Interview - Maria Avdjushko, director and writer of Fire Lily
Young Tallints
“A story about finding your will to live again.”

By Mirjam Mikk, Young Tallints participant

The mystical drama thriller Fire Lily, which just premiered at the 22nd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in the Estonian Film Competition, is a film by a woman for women. It centers around Pia who is recently divorced and forced to rebuild her life. Her deepest wish materializes in the most unexpected way when a mysterious otherworldly entity starts to visit her at night and she becomes pregnant. In the interview given to the Young Tallints, the filmmaker and actress Maria Avdjushko talked about her debut feature, women in film and what inspires her.

Mirjam Mikk - It is an unusual film. Where did the idea come from?
Maria Avdjushko - It is a different kind of film and certainly, for many, it will also remain ambiguous, which I take full blame for. To be completely honest, in the very beginning I wrote the script for myself. For a female character (at least before - now luckily it is changing) there were very few interesting roles and women tended to remain secondary.

I had the idea and wrote the first draft, but later on two other co-writers joined the project. Like it is with filmmaking, it is a group effort. But I have to admit that what you see on the screen does differ quite a bit from that which we wrote. That’s just how it is, during the editing process you’re looking at the material and think “No, this doesn’t work” and rearrange and at one point, the script sort of loses its meaning.

But does the initial feeling of the story still exist in the final result?
Yes, I think it does and this is carried by (lead) Ingrid Isotamm. [Pia] is a woman who is very strong but also vulnerable. Someone who fights for her existence, she has her own pain and a feeling of loneliness that she carries in her. It is a story about finding your will to live again. Whatever it may be. It can even be the baby who is born. Two realities exist in the film. We all believe in our own reality and the people around us are only fictions of our imagination. Pia chooses the world of illusions, it is her story and she builds her journey on that. I am very happy for Ingrid because it is her first big film job. In the beginning she was very insecure but I think she did amazing.

Is Fire Lily a film for women?
Yes, absolutely. This film was made keeping in mind the female viewer. There are many different types of women depicted in the film. There is the mother, who is on the comic side, but life is grotesque at times. She is a woman who refuses to be a mother. She has become one but she wants to live her own life not her children’s. And then there is the woman who is devoted to her child but at the same time she senses her husband slipping away and she just leaves her child to the woman who at the moment needs him the least. If they just could live on the screen like we have written them. But I always jokingly say that the film is also for men who take an interest in women.

You yourself have an impressive career as an actress. Has it always been a dream of yours to one day direct a film?
I guess I have gravitated towards it in another way. I have been working in the film industry for a very long time, I’m from a family of actors and film has been with me all my life. I have spent a lot of my time on film sets, carrying out different tasks. I have felt this “pull” my whole life. I remember when I was still a little girl...when there was a film shoot, I was always one of those kids avidly staring from the sidelines. For me, [finishing the debut feature] is a big occasion, a journey that lasts your whole life.

Being on the other side of the camera, how did you find the process of working with the actors?
I feel like, if anything, this is probably my strongest aspect, having been in the their place many times. Every actor feels helpless in this sort of a situation. Even when you’re a professional, have done many roles and gotten special training, with every role you start at ground zero. These fears are absolutely understandable. That was what was important for me, trust between me and the actors.

What was your approach?
An actor can play one thing at a time. I just tried to find the most specific signal and avoid confusing them as little as possible. This was my goal, to create a sort of comfort zone for them. On the other hand, I tended to show them how to act certain bits, I don’t know if it was the best choice, but as we had a very short shooting schedule, at times I felt I had to. When our cinematographer, Thierry Pouget, arrived and we started to set up the misé en scene, I played out all of the key events in different camera directions, so these roles became quite close to me.

Was it difficult to find a common language with the cinematographer?
As it was a co-production, we had to take a cinematographer from France. Certainly, it would have been easier for me to offer the position to an Estonian cinematographer, as I do know a few. Thierry Pouget took on the project at the last minute. Actually, we had already started working with a famous female cinematographer from France. My dream for this project was that all the key figures would be women, but sadly, I have to admit there isn’t always solidarity between women. So although, we had already started the pre-production, it was unthinkable for her to film it in this short time frame we had. Fire Lily was a low budget film. This became the obstacle and a month and a half before we were supposed to go into production, we found ourselves without a cinematographer. Thierry really jumped into unknown waters, unacquainted with me or the project. He came and started from the beginning. What I like, is that in the most intimate scenes of the film, this sort of very specific French subtlety has been caught.

As a director, do you feel like you have already found your own distinct handwriting?
Certainly not. What drives the way I work with material, is a certain feeling or emotion that I’d like to communicate...cinema is emotion. But to find the material to work with can be very difficult. It is one thing to read something and find it interesting, for it to spark something in you. But when you actually start to work with it, the same story has to interest you for 3 years or even longer...until you can start the shooting process. It is tricky. I also think that in order to tell certain stories, you need to have some prior life experience.

What makes you want to make films?
This has to be what they call the magic of film. It is a dreamlike alternate reality where we get to go away from our mundane life. To create this different reality is what time and again draws me towards it.