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Interview to participants in the EWA Network Mentoring Programme, Olena yershova and Greta Akcijonaite

Carolina Mancini
Carolina Mancini

Interview to Olena Yershova and Greta Akcijonaité

Greta Garbo is the name that Greta Akcijonaite chose for her distribution company when she founded it in 2017: not because it is her own name or to pay tribute to a film icon who today we would call gender neutral. Greta puts it very simply: “I was also working in exhibition at the time, and we had email addresses where we would give ourselves the names of cinema stars. Mine was Greta Garbo, so they often called me that ever in real life…That’s why it was the first name that came to mind when I set up the company!”

Today Greta Garbo is also a production company, and Greta Akcijonaite an emerging producer. And the decision to use the same name is also one of the outcomes of the 4th edition of the EWA Mentoring Scheme for Women Producers which Greta took part in. “It strengthens your identity, becoming a trade mark” says Olena Yershova, who was Greta’s mentor during the one-year program.

Women’s achievements do not always need a big fuss: they are often the result of imperceivable movements put in place when one really wants something, even without fully realizing it.

This was the feeling I got during the double interview with Greta and Olena: the sensation of a ‘gentle shaking of the air’, to borrow the metaphor Yershova used to describe the dynamics of their mentor-mentee relationship.

OLENA YERSHOVA: “I mean that ideas don’t come just from one side, but from communication, it was a mutual learning process through sharing. Producing is not a classical job, it’s not mathematical, it’s about prototypes so every time it’s different, and it still surprises me. Even if you work with famous award-winning directors, you can never tell if you will have a positive or negative response, probably only Lars Von Trier and another few can, the rest of us never know. Also, sharing thoughts about partners is important. Let’s take sales agents: discussing them between producers is helpful because their official reputation might not always correspond to their attitude to us in terms of giving back the money, to give an example. Things like this help us navigate this strange kind of job, where you cannot really get rich, especially in the unstable countries I work with: Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine.”

Countries which, like Lithuania, are “not the main Europe” says Yershova, guessing that this could be one of the reasons they were matched by the EWA team

GRETA AKCIJONAITÉ: “Another reason could be our similar backgrounds: we both came to production following a career in festivals and studied to be filmmakers”. Besides, Olena had already worked with Lithuania (-editor’s note-coproducing the film Frost, by Lithuanian director Šarūnas Bartas, which was screened at Cannes Fortnight in 2017), “and we have a lot of acquaintances in common, we were meant to meet and EWA helped make it happen sooner”.

Olena Yershova’s Tato Film, founded in 2011 in Ukraine (even though she was already living in Turkey), is a tribute to her father, Konstantin Yershov, a film director who made the first genre film in the Soviet Union, Vij in 1967, a horror movie with a touch of comedy, based on Gogol’s novel of the same name (Tato in Ukrainian means father). The company functioned fully in Ukraine until 2020, when Covid arrived, followed by the war. Its last production was the documentary Everything will not be Fine, in 2021, a Romanian -Ukrainian coproduction, that was screened at IDFA in First Look Appearance. Tato still operates from Turkey, and recently Yershova joined Kino Iberica, the Georgian production company created by Georgian director Levan Koguashvili: she is producing his new film Guria (“We’ll hopefully start shooting in the middle-end of October”) and she also produced his previous one, Brighton 4th, which will now be released in France.

Greta Akcijonaite is concentrating more on shorts in this first phase of her production career: “I need to get some experience, and I would like to cultivate new talents, to grow with them and produce their future feature films”. She is currently working on four short film projects: How to be a Human Being by Jore Janaviciute, and On Purpose by Adas Burkšaitis are in distribution; also by Adas Burksaitis is Left-handed Pen, which is in pre-production, like First Day by Gintare Parulyte.

Both of you studied film directing at a time when this job was not recommended for women…

GRETA AKCIJONAITÉ: When I was studying at the Lithuanian Music and Theater Academy, I was discouraged from becoming a filmmaker many times if I wanted to be a mother and have a life. They convinced me in the end, so I decided to work in distribution and exhibition. I was quite content and never planned to go into production. But after a 20-year career, when everything stopped because of the pandemic, I got a job offer from a production company, and really got into it, to the point that it’s now the main focus of my career, even though I am still a little involved in distribution

OLENA YERSHOVA: The chicken is not a bird and a woman is not a film director: this was a saying in Soviet times: the Soviet Union was a huge production country, but you could count the female directors on one hand: Kira Muratova, Larysa Shepitko and a few others.
I was the only woman in my class when I was studying to be a director.

Things have changed profoundly now, they both acknowledge, also thanks to the work of the associations. Greta is part of Women in Film and Television in Lithuania of which she says: “it started naturally, gathering together with other women in the industry, sharing our problems and successes, until we became a body. Since then, I have been following what EWA was doing, there were producer members that I knew, but I couldn’t be part of it as you have to be a filmmaker. So, as soon as I became one, I joined!

Nevertheless, they both underline that the situation is still very uneven if we look at it from a decision-making perspective:

OLENA YERSHOVA: “The committee table is mainly occupied by men, both in Turkey and Ukraine which are very troubled countries as we know. In Turkey it’s not easy to be a female producer: there are many of them, and female directors too, but if you look at the films that are actually realized by women, there aren’t many. Another issue is independence because in Ukraine many women producers are backed by big companies, majors. In Georgia things are slightly better in this respect: there has been a woman at the head of the Film Fund. The main problem there is the lack of money.

GRETA AKCIJONAITÉ: In Lithuania now it is more common to have women in professions that once were only the territory of men (not just directors but also cinematographers), but the numbers are deceptive: apparently there are many women and I actually think the proportion is one of the best in Europe. The money still goes more to the men’s side, though. Having said that, we are now focusing on how to create a good working environment with a mentally healthy atmosphere for men, women and anyone else.

The mentoring program ended during the Trieste Film Festival, but the exchange between Olena and Greta continues, “we share stories, ideas and maybe we will also find a common project at some point!”, they say.

Meanwhile, their next rendezvous will be Series Mania Forum, starting this week, where they will both be carrying out networking for their TV series projects: Greta is developing Cold, a 5-part historical TV drama, set in Lithuania in 1991, when the country was breaking free from Soviet occupation (a coproduction between Lithuania, Germany Switzerland, Austria and Hungary). “We have just been selected for the Budapest Debut Film Forum” comments Akcijonaite, “and we are applying for several more”.
Escape from Harem is also a period drama set at the beginning of the 20th century, about two Turkish girls who run away to Paris from the Ottoman Empire of Abdul Hamid II. Olena Yershova recently won the first inaugural Netflix European Producers Club Pitch Prize for it which provides funds to help six female producers from across Europe develop their ideas into drama series.

At Series Mania, the EWA Network will be giving the Woman in Series Award to Nicola Shindler together with Pour Les Femmes Dans Les Médias, and organizing a networking breakfast.