John Paskievich (JP) is a Ukrainian-Canadian documentary filmmaker and photographer from Winnipeg, who was a valuable member of a KinofilmFest committee.
UW: Thank you for finding time to meet us!
JP: I’ll do anything for a free pizza. [Laughing]
JP: So what do you guys think about KinoFest?
UW: We were expecting more people, frankly…
JP: You know, it’s something very conservative in Ukrainian community. You will see people of events like Malanka, political fundraisers or Shevchenko thing. But for KinoFest or art shows or book presentations – don’t expect a crowd. People would rather watch a Hollywood movie for 10 dollars. Its mentality. Let me ask why do you think it was a small audience?
UW: Several things – timing, delay with getting films, advertising could be better. But overall, it was a good start.
JP: I agree, and I would like to help you guys in future. I liked films.
UW: Let’s talk about that. We have seen many films while working on our program. Do you find anything special in Ukrainian cinematography?
JP: I was surprised how sophisticated the cartoons were. Shorts were not, but that is ok, since most of directors are young. Most of all I liked “Chasing two Hares“.
JP: I like the satire, I liked the acting, I liked the editing, I liked the style – it was like Fellini’s characters. It is really entertaining. I was actually surprised, there was no comedy made in Canada that was that good.
UW: What are you working on right now?
JP: I am working on book of pictures of Eskimos. I was in the Arctic region in the late 80’s, working for the department of Northern Affairs – they wanted me to take photos of Inuit artists. I did that and also took pictures of things I was interested in. Now it will be a book.
JP: Also I am researching a film on a runner who has a learning disability, who was living in the North End and was beaten all the time, because he does not understand the world like we do.
UW: Sounds familiar…Forrest Gump?
JP: Yeah, something like that…He has that kind of quality.
UW: What about his running?
JP: He is very good. He is 44 years old and during the last half-marathon we came 9th overall and first in his age category. But he is very poor and his brain does not work in the way he could get a well-paid job. If he had support even in his 30’s, he would be in the Olympics. He used to live right next to you guys, by the way – on Magnus Ave.
UW: We know you grew up in the North End, is that why you are so loyal to it?
JP: Oh yeah, It was my home for a really long time, however I don’t live there now.
UW: Ok, Let’s start from the beginning then. You were born in Austria, right?
JP: Yes, when I was 5 my family moved to Winnipeg, but we did not stay there for long and moved to Montreal where I lived for 7 years. Then we moved back to Winnipeg again.
UW: So what did you want to be at that time?
JP: As a child I had the usual kid dreams of becoming a famous athlete or a cowboy but I also, unlike my friends, had a strong liking for religion.
UW: Any specific religion?
JP: I was raised as a Greek Catholic, but I liked the idea of religion in general— the holy days, rituals, art work, music, all of that filled me with wonder and I like the idea that a religious service was free and accessible to everyone rich and poor, young and old.
UW: So, was it an interest of a researcher or were you a believer?
JP: Both, I am still very interested and I still believe.
UW: Is there any art project you dedicated to phenomenon of religion?
JP: I did an early film on a group of Russian Old Believers in northern Alberta.
In Canada most documentary films are funded in one way or another with government money so it’s very difficult to make films about religion. Whenever you mix religion and state sponsorship it get’s dicey. It’s easier if you do an expose or critique of religion.
UW: We will talk about movies later, let’s start with your “first love” – photography.
JP: That’s right, I fell in love with it pretty late though – I graduated from the university in Winnipeg and I did not know what to do…
UW: And what did you study?
JP: Sociology…So I went to work in Montreal, then came back to Winnipeg, saved some money and went to Europe. It was 1970. I went to Western and Eastern Europe, there I bought my first camera and I started taking pictures. And I really liked it, but I was not sure if I could make a living from that. So I went to Toronto to study, worked in the railway industry, and thought about my future. Writers are always told to write about something they know, and I knew Winnipeg. So I moved back to Winnipeg in 1976, started taking pictures in the North End and then I got jobs with magazines. That is how it all started.
UW: So when you see North End now, what do you feel?
JP: It’s not for me. A place I grew up in was very safe, it was mostly eastern European immigrants, it was an exciting place to live with Main Street full of restaurants, now it’s full of drugs.
UW: So a store you pictured in “Ted Baryluk’s Grocery”, was one of those safe and nice places you would go all the time?
JP: Yes, actually this guy was my mother’s second husband, although I never thought of him as a stepfather, he was a great guy. But that movie is a fiction, although it is a documentary. All documentaries are fictions in fact, because it is squeezed into a small story, so you edit something out, add something…The film was about the area changing, if you remember, Ted was going to move out, and we can see that happening now – people don’t stay in North End, they make money and move out.
UW: It won several awards – Canadian Film Awards, nominated for a Golden Palm, few others.
JP: Yes, but I was not expecting this…
UW: So it was a black swan?
JP: Exactly, but we were glad it worked out.
UW: Did you go to Cannes?
JP: Oh no, we thought: What would we do there with all those celebrities?….[Laughing]
UW: What is the award you would like to receive? You would be most proud of…
JP: Well, everyone likes winning awards, but if I win, I will say “thank you very much” but to actually make a film that would win an award – good luck. It’s like Stanley Cup – you play hockey because you want to and you hope to win something, but you don’t do that for awards.
UW: Ok, did you consider yourself a director or a photographer when you were working on Ted’s film?
JP: Photographer. You see, in order to be a successful photo journalist – and that was what I wanted to be – you have to be going out there all the time, you have to do a lot of traveling. I did not want to do that. I liked Winnipeg, I was more of a family guy and when Ted’s movie became successful I decided to try making films. I thought I would still do photography when I wanted. I am still doing both.
UW: On IMDb, there was a gap between 1999 (The Gypsies of Svinia) and 2013 (Special Ed). What were you doing in between?
JP: Well I made a film in Ukraine – My Mother’s Village (2002). This is a film about psychology, about children of immigrants.
UW: Is it a self-reflection?
JP: Yes, It was about memory and about what do you do with your parents’ experience. It’s nice, you should see it. Then I made “Unspeakable” (2006) – film about stuttering – what it is, what people think about that – more like an educational movie. After that was a film on Gordon Bell High School and then Special Ed.
UW: All those movies are documentaries, have you ever considered features?
JP: Well, it’s very hard, you have to be nuts to make documentaries in Canada, but you have to be insane to make features.
JP: Money. You have your story and by the time you get full financing, it could be a totally different story, because producers know better what people want.
UW: Same story with Hollywood?
JP: Exactly, everyone wants to make Spiderman 17.
UW: Are you facing a lack of financing issue right now?
JP: All the time…
UW: What money are we talking about?
JP: 1k – 5k per minute if you pay people professional wages…
UW: How much do you need for your next project?
JP: A cкіко маєш? Давай – давай! [Laughing]
UW: Oh, we have never heard that language from you. John, what is Ukraine for you?
JP: Well, I was not born there, but it was a kind of air that I grew up with – the way people talked, nutrition, culture, politics, etc. Although I need to say I am interested in that part of the world in general, not just in Ukraine. I consider myself lucky that I have Eastern European heritage.
PS: Special Ed, will be playing at the Gimli Film Fest, Sat. July 26th at 3: 00 PM
Also on the same day at 9: 00 PM is Love Me, a documentary on Ukrainian mail order brides.