Natalia Stawyskyj – Breaking the Silence

November 14, 2023
Premiering at the Sydney Film Festival, All Silent Dogs is an exquisitely beautiful new short film by talented young filmmaker Natalia Stawyskyj.

Natalia took on roles of both writing and directing to manifest a stunning, emotive, and visually coherent piece – a juggling act that she says was challenging. “Learning to separate what it means to serve the script as a writer, from serving the film as a director, was one of the most important lessons I learned through making All Silent Dogs. There can often be tension between the two parts, so understanding in each moment which hat you should be wearing to serve the project as a whole was a leap forward for me.”

Inspired by her personal experience of a disabling chronic illness at the age of fifteen – and then subsequent discrimination and exclusion – Natalia employs the genre of magic realism in her storytelling. “As a filmmaker, what draws me to genre fiction is its immense capacity for communication. The most vital use of cinema is truth-telling, and ironically, sometimes reality can get in the way of that pursuit. By removing events from their earthly contexts, stories can resonate across boundaries and breed a greater understanding. Some will find the solace they need, while others will increase their empathy for experiences different from their own,” she says.

Natalia shares insight into how the fairy-tale-esque ambience enveloping the film was created. “It comes down to having a clear creative vision and finding people who not only share in it but can offer more to the film than you dreamt. I was incredibly fortunate to work with a gifted team of HODs, who gave their time and creativity to this project, and went above and beyond the call of duty. However, when it came to creating the atmosphere, a lot of the heavy lifting was done by Freya Berkhout’s score and Weronika Razna’s sound design. As someone with a particular affinity for the audio aspect of filmmaking, I made sure to leave space for those elements to shine. In my opinion, the film’s magic comes from the wind chimes, the exhalations, the vocals.”

Adding to the visual appeal and captivating sound, gorgeous canine Zar stars alongside teen actress Julia Savage (The Clearing, Blaze), who plays main character Ylva. “Zar is a professional film dog. What drew me to Zar was that, as a White Swiss Shepherd, he had a wolf-like look that helped sell the magical world we were creating.

“As a director, I love collaboration. I seek to create safe and compassionate spaces in which talented people can bring their whole selves and do work of which they’re proud,” Natalia says.

Lived experiences have given her this mature approach, along with strong motivation to make a mark in the film industry – as well as advocate for others with disabilities. “I am driven to unveil marginalised experiences in novel and nuanced ways. To illuminate the dark places that I’ve lived, particularly those that were misunderstood at the time, so that others may not have to face the isolation that I did. It’s a pursuit to which I’m proud to devote my life.”

According to Natalia, issues confronted by people with disabilities in the film industry are both structural and social. “We need members of the industry to move en masse, beyond caring about disability on a conceptual level, to actively work to improve conditions and create opportunities for their peers with a disability,” she shares.

“For many reasons, the experiences of people with a disability within the industry are rendered invisible or translucent, resulting in an understandable knowledge gap between those with and without a disability. For many people with a disability, barriers begin with an inability to access education; then verbal discrimination at networking events; following through to inaccessible application processes; and continuing to abuse within productions. Disability discrimination in the film industry is pervasive, complex, and taxing. These constant issues are driving the poor representation of people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera, causing harm, and leading to hamstrung projects that cannot compete on the world stage.”

Natalie directing Jack Finsterer, who co-stars in All Silent Dogs. Photo by Henry Hu

Natalia agrees that prejudice is often ironic, since all humans are distinct from each other, therefore diverse, in some way or another.  Although, for people living with a disability, it might not be as easy to grasp at opportunities. We asked her opinion on whether there was enough support and funding in the Australian film industry for those with disabilities. “A question I often ask people is to name a prominent filmmaker with a disability. Most cannot, myself included. More support and funding are needed. While I recognise and applaud the progress our industry has made, it is still far from where it needs to be. I think some may look at certain programs set up for people with disabilities, or a couple of high-profile projects with disabled protagonists, and think that it is enough. But it must be noted that many of those programs have the effect of being exploitative and/or do not lead to further opportunities. Because these issues are so dense and multifaceted, I believe a Screen Australia task force for disability in the style of the Gender Matters task force for women would be a good launchpad for the long-term, sustainable changes we need.

“We are your equally valuable peers with rich experiences and expert technical skills to offer. My hope is that others want change as much as I do. Disability access and inclusion is not a special interest issue, but a human rights issue that is incumbent on all to address. Screen Australia has a list of resources available for those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of disability within the film sector, but I do urge that those resources only have power alongside action. Come to find us and help us over the barriers so we don’t have to climb them alone any longer. I truly believe the industry will be richer and stronger for it.”

Beyond Natalia’s achievements so far in filmmaking and advocacy, what’s next for her? “My next major project is a feature film called Dust in Our Eyes, which follows a mother and daughter, each at the age of eighteen, as they seek to survive a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the abuse they have found there. It continues my exploration of my lived experience as a woman with a disability through the lens of genre, this time putting a focus on the themes of survival, trauma, and intergenerational legacies. I plan to shoot a proof-of-concept short film for it next year. So far, it has been a project that has challenged me, excited me, and, most of all, it is one in which I see immense value.”

All Silent Dogs will stream at ACMI’s Cinema 3 at part of The Other Film Festival’s RESISTANCE program between 23 November and 7 December, 2023.  and will screen at Smith’s Alternative as part of the Canberra Short Film Festival on 26 November 2023.

Main Image by Henry Hu