New Czech film centres on play by Ukrainian dramatist killed in terror attack

Heathens, a new Czech film set for release next week, centres on the play of the same name by Hanna Yablonska. She was a young Ukraine-born playwright who was killed in a suicide bombing at a Moscow airport.

Hanna Yablonska | Photo: Heathens / Pohani

The black and white movie Heathens (Pohani in Czech) opens with young Odessa-born playwright Hanna Yablonska becoming the victim of a terrorist attack at a Moscow airport in 2011. Also known as Anna Yablonskaya, though her real name was Anna Mashutina, she was not yet 30 when she died.

The great majority of the movie is based on her play The Pagans, a chronicle of a non-functioning family. Indeed she had flown to the Russian capital to collect a prize for the screenplay of a film adaptation.

The director of the new Czech film is Olga Dabrowská.

“Considering she died at the age of 29, she was a hugely prolific and well-known writer. She wrote 22 theatre plays that have been performed in many countries: in the United States, in France, in the UK, in Eastern Europe. The Pagans was staged here in Czechia, at the South Bohemian Theatre in České Budějovice, and in Slovakia, at the National Theatre in Bratislava. She was a modern voice in contemporary European theatre.”

The maker of Heathens explains what made Yablonska special as a writer.

“She has penetrating insight into the human soul. Most theatre plays involve the unmasking of negative characteristics. We see a hypocritical exterior, where everything looks nice on the outside – but then when we peel back the onion we find dirt, destruction and evil. But in her work it’s exactly the opposite. She really believes in people, she believes in good.”

The film was mainly shot in Czechia, but some scenes were done elsewhere – and the crew also got to spend some time in Ukraine itself.

“We shot scenes that were set in Odessa in Czechia, Germany and Bulgaria. We then did some additional shooting in Ukraine, to capture characteristic elements of Odessa, such as the Odessa opera and the Odessa steps. But it was just one little day of shooting. And we also went to the grave of Hanna Yablonska of course – that’s the final shot of our film.”

Olga Dabrowská | Photo: Heathens / Pohani

The film Heathens brings the play The Pagans to the big screen while still preserving theatrical elements, according to its director.

The low-budget nature of the project, and the decision to shoot in black and white, also play a role, says Olga Dabrowská.

“There isn’t much funding for such arthouse films in the Czech Republic and our budget was limited. If we had had a lot of money we could have shot in Africa, because there’s an African motif. We could have filmed in Ukraine itself, with a Ukrainian crew. We couldn’t afford that, but still I think the ‘filmed theatre’ approach works, in part because it’s in black and white.”