INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR HANNA POLAK
How did you come to the project?
While living in Moscow, I was walking through one of the railway stations and I came upon two homeless children. I bought them some food and I spoke with them. They invited me to come at the end of the day when, they said, there would be many of them there. When I came back in the evening, I saw a group of about 70 small children. They were waiting for us. When they saw us they rushed in our direction. They were hugging us, grabbing our hands, talking to us; everybody wanted some attention.
The next few days I could not eat or sleep. It was painful and unimaginable that these children were not wanted by anyone; nobody was looking for them. This was a shock to me.
I started to organize some help for them - food, clothes, basic medical assistance. My friends joined and then we started Active Child Aid. We were taking children to the zoo, to the circus; we organized computer courses for them; soon we had some kids staying in our apartment, before we were able to place some of them in good orphanages.
The idea to make to movie came later, when we realized we would not be able to help so many children without facilities and money. It was then that I decided to make a movie to show people this problem, and by doing this, hopefully get some help for them.
Was it difficult to gain the access to the children?
We had a very friendly relationship with the children, and because we were helping them, they trusted us. We really liked them and made a big effort to help them, however we could. This is why they allowed us to come so close to their lives. But this relationship was built over some time, and the children knew that we cared.
What I think is really difficult it is to bring about deep changes in their lives. These kids have been hurt so much, rejected so many times, that they really keep a distance and try not to get attached.
How long did you shoot for?
The shooting took about two years and the editing about a year. But I did not have a camera; I did not have money, so I was working on and off. But I wasn't just making a movie. I was helping the children; I had to drive them to hospitals, talk to them; take care of different problems. There were times when it was just myself with the camera, when there were other priorities then making the movie.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in making the film?
Firstly, seeing the unbelievable suffering of the children. It was so painful to shoot the funeral of somebody you knew and liked, and who died so young. And this feeling of being helpless, that you are not able to do more, you do not have the facility, you are not able to help; you could not do more.
Secondly, there was a risk, which was always involved. I had been shooting underground, in some destroyed houses, different places where the children were hidden. I never knew what I would meet there, who would be there besides the children.
What shocked or surprised you the most in making the film?
The death of Tanya was the most shocking. She died overdosing of glue a day before her 14th birthday. This was so sad. Of course there are many things which shock me again and again: children all the time tell stories of their abusive families.
One day I came upon a girl who just attempted suicide and she told me before the ambulance came that she just felt no one cared about her, she wasn't needed by anybody.
Were there any remarkable stories you couldn't include in the film that you can share?
For example a story of Genya, a 14 year-old boy who did not want to live on the street anymore, but had nowhere to go. His mother died on the street. He was illiterate when he approached us, asking if he and five other homeless boys could stay in our apartment. We managed to place him in a good orphanage, and during next three years he accomplished 7 classes of school. He doesn't even want to remember his life on the street.
There was a six year-old girl who is now adopted and is the best student in her class.
One boy had fallen from the 5th floor of a destroyed building. The children called me to take him to the hospital. When he fell they got very frightened and carried him upstairs to put him on the only bed they had there. When I came I found him covered in blood. We had to very carefully carry him down these destroyed steps. The ambulance did not coming and we just had to get him to the hospital. As it was getting dark some children were lighting the way and some were helping to carry him very carefully in a blanket. We put him in the car and I drove him to the closest hospital. There was one child driving with us and telling me: Hurry up, he is getting cold, hurry up, he's stopped breathing. The boy survived but one of his eyes is not working properly.
I was teaching the children English in one railway station, and when I got sick they sent me a letter through other people, wishing me good health and saying that they miss me.
One boy in the metro was given 10 Rubles. He wanted to buy a flower but they were more expensive. He got one but broken and he gave it to me, even though this was all the money he had.
One day one girl asked me if I would adopt her. I told I can help her but I cannot do this. I could see how she lost hope, and how she would always keep a distance from that day on.
There are just so many stories.
Are you still in touch with the children?
Yes, of course. We have some children with who we are in contact with all the time. They call us and come when they need something or just to visit. We are very happy that we have managed to get some of the children out of the street.
Some of them still need help, and we try to do for them what we can. Also we help on a daily basis a group of the children who are right now on the street.
Has the film brought any changes to this terrible problem?
The movie has not been screened widely yet. But I hope with the HBO premiere it will help bring a change. I hope it will generate more interest in solving the problem of children and homelessness. I hope the movie will bring change not only in Russia, but also in other countries because this is a problem of many different nations to a bigger or lesser extent. We also hope to raise money to be able to create a rehabilitation program.
What are you working on now?
I am working on another movie about disadvantaged children and adults who live in Russia in very poor and difficult conditions. I hope this movie will be moving and beautiful. I have started to make this film side by side with The Children of Leningradsky. I hope to finish it soon. I have many ideas for movies, but my biggest problem is time since we continue to help homeless children on a daily basis.
Link: INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR HANNA POLAK
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