Greatland: Interview with Writer and Film Director Dana Ziyasheva
Greatland is an upcoming surreal science fiction film that has billed itself as a dystopian prophecy that reflects the state of the world today through the lens of a psychedelically colored alternate universe where hysterical, gender-ambiguous, heavy-makeup-wearing humanoids rule, boys are married to trees, cats and dogs run for President, and avoiding falling prey to a “deadly virus” (aka death) has become a religion.
The film’s trailer — akin to an acid roller coaster — was released to YouTube and received scores of confused, fascinated, amazed, bemused, and even fearful responses. Although it seems like a production from outer space, Greatland was actually filmed in Los Angeles in a futuristic vintage style. While aspects of Greatland mirror modern day America, the events of the film appear to take place in an imaginary country — dubbed the “birthplace of love and endless source of fun” — in another dimension. The story follows Ulysses, a rebellious teen, who is on a mission to save his childhood sweetheart, a beautiful girl ironically named Ugly Duck, as an absurd election and a deadly virus wreak chaos and violence.
From the start, this film is an experimental, art house, fever-dream-like trip that absorbs you into its crazed world and gives hints of the bizarre laws under which the inhabitants toil. Of course, the inhabitants — known as “Greats” — seem blissfully unaware of how repressed they actually are. Under constant surveillance from “Mother,” a cheerfully-voiced yet overbearing and threatening omnipresent force that emanates from a smartwatch-type device, the residents of Greatland are constantly reminded that they are lucky to live in Greatland where tolerance and acceptance equal relentless happiness. Hence, everyone must dress in bright colors, never remove their watches (thereby escaping Mother’s control), or question the status quo. Alas, the realities of Greatland are a far-cry from the euphoric paradise Mother describes. The residents live in squalor. They huddle in makeshift tents, wear rags (albeit colorful ones), push around shaky debris-filled shopping carts, ride rusty (yet colorfully painted) bicycles, and eat heavily processed foods that suggest unnatural concoctions of chemicals. Scarce few people, if any, are educated and the practice of reading is essentially obsolete (although it is a skill that both Ulysses and Ugly Duck enjoy candescently; Ugly Duck even provides Ulysses with a copy of The Odyssey as a secret birthday present). Properly insulated homes, cars, and jobs are not part of this reality, with the exception of an enforcer-squad-in-drag who ride around on a mobilized parade float (the only working vehicle depicted) and execute-via-laser anyone who goes against Mother by conforming to “Stone Age” norms. This includes having a nuclear family, being attracted to the opposite sex, eating anything that was ever alive (including plants and fish), or engaging in traditional sexual intercourse. Ulysses’ love, the beautiful Ugly Duck, is scorned by Mother for being conceived via the natural Stone Age way. As punishment, Ugly Duck was branded with her humiliating name, her mother died (or was possibly executed) in childbirth and her father, Mr. Lee, was turned mute and invisible and later annihilated right in front of her.
In Greatland, children are typically not raised by their parents. Instead, they are reared by the robotic voice of Mother who controls them via their watches, monitors their every move, and gives them relentless orders. At the age of 15, every resident is considered an adult. They are subsequently provided with a child to care for and are directed towards a mate. Yet, in Greatland, ALL living creatures are considered equal. Hence, a human can be given a rabbit to call their child and ordered to marry a tree. Anyone who voices apprehension about, or failure to accept, a tree as a legitimate spouse or recognize a rabbit as their biological child could face execution. In fact, it is strongly hinted that making any distinction between plants, animals, and humans could brand one as a racist in need of “correction.” Any complaints about this system are met with harsh rebuttals from Mother and relentless reminders to always be cheerful and grateful to be a “Great” living in Greatland…or else. It is no wonder that all of the colorfully (and often scantily) clad residents of Greatland seem to be mentally unhinged. Several scenes depict nameless background characters splashing around in inflatable pools, dancing in circles to music only they can hear, puttering around aimlessly, or staring into the sky like mental patients without any hope of medication or assistance.
The political system in Greatland is unimaginably dysfunctional. A Ragdoll cat (Cat Purry) and a Doberman dog (Jorg Doberman) are running for president and the residents of Greatland are divided about who should win the election. The cat people hate the dog people and the dog people hate the cat people even though there is nothing of substance being said from either “candidate” and, therefore, nothing to distinguish them aside from their species. Still, the residents of Greatland — who are supposed to be endlessly cheerful, tolerant, and accepting — are allowed (and eagerly goaded into) shouting at, threatening, and occasionally attacking one another based on their political alliance to kitty or pooch.
Ulysses, like everyone else in this world, is forcibly non-binary. A male who cannot openly conform to any gender, he dresses like a female, nail polish and all. Yet as he turns 15, he comes to terms with his feelings for his best friend, Ugly Duck. He does not wish to marry a tree nor raise a rabbit as his child. When Ugly Duck shows signs of being attracted to Ulysses (thus confirming a heterosexual orientation which could lead to natural procreation) she is sent to “Repentance Island” where she is dressed like a goddess and given to an older man, seemingly to be used as a child bride. Perhaps, it is hinted, this is where the rare human children that are occasionally passed on to 15-year-old “Greats” actually come from.
To avoid permeant separation from Ugly Duck, Ulysses breaks his watch, thereby escaping Mother’s surveillance and brandishing himself a fugitive, and runs to the waterfront where he meets a mysterious man who behaves like a relic from the so-called Stone Age (he has a boat, fishes, eats meat, and knows the sign of the Christian cross). The man reveals himself to be a “Clerk” who is tasked with keeping Greatland shores safe from invasion (or, it is hinted, attempts at escape). For reasons of his own, which are later revealed, the man helps Ulysses get to Repentance Island which is lavish and luxurious. Mansions, boats, restaurants, cars, fine food, high fashion, art…all of it is in endless supply and proudly on display. Repentance Island is a playground for rich elites, nothing at all like the torturous work camp the residents of Greatland believe it to be. In fact, it is revealed that the elites on Repentance Island control everything that happens in Greatland, partly for profit but mostly for their own twisted amusement.
It is also revealed that the cat and dog “candidates” from Greatland are actually the pets of the most wealthy and powerful individuals on the Island. And they are just animals. They cannot talk, they cannot hold office, they are simply projections of their married — and bickering — owner’s personalities. No matter which animal “wins” (which is determined entirely on the whims of the elite; the Greats votes are not so much as counted, possibly not even recorded) nothing will change in Greatland. The fate of the forsaken country is entirely in the hands of the wealthy who view it and its citizens as nothing but playthings at best and afterthoughts at worst. The simple power to control them — and occasionally steal beautiful young women away from them for nefarious purposes — is the ultimate thrill for the elites, especially since the residents of Greatland are entirely ignorant and unknowing about the existence of the elites, and instead genuinely yet erroneously believe that dogs and cats can talk and rule and their votes actually matter.
Despite not being released until November 1, 2020, Greatland has already reached the status of urban myth due to the viral sharing of its hallucinatory trailer which depicts another abysmal yet feverish reality of Greatland: the “Wow, Wow, Wow! Show” that periodically broadcasts across Greatland via smartwatches, effectively forcing every single resident to watch. The show is broadcast at random intervals from a tiny room illuminated with blacklights and decorated with gallons of neon-glow paint. Glitter, streamers, and ornately (yet cheaply) dressed audience members (hinted to be the select “chosen few” who are the greatest of all the Greatland Greats to have the honor of attending the broadcasts) make the decor resemble a nightclub. However, the show is set up more like a church with adorning Greats seated on the floor, gathered around a psychedelically-attired and wheel-chair bound host/preacher who passionately delivers nonsensical sermons about combating an omnipresent virus delivered from “Evildom” (aka every territory outside of Greatland whose residents allegedly do nothing but “hate” and are solely responsible for any unpleasantness that occurs in Greatland). Apparently, the elites have tricked the Greats into believing that death is a virus (created by the probably fictional Evildom), a disease that can be cured, and if they donate all their “tokens of love” an antidote will be found (and Evildom will be defeated) and everyone will subsequently live forever.
Curiously, how these “tokens of love” (the Greatland equivalent of money) are acquired is never discussed which is a shame considering that no one aside from the show’s host, the androgynous death squad members, and a flamboyant shaman/priest who presides over a dilapidated movie theater, appear to have any specific jobs or professions. Delving deeper into the workings of the Greatland world would likely have revealed more horrors but the film does not unveil all, just enough to make viewers contemplate. For this reason, the movie is hard to forget, and easy to mull over, even days after viewing it.
Writer and director Dana Ziyasheva is a UNESCO diplomat with 20 years of development work around the world. Originally from Kazakhstan, Dana made a name for herself as a journalist. She eventually turned to documentary filmmaking. Her drama titled Defenders of Life about child-brides set in the indigenous Ngäbe tribe of Costa Rica, prompted a national ban on under-age marriages and is available on Amazon Prime. Harvard-educated producer Igor Darbo has produced both of Ziyasheva’s features under his Popcorn & Friends banner and he counts on audience and movie critics’ sense of humor and detachment to be willing to go along for the ride whilst viewing Greatland.
Dana Ziyasheva recently discussed this strange yet captivating and entirely original movie via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in making movies and how did you break into the film industry?
Dana Ziyasheva (DZ): I started writing scripts and stories in middle school and never stopped. In 2015, a matriarch of the Ngabe indigenous tribe in Costa Rica and I decided to make a movie based on her life story. The idea was to make the first ever fiction about Ngabe, for Ngabe and with Ngabe. I wrote a script and only then realised that no one around could read it; literacy rate among Ngabe is very low. We interviewed several Central America film-directors for the job but they all thought we were crazy. It became one of those now-or-never moments: either I direct it or the movie will never happen. So, I took a leap of faith. In a way I became a film-maker to keep the Ngabe tribe happy. Our feature drama “Defenders of Life” about child-brides of the tribe travelled to festivals around the world. After watching and discussing the movie, the government of Costa Rica went ahead with outlawing underage marriages. As Ngabe unique culture and language are slowly disappearing, “Defenders of Life” might become the only memory of it left.
MM: How long did it take you to develop the concept of “Greatland” from start to finish?
DZ: It took me one month to write the script and forty years to prep for it. I grew up in Kazakhstan, a southern laid-back republic of the Soviet Union. Since my childhood, I was subject to an intense Soviet propaganda. In no uncertain terms, we were told that America’s dead set on destroying us because of our way of life. I remember playing with my friends, stopping in my tracks and scanning the sky for an incoming missile from America. Sara Connor’s vision of the playground being wiped out by a nuclear storm in “Terminator,” that was my childhood nightmare. When I came to the US in 2015, I discovered the mirroring image of the evil Soviet Union deeply imprinted in American subconsciousness.
It was unsettling and sort of kicked off my rethinking process. I saw parallels and connected the dots. For twenty years, my job as UNESCO Adviser in Communication and Information, was to enact positive change in any regime. It took a certain amount of mental acrobatics to find common ground with Kurdish guerrilla, North Korean party-apparatchiks and tribal leaders in Africa. In the process, I freed myself of stereotypes and learned a lot about the universal nature of the thirst for power and manipulation of mass consciousness. This real-life vision of the Matrix, the confrontation between Evildom and Greatland, a child who wakes up from propaganda hypnosis and becomes initiated into political mind-games and social engineering by a cold technocrat, it all came to me easily. I didn’t even write a treatment for the script, just went with the flow of characters and events.
MM: How did you find the actors and locations?
DZ: We were faced with the challenge of building the world of Greatland on a shoe-string budget and on a 30-mile leash: we had to remain within confines of Los Angeles area, to keep the costs down. Igor Darbo, the heroic producer of Greatland, and I did location scouting and negotiations with property owners in Van Nuys, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Surfridge and San Pedro. The Bracelet Studio and Ulysses home were built on a sound stage in Monrovia. The casting process took months; I went through thousands of photos, reels and self-tapes before going into auditions with a casting agency. I was looking for raw talent, energy and charisma. Donzell Lewis, Chloe Ray Warmoth, Ryan Simantel and many others young actors totally knocked it off the park.
MM: The sets were trippy and colorfully fun, so how long did it take you to set them up?
DZ: I came up with the Bracelet Studio black light design two days before the shoot. Luckily, our young art department team was game for any insane ideas I was throwing at them. I’m a sucker for everything glittery. I take inspiration in collective euphoria such as Holi festival in India or Rio Carnival. And I like to fire up my team. In between the takes at Ulysses dorm, set decorators would go around throwing confetti and handing giant fake joints to extras, shouting “Greatland!” as a war cry. The watch signal system is after traffic lights. Green flashing means Mother’s happy. Yellow: she warns you, be careful. Red: Danger! Mother’s angry! Our production designer Susannah Lowber and I would see something red on set, turn to each other and whisper in horror “Mother’s angry.” For Clerk’s bunker, we repainted our garage into shades of blue and black: it costed us our deposit with landlords. We also provided our own antique furniture and exotic rugs to reflect Clerk’s globe-trotting past. The trippy factor was amped in postproduction with our fantastic motion graphic designer Jared Barel. I kept telling him: “More glitter! Not busy enough! Diamonds, hearts, rainbows, unicorns! Let’s throw in strobe lights and flickering emojis!” I didn’t want to lose the race to crazy-town to TikTok. At the same time, it was incredibly stressful; we had to output those hallucinogenic visions at the break-neck speed to fit into the budget.
MM: This movie has so many layers. My reading into it was a satirical take on both the extreme left and extreme right of the political spectrum. A future where “freedom” and “nonconformity” have become law to the point that anyone who shows any traditional preferences — or even objects to being married to a tree — could be put to death a la a dictatorship scenario. Essentially, it’s a world that is derived from the worst aspects of both sides. Was that your intention for the vibe of this film?
DZ: Absolutely! It’s exactly that. I’m so happy you got it. Some critics call “Greatland” nonsensical. It’s too easy an excuse. For an intellectually curious and engaged viewer all the clues are there, on the surface. GREATLAND (all in caps because it’s the GREATEST country on Earth) is a complete system with its own ideology and economic model, which for the sake of brevity, is expressed through allegories and clues. If you listen to Bracelet TV, you’d understand that GREATS believe in their superiority, positive attitude, Evildom as their common enemy, Cure against the Virus, Altruists, resurrection and immortality. The mainland is where Ulysses and the majority of Greats live. They don’t need to work, study or pay a mortgage. Food and housing are provided by Mother. All Greats have to do is to be themselves. Their performative freedom and nonconformity come at a high price: Everything in Greatland is either imported from Evildom or made by slave labour. But filled with unqualified young girls, slave sanctuaries manufacture waste, build malfunctioning infrastructure and produce babies with the sperm collected during “Dark Temple Ceremonies”. Clerk is concerned that Greatland is losing its competitive advantage to Evildom, turning into a colossus with feet of clay. Repentance Island is a part of Greatland. In this insular enclave, the elite enjoy wealth and traditional values while retaining control and decision-making power over its supra-democratic population. For the elites, it’s a complete win-win. As long as it lasts…
MM: There is also a suggestion of a hidden island where young women are exploited, attacked, and even murdered by powerful elites. Was Epstein the inspiration behind this?
DZ: Yes, of course. Epstein and everybody on his flight list. Repentance island’s Easter egg is Epstein’s mansion from Little Saint James island placed on one of the hills!
MM: How long did it take to film this and were all the scenes complete prior to Covid?
DZ: Production took place in March-April 2018. Post-production was completed in January 2020 right before Covid-19 hit. Back in 2017 as I was writing the script, I thought if I were Greatland’s elite, I’d keep the general population in permanent fear. A deadly danger, real or imaginary, would make Greats accept Mother’s total control over them and blatant limitation of their freedom. This danger should come from outside, like Soviet Union and its nuclear weapon or Islamic terrorism. So, the idea of the Virus invented by the Evil Nation came to me naturally.
MM: You created a really trippy trailer that went viral online during the pandemic lockdown. Did you intend for it to get this popular?
DZ: Yes, we did. We wanted to demonstrate the link between Greatland and what was happening around the world at that point. It was unorthodox but we had no choice.
MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about “Greatland”?
DZ: “GREATLAND is the movie that 2020 demanded be made” (Critical Blast)
“Some filmmakers lay their stories and themes out for your passive consumption, some make you “work for it,” and some… are Dana Ziyasheva.” (Movie Nation)
“GREATLAND is quickly becoming something of an urban myth.” (Dread Central)
MM: What’s your favorite part of the movie and why?
DZ: The scenes where Clerk (Nick Moran) explains to Ulysses how Greatland works. This is when the movie polarity flips completely.
MM: What other movies have you made and were they as experiential and artistic as this one?
DZ: My first feature “Defenders of Life”, available on Amazon Prime, was shot in Spanish and Ngabere with non-professional actors, a 4-man crew and no script, you can hardly get more experimental than that!
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
DZ: I would like to get representation and work as a film-director. My projects in development are very local and universal at the same time. We’re looking for production partners for the “Dragon Angel” script that won the Best Co-Production with China award at the Shanghai Film Festival. For our “In the Cut” documentary about incarcerated youth in Akron, Ohio, we’re negotiating with LeBron Family Foundation for him to do a cold-open or narrate part of the documentary. Finally, I dream of bringing the Children’s Crusade in Medieval France to life; I developed the script in consultations with leading historians and archaeologists in France and the US. Yet my most fervent wish is for “Greatland” to renew the dystopian genre and shed some light on the dangerous turn our post-modern society is taking. Remember, I lived through the collapse of the Soviet empire. At that time, it felt sudden and unexpected, but now that I look back, I see the warning signs, they are unmistakable. Empires rise and fall. Greatland is an empire in its twilight. Whether the movie is a warning or not, depends on how you perceive reality around you.
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To learn more about “Greatland,” visit its official IMDB.