I had the chance to see Bitter Harvest at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival and after the festival Mr. Mendeluk was kind enough to grant an interview over the phone. We talked a lot about the history behind this movie and also dived into the making of the film with some interesting tidbits coming up. Read on and make sure to check out this film as soon as possible.
I wanted to get into the actual events of the story because not a lot of people know that Stalin killed almost 3 times the amount of people that Hitler did. Why did you choose this story and what was its importance to you?
Mendeluk: Well first of all Stalin killed (it’s hard to pinpoint) close to 60 million people. He made Hitler look like an amateur in terms of homicidal maniacs. What this film does is shed a light on a communist secret that a lot of people don’t know about, and the ones that do know about it don’t want to talk publicly about it. This started back in the early 30’s with the New York Times and Walter Duranty, who essentially received a Pulitzer Prize for lying. He was Stalin’s apologist and he would say it was bad weather, poor farming practices, malnutrition, basically epic euphemisms (that caused these deaths). There was also another reporter who actually hitchhiked through Ukraine during the famine and he slept in the villages with the people that were starving (and he saw that Duranty was lying). Why I wanted to do this movie was because of my Aunt and Mother were survivors of this Holodomor, this genocide, and I was raised with stories of the absolute horror. There was no humanity, no sympathy in the Soviet regime. Starvation is the worst way to die because it takes so long and this was all because the wanted to implement collectivization.The reason why it was the best kept secret of the communist regime is because of three things. One was because the Cold War brought about the Iron Curtain and not a lot of information got out. It was only after the fall of the USSR that the information began to leak out. Secondly people were terrified to talk about it because they had told if they did speak about it they would be murdered and shot. The third reason was fake news which is not a new phenomenon and I know people think it is new but it did start back in the 30’s with people like Walter Duranty. I wanted to shed a light on this and it’s something that needs to be revealed in order for the people who were affected to be healed. Cause if you shine a light on something and reveal it, you can heal it.
I think directors have a really important task of bringing unknown stories like Bitter Harvest to the screen, especially for millennials who get a lot of their information from media. Do you ever feel that weight on your shoulders or do you just know that it’s important and has to be told?
Mendeluk: Well I do I take it very seriously, it’s been a four year struggle and it’s been a honour. But it has been a weight and its taken a toll because we wanted to make a movie to provide a voice for those who perished and could not speak. My mother told me stories about how she survived (the Holodomor) and what happened and how horrible it really was. She would go to school with her best friend, I think her name was Nadia. They were about 10 years old and on the way to school there would be little kids begging for food. As the famine got worse on their way back from school they’d see the same kids lying dead on the sidewalk. Ultimately (Nadia) died in a horrible way a bit later. This really stuck with me while growing up and just by chance this project came to me. You can call it a calling, I don’t call this project just a film but it definitely entertains. I don’t want people thinking it’s a dry documentary because at the heart is a sweeping love story a lot like a paradime of Doctor Zhivago in terms of story structure. We see horror in the background through the eyes of our lovers played by Max Irons and Samantha Barks (who played Eponine in Les Miserables).
I did want to ask about this cast. It’s a very talented cast, (Barry Pepper and Terence Stamp specifically) how did you get this group together?
Mendeluk: It was basically on the strength of the script. All you can do is send the script out with an offer and hope that the actors and artists want to be apart of the film then they sign on and if they don’t they pass. It was an honour to have the people that we ended up getting. I had directed Barry Pepper years ago in one of his first television shows that we shot in Calgary. He’s done very well for himself appearing in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I’ve been a huge fan of Terence Stamp who’s basically an icon since Billy Budd in the 60’s (which was Stamp’s first movie). One I liked even more was directed by William Wyler called The Collector which was a stunning picture from the 60’s too. It was about a guy who was a psychopath, but a very charming psychopath who collected butterflies and women. It was a stunning performance. Max and Samantha studied the history and Ukrainian culture vigorously and they took this project extraordinarily seriously. As an artist you don’t always get an opportunity to do an important film and hit the right note and I think this picture will. Also it’s hard to find a film that educates and entertains and I think Bitter Harvest does.
I drew a lot of parallels between Bitter Harvest and Hacksaw Ridge where both stories feature love stories but also features the horrors of war and genocide. They also both educated which is sadly seldom seen in a lot of films. Educating is probably one of the most important things a film can do, correct?
Mendeluk: There’s no question about that and I think that’s a good parallel because the theme in Bitter Harvest and perhaps you could extrapolate that to Hacksaw Ridge is that love transcends all, even the worst horror and evil mankind can perpetrate. I want people to walk away with the positive message of love from this movie believe it or not.
Features seem like the best way to tell a story like Bitter Harvest to a younger audience so was that a factor behind making it a feature film instead of a documentary?
Mendeluk: Absolutely because there’s been several documentaries about the Ukraine and the Holodomor specifically that are very well done. But they were mainly seen in the Ukraine and our mission was to spread the word and make this movie for the international market who could learn about this travesty, and that was the reason behind it.
I also wanted to touch on your decision to show Joseph Stalin in the movie. You didn’t have to do that but it certainly had a dramatic impact. So was this in the script from the start or was this a decision you made while making the film?
Mendeluk: It was in it from the start. I actually shot the scenes in many different ways and made him creepy and mysterious. We never saw him in full face until the end of the movie and there were many scenes with Stalin left out of the final edit. There’s only so much story you can tell in a feature as you’re limited by the amount of picture time a picture has to have to get distribution. Exhibitors want to have as many screenings per day as they can and if the film is over 2hr and 13 mins it doesn’t get distribution or not as wide.
Shooting on location how was it dealing with the different scenarios that the environment brought about?
Mendeluk: Location always had its challenges, but this shoot on Bitter Harvest represented probably the 10th different country I’ve shot in. It’s always a challenge but I think it is specifically a challenge because a war was breaking out and we were concerned we would be stopped or they would confiscate the film, so in that way were fortunate and got the message out.
Finally I heard that you got to shoot in the James Bond underwater tank in Pinewood so what was that like, seeing that piece of history?
Mendeluk: It was phenomenal! I’d never shot an underwater sequence before and it was just a wonderful, educational experience. My cinematographer Douggie Milsome who was one of Kubrick’s go to cinematographers caught the scene wonderfully and we used candlelight to bring a wonderful warm artistic feeling. So it was an honour to go back to film where Douggie (Milsome) had first started to film for Kubrick and also just to shoot with him in the first place.