On and off camera: interview with a film-maker Katerina Parfenyuk

12 October 2015

Often, when it comes to people from the PWUD (people who use drugs) community, the focus is on their history of drug use. We talk about what a person went through, what made this person come to “realization”, ask for help; we talk about relationships with loved ones and about his/her role in harm reduction organizations. And very often an important subject is omitted — this person’s professional life. However, the fact that someone uses or used drugs doesn’t mean he/she can’t by a master of his/her craft, a specialist in a particular area. It often happens that his/her fate is largely determined by his/her profession, and the profession, in turn, affects his/her destiny. That is what happened to our guest today: Katerina Parfenyuk, a film-maker from Belarus.

To begin with, please tell me a little about yourself.

My name is Katya. I'm 34. At the moment I’m working at the harm reduction organization Belarusian Public Association Positive Movement. I have 15 years’ experience of drug use, but I haven’t used drugs in the last 4.5 years. Today I have a beloved husband and relatives — I can and want to take care of them. By profession I’m a film and television director. I’ve been in this field doing what I love for more than 15 years.

How did you come into the profession? What influenced your choice?

Since childhood I’ve lived in a fantasy world. When I was five my mother put me in drama school. I always hid behind a "character" — not only on stage. I dreamed of being an actress to be admired and loved. Gradually I began meeting people who were willing to share their experiences and take care of me. At 17, I entered the theater and art school, where I met film director Mikhail Semenovich Katz, one of the main mentors and friends in my life. It was then that I realized that film was exactly what I would do in my life. In 2000, I went to university to study film-making and TV, and graduated 5 years later. In my fantasy, the romance of the film industry promised an "easy" life full of buzz and adventure. However, that wasn’t quite true, because directing is a titanic job for a large team of people.

How did it happen that drugs entered your life?

When I was 15 my drug use was just the curiosity of a young person. At 18, "hard" drugs entered my life. Actually, I have a loving and caring family, and I’ve never seen anybody in the house abuse alcohol or drugs. I lived in abundance and care. However, as a creative person, I’ve always been an idealist. In my dreams I imagined a colorful world, kind and bright. Like the characters I saw in the theater and cinema. Reality did not coincide with my fantasies. For me creativity was a kind of tool to "tell" people about the joy and pain that I experienced as a result of the conflict between my dreams and the real world. But drugs became a kind of "medicine" against my mental and emotional suffering.

At first it seemed to me that the drugs somehow contributed to realizing my creative potential and expanding my consciousness. For a while it was really like that. But then things changed, and I found myself facing a dead end, which people with addiction commonly face — drugs began taking up all my thoughts. There was a sense of guilt and inferiority, which eventually harmed my professional life — instead of the expansion of consciousness came crisis, and drugs came to the forefront, overshadowing everything else.

How and when did the breakthrough happen after which you decided to quit?

Today I know that "realization" and "decision" to quit drugs are two different things for me. The realization that the drugs are no longer an "anesthetic" and the romance of use passed long ago; this became clear to me after a year of using drugs. I remember the feeling of eternal fear: I was afraid of withdrawal, afraid of the police, afraid that my "friends" would screw me, afraid of myself. It was sort of a vicious circle. I couldn’t live with drugs, and at the same time I could no longer live without them. Imagine that, instead of your stomach, you have a hole and through it "blows" burning cold wind...

That hole is emotional, spiritual, and physical devastation, which I couldn’t handle. I had no alternatives to drugs. I suffered physically and from a state of hopelessness. I experimented as I could — locked myself at home, relocated, tried to substitute one drug for another, drank alcohol instead of taking drugs. Nothing helped. I didn’t stop even after I got the news that I had HIV. I didn’t communicate with my family; my career and relationships with people were destroyed. In 2001, I got into one of the harm reduction programs as an NEP client. And that is when I made the "decision" to change my life.

Please tell me more about the role that harm reduction played in your life.

Yes, indeed it played a significant role in my fate. In this non-governmental organization that I referred to, I met people with addiction who managed to get rid of the craving for drugs. So people who were willing to help and share their experiences appeared in my life. Just because they didn’t try to either correct or scare or punish me, I’m alive and happy today. I received help and support. They taught me to live with the pile of problems that dependent persons face. They fought for me and shared with me. I found a new way and the meaning of life. Today I’ve remained free from drugs for the past four and a half years.

As for my desire to create, I can say that, in a sense, it bailed me out. I was lucky: I found the way to apply my skills as a film director in harm reduction advocacy, and now I derive great pleasure from the fact that with the camera I can communicate my thoughts on harm reduction to the general public and government officials.

So you managed to redirect your creative energy into the mainstream of harm reduction?

Exactly. And if earlier, when I worked in other fields, I paid special attention to the professionalism of the team, the quality of light and sound, etc., now the main thing for me is to convey the mood, show human emotions. The technical perfection of shooting films seemed to become secondary; first and foremost for me now is to show the drug user as a personality. In my understanding, a person who uses drugs is not some vague, collective image. These are real people, with destinies and stories. My goal is to tell their story through video, to convey a certain message. I’m very glad that I have the opportunity to realize my creative potential in the field of harm reduction. And although I still don’t know that much about ​​harm reduction, my directing experience allows us to solve these problems creatively, by applying my skills.

What interests me as a director is the subject of harsh drug policy — under such conditions we begin looking for new approaches and techniques to experiment with. It’s good to know that real people are behind these visuals, and I’m able to influence their fate to some extent. It’s important for me to convey to the public that we’re not talking about abstract "addicts"; rather, we’re people who want to live and want to benefit ourselves, our family and society.

Advocacy for me is an adventure with its own story and characters. Under the conditions of harsh drug policy, this "film" becomes even more interesting. Our goal is to make the life of a drug user a little bit easier in this country. Without disturbing anything, harassing or attacking anyone! For me it’s essential that the guys from the community of people who use drugs work in my team. Yes, our product may have some technical errors, but the fact that today we can creatively claim their rights and support each other — it’s a miracle!

What do you think: can a person on substitution treatment be successful in his or her professional life?

Of course! It’s no secret that dependent people often have excellent skills, including creative skills. Around me there are a lot of professionals from different fields — journalists, economists, lawyers, and people with knowledge of several different languages. And we all grow professionally by helping each other. Our strength is in this unity.

Recently we were producing a cartoon — another experiment, implemented by the community. Some of the guys did drawings; others wrote the words. My friend Mikhail filmed it. The project entrusted him with this camera. By the way, Mikhail is a vivid example of a person realizing his creative skills in the field of harm reduction. He got an education as a photographer 15 years ago, but because of his drug use he had already buried the idea of his ​​creative realization. Today, Mikhail is never without a camera and a tripod. I can’t put into words how his eyes glow with happiness! In such moments you realize that together, with the support of each other, we can make a difference by reducing the scale of drug use and stopping the HIV epidemic.

Let’s talk about self-stigma: how often do you observe it in the members of the PWUD community?

Yes, there is such a thing, especially here in Belarus. Apart from the fact that the national drug policy in principle doesn’t favor people who use drugs, we ourselves make this problem more complicated with our attitude to ourselves. People with dependencies are prone to self-flagellation — we’re used to feeling guilty, and this is very hard to live with. During training courses I try to tell the guys: "We are not doing anything wrong; we just want to get back to a normal life. We’re not criminals; we should stop living with a constant feeling of guilt. You need to change your attitude towards yourselves — at least a little. Yes, there is a serious barrier between us and the community, but we will not change other people’s attitudes if we stigmatize ourselves."

I’m very familiar with this self-flagellation: I remember the feeling of guilt that comes from nowhere, even if you don’t do anything reprehensible. Unfortunately, this is one of the qualities of a dependent person, and one needs to make every effort to get rid of it.

We’re trying to promote the idea that the participation of people who use drugs is very important. After all, we’re the face of harm reduction programs, and the existence of these projects depends on us. The State has very strict laws, and harm reduction programs are literally hanging by a thread. Without the active participation of PWUD, at any moment everything could end. So it’s simply unacceptable to stand aside and take a passive position. I believe that no one but us can change things. I, in turn, try to contribute to this as much as I can, including by doing what I do best — film-making.

 The main thing for me is to convey the mood, show human emotions. The technical perfection of shooting films seemed to become secondary; first and foremost for me now is to show the drug user as a personality. In my understanding, a person who uses drugs is not some vague, collective image. These are real people, with destinies and stories. My goal is to tell their story through video, to convey a certain message.

Katerina Parfenyuk