take place.
This film will not set out to explain what has happened or what will happen in Donetsk and its unstable surroundings. Rather, it seeks to illustrate how political conflict is reflected in the domestic lives of those who live amongst it and will reveal how the echoes of Soviet ideals live on within the buildings created under its rule. Most importantly, it places human existence at the heart of a conflict that has rendered its people invisible.
JH How long will it be?
FP Initially a short, but, if the film needs it, there is freedom to expand it. It’s important to let the process dictate the outcome. We need room for life to happen and my role will be to capture and make sense of it for the viewer.
JH Where will you screen it?
FP This will, of course, be affected by the duration. The intention, though, is to screen it across a number of spaces – from festival to online platforms – and to cross many creative and institutional boundaries when it comes to giving the film the exposure it deserves.
JH How long will the shoot take?
FP It is important for me that the film represents the ebb and flow of seasonal shifts. At the moment, we are planning on shooting over the course of a year.
JH Do you have an ideal audience?
FP The intention of the film is to engage with people who might not usually interact with this subject matter or know much about the conflict.
Frederick Paxton is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, photographer and artist currently based in London, UK.
Main image: Frederick Paxton, Colouring Book (working title), 2019, production still. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Bogdan Kinaschuk
Jennifer Higgie is editor at large of frieze, the presenter of the frieze podcast Bow Down: Women in Art History and is currently writing a book on historic self-portraits by women, The Mirror & The Palette.