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A Conversation With Filmmaker Dana Ziyasheva – What ‘Greatland’ Is Really About

By November 27, 2020 No Comments

When we think of filmmakers in the movie industry, the first thing that comes to mind are people who have spent their entire lives watching movies. They’re creatives who have imagined telling their own stories, setting up shots and writing lines for tales yet to be told. But there is another kind of filmmaker, one who hears news stories and can’t rest until those true life accounts are brought out into the light of day. The kind of person who hears the truth and just has to tell it. I was honored today to speak with such a filmmaker.

Worldly and unafraid, Dana Ziyasheva started her life in a tiny part of Kazakhstan “chasing cows” before moving on to work for the UN through ENESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to bring awareness to problems in the world that many people choose to ignore or even participate in. Through this socially diverse experience, Ziyasheva is able to look at the world in a totally unique way, which is why her feature film debut, Greatland, may not reach everyone upon first viewing.

In this interview, we discuss Greatland, her colorful and rich history working for the UN, and her desire to open up the minds of the people around her.

Greatland synopsis:

Trapped in a world of perpetual fun and inter-species love ruled by a universal Mother, a teenage boy crosses the forbidden frontier to save his childhood sweetheart as an absurd election and a deadly virus lead to chaos and violence.

PopHorror: Hello, Dana! Thanks for speaking with me today.

Dana Ziyasheva: Yes, of course!

PopHorror: Can you tell me a bit about your pre-filmmaking life?

Dana Ziyasheva: I grew up in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was there when the Soviet Union was crumbling. People were dying by scores, hyper-inflation, planes not flying, gas shortages. But it was also a fun time to be alive, because one could become rich overnight. We were finally free to travel and pursue our individual goals. Kazakhstan became an independent country.

As a TV journalist, I covered all these stories for morning news and criminal chronicles. I was the first person from independent Kazakhstan to join UNESCO as an international civil servant. I worked at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris before volunteering to develop education programs in Northern Iraq. Throughout my career as the UNESCO Adviser for Communication and Information, I was stationed in Beijing, China, San Jose, and Costa Rica and travelled to more than 80 countries. My job was to encourage under-represented and marginalized groups to express themselves through words and images, to find their voice and speak the truth.

“Greatland isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. People get desensitized to thinking, to analyzing a piece of art. They think a movie should be easy to consume. If it’s not pre-chewed, they just discard it.” — Dana Ziyasheva

For example, with the Mongolian Education TV, we travelled to Tsaatan people. They are reindeer breeders; in summer, they camp high up in the mountains of Mongolia. We somehow convinced them to do a short film with us. I had to fly a tiny airplane, drive a jeep across grassland, ascend to a glacier, and ride a specially trained horse up the mountain ridges teeming with wolves and bears. My biggest reward was working with Tsaatans. They were so game to shoot a movie and natural in front of the camera!

Watch the short below!

PopHorror: Did your previous work in UNESCO inspire Greatland at all?

Dana Ziyasheva: Oh, yes! Yes, sure, it did. I saw the Soviet Empire collapse. I was very young at this point. And it left this impression on me. And that’s what I was trying to convey in Greatland. When I was working, for example, with the production designer, I would say, “I see this kind of desolate landscape. Post-industrial, where things are not working and there are a lot of unemployed people. Things are crumbling. But you slap on it a very powerful poster or a banner that depicts this crazy, fun world, and all of a sudden, their is their reality.” They don’t know the crumbling infrastructure behind it. They just live in this desolate landscape under the banner.

PopHorror: I totally agree. So many people just want to be spoon-fed. Which is really sad.

Dana Ziyasheva: Exactly! They expect and they need validation from the media, from external sources. If there is no validation, if they they are facing something where they have to make up their own minds, then they think, “Oh, I’d better pass.”

PopHorror: On the surface, Greatland is about this boy living in a world where everyone is told to be happy, despite what’s going on around them. They’re told to be themselves, but only if their version of themselves fits into what Mother tells them that they can be. They must be accepting of all things, including being forced into interspecies love, or else they’re punished. But what is it really about?

Dana Ziyasheva: It’s a criticism of both sides. When Greatland premiered in movie theaters at the Moscow Film Festival, some conservative viewers and critics walk out of the cinema. They thought that Greatland promoted tree-marriages and a cult-like Dark Temple Ceremony. Some people were more like, “Oh, you are mocking LGBTQ; you are mocking vegans; you are mocking feminism. How dare you?!” But I don’t! Greatland isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. People get desensitized to thinking, to analyzing a piece of art. They think a movie should be easy to consume. If it’s not pre-chewed, they just discard it.

“Greatland is about subverting and weaponizing humanistic ideas to set one part of the population against another in order to divert attention from a systemic crisis.” — Dana Ziyasheva

In the second part of the movie, I am criticizing the old, conservative elite. They only care about themselves. They don’t care about people. All they care about is power and what it gives them. And the power allows them to have access to all of those young, pretty virgins. They would use it. They would use it and abuse it. Then they live secluded and apart, like on Repentance Island. They don’t want anyone else knowing what’s going on there. The name of the island—Repentance Island. Who would want to go there? [laughs] When, in fact, there is nothing repentant about it. They are unrepentant.

Host of the nightly news in Greatland

Everything is switched. Everything is the opposite. They call it Repentance Island, when its actually the island of enjoying themselves by all means possible and not caring about the population that they have control over, who gives them what they want to live so luxuriously. They present the other population with an illusion that they have all the rights, and they can live the way they want, when, in fact, they are completely manipulated.

I don’t take sides. That comes from my international civil servant background. Impartiality as a principle comes from the journalist ethics code I was taught in college. I’m but an observer. My films are mirrors that show a wide range of perspectives and bias from different angles. It’s up to the audience to decide which side to take. Alternatively, the audience could choose to go beyond bi-partisan struggle toward something more constructive, positive, and unifying.

But it’s okay. I like to be polarizing, because then no one is indifferent. Everybody is thinking. So we have that type of reaction.

PopHorror: Where did the ideas for the film’s set pieces and filming locations come from?

Dana Ziyasheva: Ideas for Greatland’s world-building came from all over the world. For example, in China during the construction boom, I saw many building sites where a huge banner of an architectural marvel to come would hide filthy, slave-like dwellings in which construction workers were living. The trick was to get people excited about a new shopping paradise and overlook the misery it was built on. In Greatland, your eye is instantly attracted to the fun bright posters… never mind the crumbling infrastructure behind these posters. Greatland shows how the power of suggestion can alter our perception of reality.

PopHorror: Tell us a bit about the characters in Greatland.

Dana Ziyasheva: Ulysses and just about every character in Greatland represents certain tendencies in the society. Those who think that the film is anti-LGBTQ or anti-feminist are completely off-target. The film is not about ideals of tolerance and diversity versus conservative Stone Age values. The second half of the movie shows the elite or 1-percenters pulling the strings behind the scene, the precious Z-generation being played by boomers.

Bill Oberst Jr, Greatland,
Bill Oberst, Jr. in a tub of blood, lotus flowers, and cockroaches in Greatland

Greatland is about subverting and weaponizing humanistic ideas to set one part of the population against another in order to divert attention from a systemic crisis. Basically, in Greatland, the general population gets what they’re told they want, and the elite gets what they actually want. The social strata live separate lives, and everybody is happy. The only problem is, as Clerk puts it, “Social peace is fragile. Greatland is losing economic and technological advantages to Evildom.”

PopHorror: What were the reactions to Greatland so far?

Dana Ziyasheva: Pretty visceral! “What’s this garbage! Nonsense! What the WTF did I did I just watch?” And I’m like, “Guys, have you heard of metaphors? Allegories?!” On social media, debates around Greatland seem to focus on what I was taking when making the movie: Acid, shrooms or something psychotropic. First of all, I have no idea how drugs work. And second, the reality is so crazy, who needs drugs anyways!

PopHorror: I totally agree. So many people just want to be spoon-fed. Which is really sad.

Dana Ziyasheva: Exactly! Audience needs validation and guidance from the media, critics or influencers, to make its mind about the movie. Wouldn’t it be more fun to go out of your comfort zone, go on a wild ride – just you and Greatland! – with no pre-conceived idea of where it should end?

My ambition is that after everything’s said and done, there is an understanding of how suicidal it is to keep shouting at each other from opposite corners. Wouldn’t be better to get together and find a compromise and a way forward?

Watch Greatland now!

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