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In the third article of the “Art in Exile” column, the “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” team talked to Anastasia Sergienya about the film business in America and whether it’s difficult to make your own film in the USA.

Hi! My name is Anastasia Sergienya. I’m a film director and photographer from Minsk, but I’ve been living in the USA for 8 years now. In Belarus I studied, photographed and worked as a brand manager at Red Bull.

Now my main work is filmmaking. I am a freelancer who started from the lowest position of production assistant, then became the second and then the first assistant director.

By the way, the position of first and second assistant is very different in advertising and movies – different specifics. In advertising, the second assistant works with actors and extras, checks whether everything is done on time, how costumes and makeup look; in the movie, the second director is more like the right hand of the first, but in terms of documentation.

Then the pandemic hit, and I moved to the covid department. I also started out as an assistant, then became a supervisor and coordinator of different projects. We made sure that everyone did tests before work and wore masks at work; we monitored the ventilation of the room, made sure that the catering complied with safety standards.

Nastya Sergienya, photo from Nastya’s personal archive

You could say that covid helped me to get a new profession and not be out of work for 2 years. For the cinema industry, of course, it was a big shock, as millions of the budget were spent on tests, masks, sanitisers and other things.

Now COVID 19 is over and I’m learning a new profession in the movie industry called intimacy coordinator. In America, even scenes of holding hands are considered intimate scenes. The emergence of this specialty is linked to the Me Too movement.

How did I come to the movie industry? I’ve been taking pictures since I was 17. I think it makes sense when one visual form transitions into another, in this case photography transitions into motion photography.

It’s very hard to make money in the photography business in New York: a lot of competition, a lot of bad photographers with low prices. So I started thinking about where I could apply my skills and what I could be. Then I decided that the next step for me would be the movie industry. I finished a summer course at TISCH, NYU, which is one of the “Top Five” best film schools in the USA. After that I started working in the film industry and making my own movies.

My first short movie is called “Jay.” It is about an immigrant girl from Belarus in New York. What problems does the movie touch upon? Immigration, identification, women’s issues.

The filming process was quite long, but interesting. I first hired two screenwriters, who I paid money to, and they wrote me a script (the whole thing cost about $1000).

I read it and thought, “something’s not right.” I decided to send the script to Helga Landauer (screenwriter of the movie “Crystal Swan”) to read it and give her critique, and she helped me rewrite it. Then I started raising money for the movie, I applied for grants, I had two crowdfunding campaigns, one for the movie and one for post-production. Soon COVID came in. We were supposed to start shooting in May, but because of him we started in August. Everything took three shooting days. During that time, we spent $17,000: room payment, crew, food, equipment rental. Before the movie and after the movie, I spent another $10,000 of my own. That is, the total budget amounted to about $30,000 for two or two and a half years of work).

With “Jay” we were at 80 festivals around the world. We received three cash prizes: one in Poland, the second in Germany, the third in America, the smallest, by the way. Europe has once again proved that in terms of supporting art and funding, they are number one in the world.

Nastya Sergienya, photo from Nastya’s personal archive

Why a short film and not a full-length movie straight away? Because budget plays a role. A full-length movie needs a lot of money, and in order to get it, you have to show that you already have a portfolio.

A lot of people in America make short films, and 90% of them are just awful. I wouldn’t say that Americans have any style. And after Europe, and even Belarus, you come to America, and their cinematography, except for some Hollywood and independent works, doesn’t seem to be of very high quality. You sit and watch it and wonder how people can watch it at all. There were and are a lot of bad short films around me, and then I thought, if these people could raise money and make a movie like this… I can do it. So I started working on “Jay”. It was quite successful, and now I’ve finished the second short and I’m working on a full movie.

In general, America is not a creative cradle, it’s more about “making money”, and everyone who is creative here is of that opinion.

If you want to make a movie here, you have to not only show a script, but also make a business plan, tell how your movie will sell. There are even separate theatres here for good movies. I’m not saying that Hollywood movies are bad, there are a fair number of decent ones, but more are made with passable movies that will be forgotten in a couple of days. But this is America, everything is to the taste of the consumer.

Many visiting artists say that the sense of taste in filmmaking is erased here. By artists I mean painters – those who paint and write texts, actors, performers, etc.

Everything here is so blurred and so mixed with tastelessness that the sense of taste starts to fade away too. My career has gone up, of course, but my sense of taste has gone down. I try to abstract myself from it very much and at the same time not to give in to all this anti-Americanism, but there is a problem. Just as there are advantages to living in America: in Belarus, for example, I would never have shot what I shot in America. Raise $30,000 for a movie in Belarus? No. In Belarus, even $5,000 was an exorbitant amount of money.

Nastya Sergienya, photo from Nastya’s personal archive

My second short is only 6 minutes long. We shot it exclusively on film cameras, and the era in which the action took place came from the location and the costumes chosen for it. It is an experimental movie, in the style of the late Terrence Malick, a kind of discourse on relationships and love. In this work I was interested in experimenting with the development of relationships, overlaid on the biblical story of the creation of the world, but I can’t tell you the details yet. When we shot the second short, I was lucky. My future husband produced the movie and helped me with a lot of things. We spent less, somewhere around $7,000. Hopefully we’ll have a good run at festivals and after that I’ll already be able to show it online.

Full metre is a long story, I’ve been working on it for a year and a half. It’s going to be an indie movie. It takes very little money in the context of a movie, but in the context of money it’s still money. I’m not going to give any details about the movie yet.

To those who have decided to make their own movie: remember that the most important thing is perseverance, don’t lose heart, and don’t give up. It is not an easy process, labour-intensive, money-consuming. But as in any business, burning eyes will lead to something important and worthwhile.