Synopsis: Nina is 28 and has spent most of her life in care homes, but the pandemic changes everything for her, as staying in a care home is no longer safe. Arina, a young professional from Moscow, invites Nina to temporarily live with her. When restrictions are finally lifted, Nina has to go back to care home but after spending lockdown together young women grow very close and settle on a plan they to take Nina out of the institutional system for good. Arina has to make the most controversial decision in her life.
There is still a huge stigma around disability in Russia – people prefer not to talk about this topic and not to get involved. That’s why four years ago when I was invited to film a summer camp for young adults with learning disabilities in Valday District in Russia I was warned that a visit to this camp could be emotionally draining and my video material would turn out to be dark and depressing. These warnings were coming from people who have never been to such places before. Those comments left me feeling very irritated and even angry. Being a young filmmaker I believed it was very important to stay open to things and people instead of jumping into conclusions about something I had little idea of.
My process of documentary filmmaking is very observational. When I start filming a story, I don’t want to know too much about my characters and decisions they are going to make in front of my camera. I want to learn from their lives in the process of filming. That’s what I believe is the beauty of documentary filmmaking. It lets us become closer to the person, follow this person’s path and grow together.
The protagonist of my film – Nina – was one of the first people I met at the camp. That year not only she lived in a tent in a forest for the first time in her life, but she was able to choose freely what she wanted to do and when – for the first time, too. Russia has a long way to go to end institutionalisation. According to various estimates, between 155,000 and 161,000 people in this country still have to live in crowded care homes, with up to 1000 others. They are cut off from the outside world by security guards and high fences and receive very little personalised treatment. Nina was one of these people – with no choice, no rights and no freedom.
A year ago Nina got a chance to leave a care home and started a new life with the help of her friend and volunteer Arina. Soon it became very clear to me that the struggles Nina was facing in her life had little to do with her disability. The fact that she has been in practically imprisoned in the institutional care homes for her whole life has influenced her development and socialisation greatly.
Russian people including myself have to be educated more about inclusivity. Soviet heritage, which is still very present, dictates that people with disabilities should be hidden from the society. The only way the disability is covered in mainstream Russian media right now is through showing the heroic nature of those who help, especially if this help is coming from the government. On the contrast, people with special needs are often portrayed as helpless kids. I find this approach extremely dangerous and harmful.
When filming the story about 30-year-old volunteer charity worker Arina who decides to become a guardian to 28-year-old Nina I made an effort to avoid any idealisation. I wanted to portrait two imperfect people, who fight, struggle, doubt themselves and their decisions, laugh, yell at each other and yet find their way to connect and carry on. I wanted to capture how love was being born between two friends who turned out to need each other equally. In my belief, telling honest stories about real people and their relationship is essential for a more inclusive society.
Zlata Onufrieva was born in 1992 in Siberia, Russia. She worked as a journalist in Moscow till 2016 when she moved to Prague to study documentary filmmaking at FAMU. She got her start making short videos and documentaries for BBC News Russian where she is currently working as a video journalist. Zlata’s works are mostly focused on social issues such as inclusivity and women’s rights in Russia. Her previous film “First date with a feminist” for the BBC was widely discussed by the Russian audiences and gathered more than 400K views across BBC Russian media platforms.