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  • Writer's pictureAlex Leptos

INTERVIEW: Dana Ziyasheva On New Podcast, Movies and Career

Dana Ziyasheva, photo by Kirill Varshavskiy

The whacky world of Dana Ziyasheva’s GREATLAND is expanding, this time in podcast form. How I Solved the Homeless Crisis in Cali acts as a sort of prequel to Greatland though not directly related- at least not so far, with just eight episodes released currently. How I Solved takes place in present day as opposed to a futuristic dystopia as Greatland does. Similarly, however, the podcast uses satire-filled humour poking fun at today’s social culture and politics.

This is Ziyasheva’s third outing as a writer/director and she continues to expand her work into different subject matters and of course mediums. Her first feature, Defenders of Life, being a dramatic feature about the Ngäbe indigenous community of Panama and Costa Rica, based on real situations and events. She actually made the film on location starring real members of the community with only a few professional actors. Greatland was a great departure from that into a colourful, Fifth Element-like satire sci-fi fever dream and now we stick with that same feel but back into realism and of course, off the screen and into your earphones.

[Greatland, 2020. Directed by Dana Ziyasheva]

How I Solved the Homeless Crisis in Cali follows a self-proclaimed “Good Samaritan/Chosen One” Jay, a 20-year-old "knucklehead” from a middle-class background navigating and commenting on day-to-day life and social issues. He and his friends Josh and Jevon get into some issues of their own, cruising through life in their pre-owned Kia on a mission to, well, solve the homeless crisis in California. Their methods for doing so are rather questionable as they apply to food delivery companies, keep the food for themselves, get fired and repeat.

The short 3–5-minute episodes are easily digestible and pack in a lot of humour, but the story is only just getting started. So far it has provided an entertaining peak into the life of an egotistical young man with little direction wondering exactly where he fits in and into his mindset regarding current events. We’ve been told that the intent is to bring the podcast onto feature film or TV at some point, so we eagerly await what the future holds but, in the meantime, we look forward to learning more about Jay and just how he solves this crisis.

Outside the Spotlight was lucky enough to ask Dana Ziyasheva a few questions regarding her movies, career and her new venture into the world of podcasts:

- Your two feature films are rather different from each other. How I Solved the Homeless Crisis in Cali however retains a lot of the characteristics of Greatland with the intent of expanding it onto the screen in the future. What made you want to further explore this universe?

I wrote How I solved the Homeless Crisis in Cali during the lockdown. You can feel the surreal atmosphere of an entire state being confined and suffocating within four walls, in this podcast. Not all decisions that were taken in the name of public health, made sense. There was a certain abuse of power that did more damage than good. So, yes, in a way Greatland and How I Solved The Homeless Crisis share a certain degree of absurdity that originate from infantilizing and overprotective public policies in Cali.

- You’ve talked about having a love for both reading and writing stories from a very young age and you’ve explored that through your journalism background as well as your two feature films. What made you want to go into an exclusively audio-based medium like a podcast?

To be honest, I didn’t know much about podcasts. For the last decade, I was drunk on visual arts (laughs). But after giving it all on my two feature films, I was kind of exhausted. Film gives you a lot, but it also demands a lot. Image-manufacturing is very expensive and time-consuming. My friend Dalya Guerrin was directing a podcast, and it made me think. I am from Kazakhstan, and there, oral lore is a millennium-old art form. We value good improv, an epic saga, or a heart-wrenching love ballade. My parents had a great collection of records, they listened to opera, jazz, pop, and folk songs, Kazakh music and bards. My favorite record was Old Khottabych, an audio-story about a boy of my age, befriending a genie in a lamp. It was made in 1958 and became a classic: twenty years later, I as a child, knew the Old Khottabych’ lines by heart. The director and actors had their credits on the cover of the record. In a way, doing How I Solved the Homeless Crisis in Cali is paying homage to this old audio-story from my childhood. I definitely strive to this level of quality and engagement with listeners.

[Dana Ziyasheva working on Defenders of life]

- Speaking of your journalistic background, your first film Defenders of Life whilst not a documentary, revolved around a lot of real-world issues. How did your experience as a journalist as well as your work with UNESCO help you in that regard when creating the film?

As a reporter, you are always on a look out for your next story. You follow the veni, vidi, vici principle: you come, you engage with people, you shoot a story. You have to be curious and open-minded. When I was working with the United Nations, my mission was to give the voice to the voiceless. Usually, I’d get the ball rolling by conducting a thorough needs assessment and consultations with local stakeholders. There again, I have to be curious and open-minded. When I first landed in La Casona, the indigenous village where we later filmed Defenders of Life, I visited elders, a school and a clinic. During one of the interviews, one woman let it slip, that some rich men were marrying very young girls, and that child-brides were omerta in the community. Officially, this issue was outside my mandate. Deep down, I was triggered. So, I kept investigating this matter privately. Finally, I gathered enough material to write a script, and enough allies among women, to shoot a movie.

- Defenders of Life saw great success and actually led to a law, banning underage marriage in Costa Rica. How important was it for you as a journalist to tell that story and bring awareness to things such as underage marriage? Did you think that the impact would be as big as it has been?

Defenders of Life empowered women of Ngabe tribe. They acted in the film, they sung, they danced, they worked as costume designers, cooks, extras. They earned good money. We had fun, and we did something useful, together. At the moment, that was all I wanted. But then, the local NGO Paniamor that defends rights of children in Costa Rica, caught wind of what we were doing and joined in with us; the Dutch and Canadian Embassy decided to support the post-production, and suddenly, the Administration of the President of Costa Rica wanted to see the film. I was very happy that the law, banning the underage marriages and forcing unions with minors, was passed shortly after. It was like a cherry on the cake that was already pretty damn delicious!

Arman Darbo as Ulysses in Greatland (2020)

- In your Filmmaker Portrait, you spoke about spending a lot of time as a teenager absorbing how society is run from your perspective as a young person. Were any of those memories an influence on the production of Greatland, and how a young person such as Ulysses might perceive things?

Ulysses couldn’t be further from the conscious, engaged social activist that I was in my youth. I am Ugly Duck (laughs), a girl who prefers a bad peace to a good war. An “un-cool” person who cares about “un-cool” majority, and wants to fix things instead of throwing them away.

- Greatland is a film that drew its fair share of criticism for its social and political commentary. When putting something out there that not everybody will agree with, what do you make of those comments?

I don’t remember the last film everybody agreed on. We live in an extremely polarized world. I usually keep my opinions to myself for fear of antagonizing some of my friends. What I noticed is that no matter how discreet I am, it is never enough. No amount of compromise on my part could save a friendship if the other side cares more about their views than me. I find it stupid because in the grand scheme of things, none of our opinions matter. But since I end up alone anyways, I’ll speak my mind. I will be ostracized but at least, I said what I wanted to say.

- For the promotion of How I Solved the Homeless Crisis in Cali, there is a Tik Tok page with snippets of the podcast audio complimented by first-person visuals. Does it worry you at all that people won’t pick up on the satirical nature of the content, or is that something that you welcome?

You are absolutely right. There is a strong tendency on Tik Tok to take everything at face value. @Jaythehoboslayer is a philosophical troll. @Jaythehoboslayer deviates from the official narrative when he talks about his BLM riots, paper spam or food delivery during the pandemic. Satire is a genre I am very excited to explore further, after Greatland. And it’s fun to do it in TikTok snippets, going straight for the reveal, no lengthy exposition.

- In Defenders of Life, there are multiple languages featured- namely English, Spanish and Ngäbere. You speak two of those languages in addition to French, Russian and survival Chinese, as well as your native Kazakh. Do you have any plans to work on projects in other languages in the future or is this something that you’d like to explore?

I’d love to do a project in my native Kazakh. Last year, I wrote a medieval fantasy about Grassland, a country of freedom-loving nomadic tribes, threatened by two empires, the Otherdom and the Great Termite Mound. I imagined a kick-ass chieftainess on a wild horse; she fights for Grassland’s independence from bullying neighbors, falls in love with the enemy and has to choose between love and loyalty! I thought that in the context of the war in Ukraine, it would be great to show the perspective of a small country in a big geopolitical game. We are shopping the script around town. Black List recommended turning it into a TV series ala Game of Thrones, which is exactly what I am going to talk to David (Benioff) next time we golf together😊

Find out more about Dana Ziyasheva with her Filmmaker Portrait:

Listen to How I solved the Homeless Crisis in Cali:

Watch Defenders of Life:

Watch Greatland:

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