Through the Steppes of a Forgotten Culture

Project of the Month: THE STEPPES OF KHAZAR


Plagued by a mysterious dream, the Khazarian king decides to ask three different religious advisors for help. However, while the emissaries share only their subjective views, the voice of the Khazars seems to fade into the vast steppes somewhere between present-day Eastern Europe and Central Asia....

Sofiia Melnyk's diploma film THE STEPPES OF KHAZAR tells of the Khazarian people. Never heard of them? That's the point! While the Khazars had been a remarkable force in the 9th century, from then on, their name increasingly disappeared from the history books in favor of their conquerors. THE STEPPES OF KHAZAR approaches the problem of a historiography in which only the victors’ perspective is told.

In the following interview, Sofiia recounts her path to Animationsinstitut, restless language barriers, and the historical context surrounding THE STEPPES OF KHAZAR. She also gives her personal take on parallels between her film and Russia's current attack on Ukraine.



Interview with Director Sofiia Melnyk


Hi Sofiia! What made you want to become an animator and how did you end up at Animationsinstitut?

As a child, I loved to draw but at some point at 9th or 10th grade, I pretty much neglected this passion. Maybe I was too intimidated by the fact that everything had to be evaluated and placed on a grading scale. Maybe it made me feel less free than before. Maybe I just wanted to spend my free time with buddies and parties. After I graduated, I started studying math because it was easy for me at school. But already during my studies, I realized that it's not what I want to do all my life.


Then, by chance, I got my hands on a collection of animated films. Films by Paul Driessen, Tomek Baginski, Igor Kovalyov—these films opened up a whole new world for me. I was in love! While I was still studying for my master's degree in mathematical statistics, I took an animation and a painting & drawing course at the same time. I even managed to work as an animator on different productions in Kyiv for a few years after that. These were commercial children's series and films, but they were not what I had expected and hoped for from the animation world.


Thus, I started looking for an animation school outside of Ukraine and quickly came across Animationsinstitut. I found the students' project trailers and finished films incredibly exciting. But what appealed to me the most was that all these projects were so different. This sets Animationsinstitut apart from other art schools where students usually emulate the style of their respective instructors.

Do you have an amusing anecdote from your studies?


At the very beginning of my studies at Filmakademie, my German wasn’t that good and I had to concentrate a lot to understand what classes were about. My brain was constantly overtaxed. At some point, it became too much and I fell asleep in the middle of class.


THE STEPPES OF KHAZAR is loosely inspired by "The Dictionary of the Khazars" by Milorad Pavić, correct? Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Milorad Pavić was a Serbian writer known mainly for his novels in the genre of magical realism. His most famous work is "The Dictionary of the Khazars" from 1984, but the novel only started to generate real attention in the post-Soviet states during the early 2000s. He was the author of my youth; everyone read his books. I was always fascinated by his poetic-mystical style of describing historical events.  


The story about the Khazars, told from three different perspectives, fascinated me. Each of the perspectives lacks aspects of the other versions. At the same time, the Khazarian voice is deliberately absent—it has been removed from the story.

This reminded me of Ukrainian history: Ukraine has been conquered and divided many times, has belonged to different countries and empires. All the conquerors have tried to rewrite our history to make them look like the good party. Now, we see it again in the Russian propaganda. However, there is one difference nowadays: wider access to information. It's harder to hide the truth than it was in Khazarian days.


You put a lot of research into the filmwhat fascinated you so much about this historical subject?


We can only speculate about the Khazarian culture, there are very few archaeological remains and the ruins of Itil, the Khazarian capital, have never been found. Meanwhile, the region where Itil could be located belongs to Russia and is quite neglected. This cannot and must not happen to Ukrainian culture and history. Every culture has the right to exist and develop. Colonialism is over and the voice of formerly oppressed peoples must be heard.

We see how Europe is uniting, how helpful people are, we see that Ukraine is not giving up but fighting. All of this is very inspiring.

Sofiia Melnyk, Alumna Animationsinstitut

What are you working on now? Does the topic of religions and lost cultures continue to influence you?


Right now, I am very much involved with Ukrainian culture. I try to discover new painters, writers or musicians whose works were banned at the time of the Soviet Union. I also take part in various events aimed at creating a dialogue between Ukrainian culture and other countries in Europe. Moreover, I organize the theater and art festival "GogolFest" in order to communicate Ukrainian culture, to tell about the war and to use the insane energy that Ukrainian art has in itself. The very energy that allows the Ukrainian people to survive and fight so ferociously for their freedom.


Despite the war, I am more optimistic than during the production of THE STEPPES OF KHAZAR. I have hope, strength and great will to help rebuild my homeland after this unjust and cruel invasion by Russia is over. We see how Europe is uniting, how helpful people are, we see that Ukraine is not giving up but fighting. All of this is very inspiring.

How would you describe your time at Animationsinstitut in one sentence?


The time at Animationsinstitut was like a whole miniature life: a lot of learning, a lot of struggle and a lot of joy; I am very grateful that I was allowed to study here.


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