The journey to the Lido has been longer than most for Ukrainian director Antonio Lukich, whose sophomore feature, “Luxembourg, Luxembourg,” has its world premiere Sep. 7 in the Horizons strand at the Venice Film Festival.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Lukich’s life has been upended. Forced to flee Kyiv at the start of the war, the director spoke to Variety from Sweden, where he’s among four Ukrainian filmmakers who were granted a residency with the support of the Göteborg Film Fund.
It is, he acknowledges, a world removed from the one he left behind. “It’s a great opportunity to develop Ukrainian stories when you cannot develop them right now in Ukraine,” he said.
“Luxembourg, Luxembourg” stars real-life rap duo Ramil and Amil Nasirov as twin brothers who grow up in the shadow of their missing father, a small-time crook who vanishes one day without a trace. While one of them decides to follow his path of petty crime, the other becomes a policeman. One day, after they find out he’s gravely ill in Luxembourg, they set out on a journey to see him one last time.
The film, which has its North American premiere in Toronto on Sep. 9, is produced by Vladimir Yatsenko and Anna Yatsenko of Fore Films and executive produced by Alexandra Bratyshchenko. Paris-based Celluloid Dreams is handling world sales.
Speaking to Variety ahead of the premiere, Lukich said “Luxembourg, Luxembourg” was partly inspired by his relationship with his own father, who he described as “a stranger to me” when the director was growing up.
After receiving news several years ago that he was dying in “a wealthy European city,” Lukich was torn. “Part of me wanted to go to him because I loved him very much. And part of me was afraid of him,” he said. “Should I go, or should I stay? Should I be responsible for him as he wasn’t responsible for me? This dialogue inside me found this eventual direction in the twins [of ‘Luxembourg, Luxembourg’].”
The question of fatherhood has taken on new meaning for the 30-year-old, whose own son was born while he was developing the film, and not long before his debut, “My Thoughts Are Silent,” won a special jury prize at Karlovy Vary in 2019. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, it’s also taken on added urgency, said Lukich, noting: “Now there will be a generation of absent fathers.”
On the day of the Russian invasion, the director packed his wife and three-year-old son into their car and headed west — a two-day drive, prolonged by endless traffic jams and fuel shortages. After several weeks of relative calm in Western Ukraine, his family continued onward to Slovenia; Lukich returned to Kyiv, where he and his producers raced to complete “Luxembourg, Luxembourg,” which they had learned just days before the invasion would be premiering in Venice.
What followed was a mad scramble to recover material from hard drives and flash drives scattered across the city, even as much of the production team had either fled Ukraine or taken up arms against the Russian Army. During that period, Lukich was separated from his family for four months, a painful time that made the director reflect on his own upbringing.
“This is the biggest fear in my life: to become an absent father, and to leave someone I am responsible for without any support,” he said. “I had no support. Everything I did in my life, I did by myself. And it was really hard to figure out how to be a parent, how to be a director, how to be a public person.”
The thought weighs heavily on Lukich as the war drags on and the death toll climbs. While trapped in limbo in Western Ukraine, he had taken his son to a puppet theater for refugees fleeing the hostilities in the east. “It was a huge hall, and I was the only father there,” he said. “In that moment, I saw a sad future [in Ukraine] with moms and their kids and no fathers.”
Since July, the director and his family have been reunited in Sweden, where he has begun to develop two new features. One of the films is focused on his native city, Uzhhorod, another follows a group of refugees who are trapped in a “deeply absurd” situation — “a film about cultural conflicts, and exploring the borders of morality,” he explained.
For a director whose films probe at loss with a light touch, often finding humor in unlikely places, the war has forced Lukich to rethink the role of Ukraine’s filmmakers. “War really shows what is important and what is not important — not only in life, but in cinema as well,” he said. He insists, however, that cinema is a vital way to “make your own pain understandable for everyone.”
Several months ago, Lukich attended a screening of his first feature, which was being shown to refugees in Lviv. The film follows a Ukrainian sound recordist who is hired by a Canadian video game developer to capture the sounds of animals in the wild — particularly the elusive Rakhiv mallard, a rare species of duck that is native to the Carpathians (and perhaps extinct).
“Trying to understand the nature of miracles is the main theme in my movies — trying to catch something that is uncatchable,” said Lukich. He considers the quest to be the same, whether it concerns “the sound of a non-existent duck or a father who only exists in memories.”
The screening in Lviv marked the first time since the start of the war that he found himself surrounded by moviegoers. The audience was effusive in its praise of his film, he said, and its portrait of the world as it was before the Russian invasion. “It became a reminder of that peaceful life. Of that Ukraine.”