TIFF 2022 Interview: Sarah McCarthy on Reaching a Sea of Tranquility Amidst Treacherous Political Tides in “Anastasia”

“She spent her entire life in four walls, so we should let her go,” Anastasia Shevchenko says of her daughter Alina in “Anastasia,” seeking to put her to rest in the Black Sea. As a fierce activist in the Open Russia movement, Shevchenko had been hemmed in herself as a political prisoner under the Putin regime for over a year and her daughter, afflicted with physical disabilities, was placed in the care of the state, with her ashes only burnishing her mother’s beliefs that she lived in a irrevocably corrupt country.

The journey to achieve some inner peace is tenderly chronicled in the latest from Sarah McCarthy, who has always had an extraordinary ability to find hope in heartbreaking situations and she does so in “Anastasia,” when Shevchenko, accompanied by Alina’s sister Vlada and her mother Tamara go to great lengths to scatter Alina’s ashes in the ocean. Enduring all forms of transportation and carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, the family at once is finally reunited and simultaneously torn apart by death, an experience that has sadly likely become all too familiar in Eastern Europe where the war in Ukraine rages on and those like Shevchenko put themselves at incredible risk to speak out against state attacks that aren’t as obvious as bomb blasts.
At the Toronto Film Festival where “Anastasia” was in the midst of a fall festival swing that began earlier this week at the Telluride Film Festival, McCarthy spoke about her commitment to bringing such stories to the public’s attention in spite of their inherent dangers, what drew her to Shevchenko and the film’s cathartic closing shot.

The last time we spoke in Toronto was for “The Dark Matter of Love,” which I suspect may be connected to this at least spiritually. How did it come about?

Yeah, you’re right because “The Dark Matter of Love” was obviously about three of the last Russian kids to be adopted into the U.S. before Putin banned adoptions and I spent a year with Masha, the main character and fell very much in love with her. Then when Putin banned adoptions in this kind of tit-for-tat between Washington and Moscow, I couldn’t believe that he was willing to use children like my friend Masha as collateral in a battle for resources. Maybe it was naivete, but that just blew my mind. You look at what he’s doing now and it was an early warning sign. But [generally] I am interested in making movies set in Eastern Europe because my mom’s Ukrainian and I grew up in Australia listening to my grandma and my mom and my aunties speak in Russian, a language that I couldn’t understand and at some point in my childhood, sacred feminine knowledge and the Russian language became intertwined for me, so I’m interested in making films set in the region as a way of drawing on the strength of my female ancestors and honoring them and their stories.

I came to Anastasia through this international human rights lawyer called Maria Logan, an incredible woman who’s got law degrees in the U.S, the U.K. and Russia, and she’s been involved in Anastasia’s case from the beginning. She’s just getting into film finance as well and we were looking for a documentary to make together because she does mainly fiction and when we started talking about ideas, I remember we discussed Anastasia and her case was on a beautiful walk in Regent’s Park and then it just flowed from there.

Logistically, was this challenging to capture? You’re riding on trains and boats with Anastasia and her family.

We just scheduled really, really carefully. I knew from the outset that I wanted to tell the story of her traveling across Russia to scatter the ashes of Alina in the Black Sea, and as we moved through the schedule, we just made sure to factor in time to recce the beach where she was going to swim to recce what kind of boat she was going to be on because we just wanted to make sure that we had a practical handle on everything to get the best possible shots. That was a big part – just very, very careful, meticulous, thorough scheduling, and I think it really paid off in the images.

When you travel all over the world to tell these stories, you’ve generally worked with a new local crew each time out. Do they bring some perspective to the storytelling?

The crew on this were an essential part of this film. Sasha, my producer has her DNA is threaded through this project and my cinematographer Denis is a true artist. He has such a gorgeous eye and I think that there is an enormous amount of it in this film. There’s my sense of story for sure, but especially Denis’ sense of imagery – the way that he captures the pictures of the wolf and the scorched earth, and just the sensitivity and intimacy of the scene where Anastasia scatters the ashes of her child…He is a real gift.

The interview with Anastasia that you used for the voiceover, was that actually done in advance of filming or was that something you did after knowing what images you had?

It was a real mix. We did two interviews with her, one quite early on, on day one, and then another on the penultimate day, so [next] to last day [when] we shot the final image of the film of Anastasia’s swimming in the sea. That was done because of the interview that we’d done with her the day before – we shot the scattering of the ashes, we interviewed her about the scattering of the ashes, and what she said about, “Every time I swim, it will be like Alina’s moment, like her and I alone together in the sea” – she said those words so tenderly and we knew then that we had to find an image that would be worthy of that sentiment.

I love that image so much, and actually watching it again, I just was struck by [how] we all start out swimming in our mommy’s tummies in the amniotic fluid, and then here is this mother, swimming in the sea that she’s just scattered the ashes of her daughter into and that image for me just sums up all the themes of this movie, like a mother and a child connecting in that space between kind of life and death.

You’ve said that Vlada, Anastasia’s daughter was a bit reluctant to have the scattering of the ashes on camera – what was it like involving the entire family in this?

I always wanted to include everybody and everybody was onboard to be part of the film from the beginning, but Vlada had some questions over whether or not we should film the actual scattering of her sister’s ashes, which is completely understandable. It was really important to our whole crew that everybody was okay with everything we were filming and we made plans to structure the film without that scene. Vlada was very appreciative of us listening to her in that way and figuring out ways to do it that would accommodate what she wanted and then it was actually Anastasia who convinced Vlada how important it was for people to see the reality of what had happened to her family and what had happened to her daughter because of this regime.

Two of my favorite images in the film are Anastasia looking at the urn that contains the ashes of her child. And then by sheer serendipity, the boat rocks and the Russian flag [that] moves into the background of this mother staring at the ashes of her child. That is just very, very beautiful and tragic to me at this point in time because there’s so many kids who the Putin regime has taken away now and he will never give back, so in that moment, I feel like Alina, Anastasia’s daughter, represents these 400 kids who have lost their lives since the war in Ukraine began and the over 7,000 Ukrainian kids that have now been illegally deported to Russia and separated, in some cases, from their parents who are still alive. These kids are injured. They go to seek medical attention or food with their parents and they’re picked up, taken to Russian-controlled territory, and soldiers demand that parents who have just fled from bombs produce birth certificates to verify parenthood. Often, they can’t do that and so their children are taken away to these filtration camps. I can’t believe that, so I feel very compelled to use the power of story to try and fight against that in some small way.

This may have been obvious, but I was quite struck by the title card “Before the War in Ukraine” mere moments into the film when you know that this must’ve been going on, but you know the magnitude must be much worse now. When there is such awareness of what’s occurring in Ukraine, was it much of a decision to put that in?

One of the things about this movie for me is it just shows how essential protest is and how we all must pay attention to the early warning signs of these fascist regimes taking hold. There has been a strong Russian resistance for a long time and people outside Russia don’t understand how high the price is that ordinary Russians pay when they try and speak out against Putin. They lose their lives, they lose their livelihoods, they lose their businesses, they lose their children. Putin uses social services as a method of social control. If children attend protests, parents are threatened that they’ll be taken away by social services, or parents are threatened that their children will be taken away by social services if they do. It is an instrument of totalitarian control. Hitler used it, Stalin used it, Putin is still using it. Trump used it on the border, and seeing that people were paying such a high price even before the war started just gives the film a kind of urgency and a relevance beyond Russia. We have to be so mindful about fragile democracies and we have to fight really fiercely to protect it.

Once you start putting this together, does this take any directions that you didn’t expect?

The dolphins were definitely an unexpected surprise twist. [laughs] And I knew that I would tell a story about a woman coming to terms with the impact of her choices on her child, but what I wasn’t expecting was this sort of metaphysical angle to start bubbling up through Tamara, Anastasia’s mom, [describing the] imagery of the ball of snakes representing the regime, and then this natural world rising up to support Anastasia and escort her and her family back to the shore after she’s been through this incredible transformative moment through the dolphins. I didn’t expect all those sort of fairytale mythological images to start bubbling up, but I’m so pleased they did.

Is it true that Anastasia and the family saw it for the first time earlier this week at Telluride?

In Telluride, I was so worried about showing her the film that I just wasn’t sleeping – I was sleeping like three, four hours a night, plus jet lag and all of that and then when I showed her the film, we sat there just gripping each other’s hands, me, Anastasia, Vlada, and Misha. And afterwards we were just floods and floods of tears. It was so beautiful and such a gorgeous release for all of us, I think, especially Anastasia. It was magic and after that, I’ve slept like a baby. It’s so special. Afterwards, [Anastasia] said to me that watching the film makes her feel like her daughter’s death is not for nothing. It was just the most powerful thing anybody’s ever said to me about my work.

“Anastasia” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival as part of Short Cuts Program 2 on September 14th at 1:30 pm and September 16th at 5:40 pm.