Vika Evdokimenko Talks Filming Refugee Drama On Location: ‘He Had Seen Unimaginable Horrors’

Vika Evdokimenko is a filmmaker whose latest work is a short film titled Aamir, about the refugee crisis in Europe. Recently, I had a chance to ask her about the project, including casting and filming. Here’s what she had to say.

Hello Vika. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I’d like to start with you if I could. Tell our readers a little about yourself and how you came to be a filmmaker.

I was born in the Soviet Union in the 80’s but my parents fled from Russia during the perestroika. So I spent most of my childhood moving between different unfamiliar places. My first day of school was in a suburb of Belfast where I arrived not speaking a word of English. At age 12, I came to the UK to attend a boarding school. I discovered filmmaking in my second year at Cambridge University when I joined a filmmaking club tied to one of the science departments. After a few sleepless nights spent watching Tarkovsky, Lynch & Herzog and playing around with Final Cut Pro, I was hooked. In my last year of university I applied for a bunch of internships in the industry and ended up working for Number 9 Films through the Film London company placement scheme. This was a paid internship in the heart of the industry that really helped me get started. Working in Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen’s company I got to assist on their productions and read several scripts a day. I soon got the itch to start writing myself. I spent the second half of the 2000’s freelancing on some fascinating productions that had their HQs in London, like Kevin McDonald’s ‘Life in a Day’, and making films with my friends. These were strange projects like a news program set in the desert presented by a forensics team, and a documentary about a Russian escort narrated by a racist London pigeon! In 2010 I decided to go to film school and ended up on the NYU Graduate Film program, a 3 year conservatory program and production bootcamp. There I studied with incredible mentors like Spike Lee and Rebecca Miller, and collaborated with, and learned from other budding filmmakers from around the world. Since graduating from NYU I’ve spent most of my time travelling, writing screenplays and making films with my husband and partner in crime Oliver Shuster.

READ MORE: Our Full Review of Vika Evdokimenko‘s Aamir

Your latest project is a short film called Aamir, about a 13-year-old boy in a European refugee camp. How did you become involved in wanting to tell this story?

In the winter of 2016 my co-writer Oliver and I came to volunteer in the Calais ‘Jungle’. At the time it was Europe’s largest unofficial refugee camp. It has since become synonymous with the worst of Europe’s refugee crisis. I ended up volunteering at the L’Auberge warehouse while Oliver worked with a build crew that repaired shelters in the camp. One day he returned with a story of a 13 year old Afghan boy who he met that day. The boy had been driven to despair in his search for a door to his shelter so he could feel safe. Government assistance was absent from the camp and it was a purely volunteer-run and donation-based effort, so the volunteer build crews had been unable to solve his problem for days. This young boy’s age was impossible to guess. The deeply disturbing look in his blood-streaked eyes belied his 13 years; he had seen unimaginable horrors. In his sleep-deprived desperation, he pulled a small knife on the build crew. No one was hurt and the standoff was defused by a cool-headed, experienced volunteer. Oliver told me he felt uneasy as he was sent off to install a door for the young man. But as they talked a little over the next hour or so, Oliver caught small glimpses of the normal boy behind those hard eyes: he wasn’t violent, he was desperate. What was he to do? He’d travelled from Afghanistan, on his own, in part on foot, to find himself here. A place where simple human hopes are heartbreakingly fragile, and where dreams of getting to safety can feel further away than ever. He was not able to tell Oliver everything that had happened to him, and it would have been inappropriate to ask, but spending more time in the camp Oliver and I heard stories like his repeated again and again. We left the camp with the unsettling realization that the well-meaning and inspiring volunteers are up against a crisis of global proportions and are utterly ill-equipped to deal with such a humanitarian disaster. And the story stuck with me. This kid desperate for something so simple as a plywood door with a twenty pence padlock seemed to me to encapsulate a whole lot about the refugee crisis in a simple visual metaphor.

You spent some time in the Calais ‘jungle’, a large refugee camp in Northern France. Images I saw on the news and online were always troubling. What can you add from a personal experience?

Before spending time in the ‘Jungle’ the image of a refugee camp in my mind was of tidy rows of whitewashed, UN sponsored tents. The ‘Jungle’ was nothing like this. It was a muddy shanty town of makeshift shelters built on a dirty landfill site next to a chemical factory. The stench from the factory was unbearable. The constant mud underfoot and grey skies overhead were a depressing backdrop to the poverty. To keep warm at night people would often burn plastic in makeshift fire pits that let off a toxic black smoke. Having said that I was also amazed by the ingenuity of the ‘Jungle’s’ residents. Shelters were often grouped together in little hamlets creating courtyards where people would gather to drink tea and eat together. Despite all the adverse conditions refugees in the camp had somehow managed to hold on to their sense of community and hospitality. On so many occasions we were invited for meals in people’s shelters and they would share with us delicious meals they had somehow managed to put together on tiny camping stoves. The ‘Jungle’ was also full of restaurants where for a few euros you could eat a warm curry and watch middle eastern MTV. There were several schools, mosques, an Ethiopian orthodox church and even a theatre organized by British volunteers. I was amazed by how 15 nationalities (normally a refugee camp has no more than 3) were able to coexist in such a place, though unsurprisingly, ethnic tensions and violence did often break out in the camp.

It’s my understanding that while you and the filmmakers hoped to use a real refugee child from the camp in your film, this was not possible. Could you explain?

When we started pre-production we wanted to cast an unaccompanied child refugee from the ‘Jungle’ to play Aamir. We soon found it was impossible. The children we talked to there were deeply traumatized by what they had been through. Obviously they weren’t trained actors and somehow it seemed hugely unfair to ask them to relive the traumatic experiences that must have been so raw in their minds. Even more disturbingly, every time we’d return to the camp we couldn’t track down the same children we’d spoken to on our last visit. They kept disappearing. These kids were so desperate to leave the camp, every night they would try to escape. Some turned to smugglers others tried their luck on lorries headed for the UK unassisted. We never heard from most of them again. I guess this is what really brought it home for us. This story needs to be told.

You eventually cast Alan Asaad​ as Aamir. He’s a bright young talent. Tell me about how you found him and his experience in the troubling role.

Finding our Aamir was no easy task. We needed someone who belonged to one of the nationalities represented in the Calais camp, who was fluent in their native language, but who also spoke English so we could communicate. And this young actor needed to be able to pull off a major arc of transformation. We discovered Alan in one of the open casting calls organized by our casting director Kharmel Cochrane. He blew us away in his very first audition. There was a darkness and maturity to his performance that I couldn’t have hoped for from such a young actor. I remember he was wearing braces and I was praying that his parents would agree to remove them so we could cast him. And they did! Alan is the son of first-generation Kurdish immigrants from Iraq and his parents Layla and Razi were instrumental in helping us navigate cultural nuances to develop Aamir’s character, and Alan’s fluent command of Kurdish helped him bring another layer of authenticity to the role.

Jasmine Blackborow​ stars a Kaitlyn, a young British volunteer. I liked how hopeful yet seemingly futile her efforts always seemed, delivering the film’s underlying message. Is she based on a real person?

Katlyn is based on a number of male and female volunteers we met in the camp but Jasmine is an absolute pro and did her own character research on top of that, talking extensively with one of her friends who’d volunteered in Calais. Of the volunteers we met, many were in Calais for a few days or a week of holiday leave, while others had left their jobs, families and lives to volunteer in the ‘Jungle’ long term. We’re talking six months to a year of living in very basic conditions in trailers, shared housing around the grim town of Calais or in shelters in the ‘Jungle’ itself. They were badass and incredibly inspiring. What was heartbreaking was that, despite the differences they were making to individuals, their overall efforts felt like drawing in the sand. The humanitarian crisis that the British and French governments were choosing to ignore, and these ordinary people had volunteered to deal with, was deepening every day and their resources felt tragically insufficient. They were the first to admit that despite their best efforts, so many people fell through the gaps. I wanted Katlyn to embody this genuine goodness of intent but also this feeling of struggling against the tide.

You actually filmed Aamir on site in the Calais camp. What were some of the larger challenges of filming in this very real setting?

I had been back and forth to the ‘Jungle’ through the first half of 2016 to deepen my research and figure out how and if it might be possible to make a narrative film in the camp. But on our first recce with our HOD’s, our DP Robbie Ryan commented that the ‘Jungle’ felt like a tinderbox. Some days it was quiet and calm but at the slightest provocation it could go up in flames. This is exactly what happened the weekend before we were supposed to head to Calais with a 20 person crew and our child actor. On May 28th a fight between the Afghans and the Sudanese broke out in a queue and spread through the camp like wildfire. Someone was shot, 3 volunteers got hurt, dozens of refugees were injured. By the following morning the Sudanese section of the camp where we had planned to shoot had burned down. We had some scenes involving knives and fire and decided that the responsible thing to do would be to shoot these more complex scenes on a set. When we did go into the ‘Jungle’ to shoot it was with a skeleton crew and accompanied by community leaders and volunteers from local charities who were there to make the camp’s residents aware of our presence and intentions. We were very conscious that the ‘Jungle’ wasn’t just a ‘location’. We were going into people’s homes and it was on us to be respectful and to not objectify the refugees whose lives we were trying to depict.

Congratulations on the film’s BAFTA nomination for Best Short Film. It’s well-earned. Will this kind of exposure be helpful in securing distribution so more people can view the film?

Thank you! We’re very lucky to be nominated. And the great thing is that BAFTA offers distribution for it’s nominated short films and animations. This is a really unique opportunity because it’s very rare that short films receive distribution even after a successful festival run. It’s really great to know that the film will be seen by so many more people than we could have hoped for. The film will be available on VOD and in Curzon cinemas across the country from the 7th of February 2018. We also hope to play at more festivals in the UK and beyond.

This is your fifth short film. What do you like about the format and do you have plans to continue or try a feature length project?

The short film is a funny beast, a bit like the one act play or the poem. It’s a difficult form to master and I’ve been trying to get my head around it for years. I can’t say that I love this format because I love seeing characters change on film, but a short film is about not having too much story. It’s more about setting up a ‘what if’ and then having one twist that undercuts the audience’s expectations. A short can often take as long as a feature to make but is very hard to monetize as a filmmaker. So it’s a great form to hone your skills on, but after 5 of these I’m feeling ready to move on to a feature! Oliver and I have spent the last 5 years writing feature screenplays, honing our skills and also searching for a story of appropriate scale for a first feature. We’re excited to have finally emerged with that screenplay, so that’s the next adventure we’re looking forward to!

On our website, we dedicate a lot of content to great moments in movie, discussing their influence and impact. Are there any movie moments that have been important to you as a filmmaker?

That’s a difficult question! There are so many filmmaker who have influenced me: David Lynch, Krzysztof Kieslowsky, Andrea Arnold to name a few. Specifically in relation to ‘Aamir’ a movie moment that comes to mind is the scene from Roberto Benigni’s ‘Life is Beautiful’ when Guido makes one final joke to comfort his son before he is executed by the Nazis. I’ve always been fascinated by characters managing to cling to their humanity in dehumanizing circumstances. In my research for this film specifically I was also influenced by Elem Klimov’s ‘Come and See’ which has to be one of the best war movies ever made. It explores how war destroys a boy turned partizan fighter, not because he is killed but because he survives the string of horrific experiences he is thrust into.