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Alisa Kovalenko on how her doc Home Games went from idea to short to feature

  • Home Games

'Dented fairy tale' – Home Games

31st May 2018

The Ukrainian director, whose project was developed through The Guardian Goes Ukraine, with our support, took the feature-length version to Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018 for its world premiere.

Home Games is the result of a long journey which began in the Soviet past of my country, Ukraine, and also in my personal and family history. Few people know that in 1974, under the Soviet Union led by Brezhnev, the authorities banned women from playing football on the pretext that it was bad for their health! In Ukraine, it was not until perestroika that the first women's football club was founded, in the medium-sized town of Chernihiv, in 1987, the year I was born.

When I was little, my cousin Ira was a footballer in our home town, Zaporizhia. In 1991, she was one of the last Ukrainian women to play in the USSR national team. After that, life played tricks on her. The Ukrainian economy deteriorated, the country was plunged into poverty and the infrastructure of women's football collapsed. All the heroines of my childhood – these beautiful, strong, courageous girls whom I went to see playing on Sundays – had to reinvent their lives in adversity. My cousin made a new life for herself in Poland. She's in her 40s now.

Nobody in Ukraine knows that girls play football. There are about 200 professionals: no sponsors, no money, no television, no salaries. Most of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds and continue to survive in poverty. When I finished my previous film, I felt it was vital to find a present-day Ira. Find one of these young girls and film her life.

Watch Home Match, the short version of Home Games

In February 2016, I went to film a training session with Atex Kiev, the only professional women's football team in Kiev and the poorest in Ukraine. The coach, Alla, told me, "If you want to make a movie, look at that little girl over there, she's got gold in her feet and an incredible personality but her life is a disaster." It was Alina, whose life I then shared.

Alina was 20 when we met. She was one of the greatest hopes of national women's football. Her family was in ruins – during her adolescence her mother and father were in prison so she lived in an orphanage with her grandmother. She has a brother and a sister aged five and six. I started filming Alina's life, and then suddenly, after a few weeks of shooting, her mother died at the age of 39. Alina was still so young but she abruptly had to make her first steps into adult life. Will she give up football to save her family? Can she fight for her dreams when all the odds are stacked against her?

Very quickly I had to sort out my film and that's when I met my British partners. At the end of March 2016, the excellent Ukrainian documentary festival Docudays UA organised The Guardian Goes Ukraine, supported by the British Council, which gave Ukrainian filmmakers the chance to pitch to the Guardian. My project touched the jury, and in particular Charlie Philips who is in charge of documentaries at the Guardian. He gave me an award as well as financial support to make a short film about Alina's life. However, I wanted to make a feature film, so I worked on both versions.

My producer Stephane Siohan is a French journalist and documentary maker who lives and works in Kiev. We started the project with his production company, East Roads Films. Soon we partnered with my friends Maxym and Valentyn Vasyanovych, from Studio Garmata Film. Valentyn is one of the best Ukrainian directors of the moment. He produced The Tribe, which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and also Black Level. For me, Maxym and Valentyn represent the excellence of new independent Ukrainian cinema: demanding, radical, without compromise.

Filmmaker Alisa Kovalenko

The Guardian supported us during the beginning of the process and in 2017 we produced a short version of Home Games, with a very specific narrative adapted for an online audience. The feature film is very different: it focuses on the long term and has a more elaborate cinematographic narrative. It was very enriching, but also a challenge, to work on these two versions. I shared this adventure with two people whom I admire and respect very much: the cameraman Stefan Sergeï Stetsenko, who filmed Sergeï Loznitsa's documentary Maidan, and the editor Olha Zhurba.

For many months I filmed Alina and her family every day, capturing her life as a footballer and her new life at home rebuilding her family. We developed a personal relationship and I hope the film reflects this intimacy. At the same time we developed relationships with several international organisations. We were supported and funded by the IDFA Bertha Fund in Amsterdam and the Ukrainian State Film Agency, which has greatly expanded its support for documentary in the last three years.

We were able to present our film in progress at the Odesa International Film Festival in Ukraine, at the East Doc Platform in Prague, and at the Baltic Sea Forum for Documentaries in Riga, Latvia. All these meetings helped to boost the project in terms of production and give us the means and partners to bring it to life. In recent months, we have been joined by Telewizja Polska, the Polish public broadcaster, and the innovative Russian-language channel Current Time TV, based in Prague.

I don't want to say too much about Home Games, I prefer to let people find out as they watch it, but I will say that it is a sad film full of light and hope. Our team refers to it as "the dented fairy tale". It's important to me because it's a film about the little people. My generation started its revolution in 2014 to change our country and make it a better place to live. For that, we pay a high price because our neighbour has decided to inflict a war on us. It is no coincidence that the first political prisoner to be arrested, Oleg Sentsov, is a film director, because directors are dreamers and it is they who help change life.

Home Games

We have much to tell Europeans about the struggle of our generation. Our country doesn't change as fast as we would like, because it is run by those who forget that there are little people. People like my heroine, Alina, who don't go to war, but whose daily life is a war, a fight for survival. These people are forgotten in our society, I want to give them the light they deserve. I want my cinema to be social, realistic, but also poetic. I would like to show that there is always hope, even when the light seems to have gone out.

Home Games is a very Ukrainian film about girls playing football, but it also describes the state of our society. I think it's also a very universal film, which could be set in South America, the French suburbs, or even England. I'm very proud that Sheffield Doc/Fest chose our film, not just because England is a football land and Ken Loach's country, but also because Sheffield shares an industrial heritage with Ukraine. My hometown, Zaporizhia, is a kind of Ukrainian Sheffield! I'm sure my film can strike a chord with the English and tell them about the other side of Europe.

Sheffield Doc/Fest will probably be a turning point in Alina's life. She's at a key moment. I'm not going to reveal the end of the movie, but things change – for the better. There have been fundamental movements around women's football in Ukraine and the beginning of interest from sponsors and media players. There is real social challenge in a country that is still very patriarchal – women are having their say and I hope that mentalities are changing.

I'm now preparing a new film on a completely different subject, but I also decided to extend my adventure in women's football. I am currently finishing a documentary series of ten episodes of 26 minutes each. This series, produced by East Roads Films and broadcast by Current Time TV, explores other facets of women's football in Ukraine. With a team of Ukrainian film professionals, I went to meet women who play football all round Ukraine: in the Donbass at war, in the port of Mariupol, in the Carpathian mountains. It is a beautiful project that shows what it is like to be a woman in Ukraine today.

Follow these links to find out more about Home Games and East Roads Films.