Back to IndieWire

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Olga Lvoff – ‘When People Die They Sing Songs’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Olga Lvoff - 'When People Die They Sing Songs'

Olga Lvoff received an MFA in Social Documentary from the School of Visual Arts in 2013. She has worked as an independent film director since 2009. Her recent short documentary film, Two Travelers, became a winner of the Honorable Mention Award at the International Film Awards Berlin (2013). The film was also nominated in two categories at the 2013 London International Film Festival and made the shortlist for the International Tarkovsky Award for Poetry and Cinema. Lvoff has also worked as a journalist, and her five years in independent documentary as a director and editor, as well as her background in journalism, led to her first full-length film, When People Die They Sing Songs. (Olga Lvoff)

When People Die They Sing Songs will play at DOC NYC on November 16.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

OL: When People Die They Sing Songs is a story of a mother and daughter who resolve to uncover their wartime past buried half a century ago. After suffering a stroke, 93-year-old Holocaust survivor Regina is getting music therapy. Accompanied by a music therapist, Regina sings Yiddish and French songs from her youth. Her daughter Sonia is with her at every session. This revitalizes their mother-daughter relationship and emboldens them to revisit their past. With Regina’s help, Sonia tries to capture their family story. The past they were so eager to forget, they are now anxious to remember. Yet Regina’s memory is rapidly succumbing to dementia.

W&H: What drew you to this story?  

OL: When People Die They Sing Songs started as my thesis film when I was studying social documentary at the School of Visual Arts. Looking for a topic, I chanced on an article in the New York Times about music therapy in hospice, and I was fascinated to learn about the musicians whose work it is to play for and sing with dying people every day.

At first, I decided to make a film about music therapy in hospices. I contacted the MJHS Hospice, which has a department of music therapists, and I followed two therapists, each of them working with two families. The very first family I met was Regina’s.

In the process of shooting, I realized that the story of Regina’s family deserved a separate film. Another very important reason was Regina’s personality: I was immediately taken by her wisdom and humor. At first, Regina’s daughter, Sonia, was unwilling to talk about her and her mother’s wartime past. However, as Sonia later admitted, my film catalyzed their story to unfold. Eventually, Sonia opened their family album with the prewar photos for the first time in 60 years. Even though my initial plan thus changed, the topic of music therapy remains crucial to the film.  

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

OL: The biggest challenge for me was to make the film all by myself. I had to shoot alone for the most part, because it’s a very intimate film, and bringing a crew could destroy this intimacy that we had with the characters. But to operate the camera, to record the sound, to think about the scene, to follow up with the right questions: to do all of that at the same time was a huge challenge! I edited the film myself, and now I am distributing it myself. It’s very tough not to give up when you do everything on your own, but I had a lot of support from the film school and my family. At the same time, because I have gone through all of these stages on my own, I learned so much! I think that for my next project, I will try to find a team and work together.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

OL: We all have or had parents. The story told in this film can relate to anyone. It shows how parents and children, especially those with a terrible past, may fall victims to an ever-growing silence if they do not find the strength to break this silence until it is too late. I wanted to tell a story of a mother and daughter who found the courage to recall their awful past and speak about it, which made them closer, stronger, and happier. I hope that people will think about their own parents and their own untold things that they wish to share with them if it’s still possible. I also want people to look at death and dying more closely — people in Western society often prefer to avoid this issue. Regina, the main character of the film, talks about it with humor and wisdom, and I think it can allow people to go there and explore their hidden fears and maybe overcome them.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

OL: One of the main challenges in making documentaries is getting access, becoming close with the subjects of the film to allow them to open up. I think that it’s often easier for women to get along with the subjects of a film than it is for men. In general, women are more flexible, and they naturally can win their subjects’ favor. I think we should use it to our advantage. People are the salt of the earth, and the salt of all films, and to be able to understand them and to relate to them is a huge advantage.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

OL: I think that the biggest misconception is that documentaries are still perceived more as a journalistic genre in society, while I think of it more as an art form. I am not saying it’s the only approach. Socially resonant, case-based, investigative documentaries are very important to make. I am just talking about my own view as a director. It’s subjective. And it’s more about art. Here are some of my artistic beliefs:

Subjectivity: There is no style of shooting and no approach that is objective. Documentary films are always subjective. The subjectivity starts with the chosen theme, the subject, with a particular camera angle, and ends with editing.

Lyricism: Lyricism is the acute feeling of vibration between light and sadness. It is the presence of the soul. There is no sense in making a film without a soul.

Artistic Image: The aspiration for expressive artistic images gives more than the aspiration for truth itself. An untruthful artistic image will always be weak. Cold truth can be boring and banal if not realized in an artistic image. The creation of artistic images develops cinematic language. 

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

OL: This film started as a thesis film at the School of Visual Arts, and I used school equipment and editing software, which very much lowered the expenses. I also got there grants to develop the film while I was in school, one of them being the Alumni Scholarship Award of the SVA. Besides that, I ran a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. Through this campaign, I found a major sponsor who donated half of the whole goal amount. It was the famous philanthropist Len Blavatnik.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

OL: One of my favorite women-directed films is The Beaches of Agnès by Agnès Varda. For me, watching this film was an experience that one has just several times in life. This is like my film in my best dreams, when I am better than I can be. Artistically, it’s my world, but so new and challenging! I have probably never seen another film that was done in such a fresh way and had all my life values, and at the same time shatters my stereotypes. It’s the world where art and life become one space, where we swim, sing, invent, reflect, film, love, eat, and watch.

My other favorite woman-directed film is Anastasia Tsvetaeva: I Am 90, My Steps Are Light by Marina Goldovskaya. Anastasia Tsvetaeva is the sister of Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the greatest Russian poets. Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941 when she was 49 years old, and her sister Anastasia lived until a very old age. This film is her portrait, which is at the same time a portrait of Russia in the 20th century. She is a unique woman from the old époque, part of the true intelligentsia from before the revolution. She is innocent, simple, very educated. She is a vessel that elegantly carries the Russian culture. And the film has the feeling of a poem itself.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox