Dana Ziyasheva: “Own rights to your work”

Only what you create with your sweat, blood and tears will belong to you. Own rights to your work. Success and happiness are not synonyms. You’re not the genius your mom thinks you’re. Don’t borrow money to finish your film. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dana Ziyasheva. She was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in […]

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Only what you create with your sweat, blood and tears will belong to you. Own rights to your work. Success and happiness are not synonyms. You’re not the genius your mom thinks you’re. Don’t borrow money to finish your film.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dana Ziyasheva. She was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1972. She dreamed of becoming a writer and filmmaker. But in the Soviet Union of her childhood, opportunities for a middle-class Kazakh girl from the empire’s outskirts to make a career in cinema were virtually inexistent. Instead, Dana graduated from Kazakh State University and became a TV journalist in the field covering police patrols as well as natural and political disasters.

In 1994, she used her fellowship at the Central European University in Prague, Czech Republic, to foray into Western Europe. No one, not even the Kazakh government, could believe it when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris offered her a position as the youngest and first-ever international civil servant from Kazakhstan. Despite initial disapproval from her own government, Dana spent the next 20 years working for the UN in Paris, in Iraq, in China and in Costa Rica. Between missions, negotiating with governments and implementation of international conventions and UN Plans of Action, she was involved in audiovisual projects with Central China TV and China Film Group.

For her first feature film “Defenders of Life” set in a rain forest of Costa Rica, she worked as a driver, make-up artist, set designer, costume supervisor as well as film director. She then edited the movie and supervised color-correction and sound mix while still working for the United Nations. The direct reference to adolescent pregnancies and violence against women catapulted the movie into the heart of social debates in Central America.

After the movie’s successful premiere in Costa Rica in 2015 and subsequent awards from around the world, Dana resigned from the United Nations and moved to Hollywood.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

My hometown is Almaty, Kazakhstan. It’s a very green sunny southern city nestled in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. For millenniums it was a welcome stop for caravans traveling the Great Silk Road. Kazakhs were nomads; we value freedom of movement and teamwork. As a child, I was used to extreme continental climate weather. Snow or rain or burning sun, I’d go out and play with my friends. I liked to be one with nature, observe and describe the quiet coziness of the snow and the crazy rush of joy that overwhelm us in the spring. As a child I read a lot of books, my favorite authors were Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mayne Reid,Alexandre Dumas, Lev Tolstoi and Kazakh author Gabit Musrepov. I listened to jazz and opera and studied painters and paintings. My parents and grand-parents were literature and art aficionados. My mom instilled in me the habit of visiting abodes of great writers. I’ve been to the exiled Dostoevsky’s house in Semipalatinsk, Hemingway mansion in Key West, and to Alexandre Pushkin estates in Russia. I was educated in Russian but also spoke Kazakh with my grandma.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path of an indie filmmaker?

Before I became a screen-writer, I was a writer and a journalist. I published my first story about the adventures of a dove family when I was 11. I fed and protected a couple of Eurasian collared doves through a particularly rude winter and in spring they chose my window as a safe place to have babies. The national children’s newspaper gave my story an entire page and even illustrated it with a drawing of doves and a girl that looked like me! It was the first time I went out there and dared to pitch a story. What’s more, I sold it and even got paid for it! It was a defining moment for me. I started believing in myself as a writer, I felt that I had a story to tell and people were interested.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was doing research for my novel “Shock” in northern Thailand, I disguised myself as a Karen minority refugee and crossed the border illegally into Myanmar. There I hiked deep into the unrecognized state of Kawthoolei and lived with Karen guerillas that fight against the junta in Rangoon. I was able to find all the information and people I needed. I kept my connection with Karen providing funds for a hospital deep in the jungles. Children there die of malaria, entire populations are displaced but no one talks about it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m grateful to my Mom. She encouraged me to write, to draw and to dream big; she talked to me about great writers leaving a lasting legacy, and that the road is made by walking. I read my stories to her first, she critiqued them but also highlighted good nuggets, and gave me confidence to continue.

My main partner in crime is my husband Igor Darbo. When I wrote a script for “Defenders of Life” about a child-bride in Costa Rica, we decided to invest our savings in making it into a movie. We contacted a number of Central American film-directors with the script, but none of them thought it was possible to shoot a movie with an indigenous tribe in a remote reservation, in less than a month. That’s when Igor told me: “You should direct it yourself,” and I just laughed. I had experience of TV and movie productions in China and Mongolia and Kazakhstan, but from there to direct non-professional actors in Spanish and Ngabere was a stretch. But Igor believed that together the Ngabe tribe and I are unstoppable! He ordered filming equipment from the US and hired a crew: our cameraman was from Brazil, a sound person a Cuban and a music composer flew in from St Petersburg, Russia! During the production, Igor took charge of the sets, location scouting deep in the forest and a local diplomacy with the Ngabe tribe and later distributed the movie to Amazon Prime, a true problem solver we needed as a producer in this crazy adventure. But most importantly, he gave me the push I needed, to make this leap of faith into film-making.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Don’t wait for an opportunity. Create it.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

Together with my friend and a veteran TV producer Maegan Philmore, I’m developing “In the Cut”, a feature-length documentary/docuseries, set at Summit County Juvenile Detention Facility in Akron, Ohio. “In the Cut” focuses on the mindset of incarcerated youth and how it could change the recidivism rate. We’ve been negotiating with LeBron James Family Foundation about a cold open or a narration.

I’ve been working on a horror feature script. I would want to make a feature drama about the 1212 Children’s Crusade in Medieval France, something I have been working with leading historians in France and the US for several years already. We’re still waiting for a suitable partner to take off the ground “Dragon Angel” recognized as the best co-production with China, at the Shanghai Film Festival.

We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?

Hollywood needs new blood, new cultural influences, new perspectives to tell stories. It became too nepotistic, too consanguineous. If they really want to survive and save the industry, Hollywood gate-keepers should stop paying lip service to diversity and walk the talk which means one thing: opening the system to outsiders. It’s pure tokenism to hire a diverse woman to direct a sequel about a bunch of white saviors! Now is the time when Hollywood can and should experiment with new business ideas. Say, they decide to forego another comic book adaptation and use the budget of one tent-pole to finance ten indie movies. Let diverse indie film-makers tell stories that are close to their heart and cater to changing American demographics. Who knows, financially profitable indies could be the way for the movie industry to bounce back after the pandemic

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Only what you create with your sweat, blood and tears will belong to you. Own rights to your work. Success and happiness are not synonyms. You’re not the genius your mom thinks you’re. Don’t borrow money to finish your film.

Can you share with our readers any self-care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

When I’m under a lot of pressure and need to reboot, I do yoga, meditation and wushu breathing techniques. I find a Tree Pose the best for sharpening my focus. It’s the pose of extreme penance. In Ramayana, the Lankan king and a demon Ravana performed the Tree Pose for 11,000 years! Imitating a tree even for half-an-hour makes me feel like a steel board — determined, laser-focused and unstoppable.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Remember Dostoevsky saying that all the harmony in the world is not worth the tears of one tortured child? When I was working with the United Nations, I had a principle that each of my projects should change the life of at least one person for the better. Only then, it’s worth it. My thinking hasn’t changed. If my movies can change at least one person’s way of thinking towards a more positive and constructive one, that movie was worth making. I feel blessed that “Defenders of Life” spearheaded a law that banned under-age marriages and unions with minors in Costa Rica. I believe all movies should have a humanist, societal component. GREATLAND certainly does.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Jason Blum. I’m a big fan. Blumhouse movies on Netflix are fire! I’d love to pick his brain on how to break into Hollywood and see if one day we can work together!

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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