Passion Pursuit

Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

by | Jul 1, 2020 | Culture, Features

When Andrea Chalupa ’04 was a senior at UC Davis, she announced to family and friends that she would make a film about atrocities suffered in Ukraine under the Stalin regime.

“I got the idea my senior year and committed to it in my heart,” she said. “I had no idea how I was going to get it made, how to write it. I just knew I wanted to do it. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

“Mr. Jones,” with the screenplay by Chalupa, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last year and will be available to rent on iTunes on July 3. James Norton stars as Gareth Jones, a little-known journalist from Wales, who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1933 and was among the first to report about the Holodomor, the manmade famine in Ukraine in which millions died.

Andrea Chalupa at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019

Photo: Berlin Film Festival

Chalupa’s journey to become a filmmaker, producer and screenplay writer was inspired by her own family history. She grew up in Davis, but knew from a young age that her parents had been born in refugee camps in Germany. And her beloved grandfather, Olexji, had grown up in Ukraine, watched the Russian Revolution from his family farm, survived the famine and was arrested during Stalin’s purges.

As a history major at UC Davis, Chalupa focused on Soviet history. “I think what was really interesting to me being a history major — and not film, or drama, or English — was doing all this heavy research and work,” she said.

So when her grandfather wrote down his life story shortly before he died, she went to live in Ukraine in 2005 and had the memoir translated from Ukrainian to English. She also started researching her screenplay in earnest.

A lot of that work became her 2012 book Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm, which she self-published. The book traces her family’s struggles and offers the backstory to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is also represented in “Mr. Jones.”

The book led to a speaking tour of Canada — and a new network of people interested in history and current events. Importantly, shortly after her return, Ukraine experienced a revolution to overthrow its elected president and government. And then in 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin including his interference in Ukraine, was assassinated.

“That’s when I got furious,” said Chalupa. “I wrote a brand new draft [of the screenplay]. It’s a very angry version where I grab the reader by the throat. That’s the draft I sent to Agnieszka Holland.”

James Norton in “Mr. Jones”

Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Holland, a film director perhaps best known for 1991’s “Europa Europa,” signed on to make the film.

Chalupa worked as a producer, securing private equity through a foundation in Canada and public grants from Europe. (“Mr. Jones” was filmed in Poland, Ukraine and Scotland.)

She also worked on casting, and in addition to Norton as Jones, the film stars Peter Sarsgaard as New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty and Vanessa Kirby as a reporter named Ada Brooks.

“I was wearing many hats,” said Chalupa, who described writing an article that Duranty reads during one of the scenes. “Because of my education at UC Davis, I made sure that the article was historically accurate for that moment in time, should the director choose to have a closeup of it and any of it would get on camera.”

And though the film hasn’t been able to go to theaters in the U.S., due to the pandemic, Chalupa said it will likely be a part of a campaign leading up to the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor in 2023. At that time, she envisions screening events around the U.S.

Now that the movie is finished, Chalupa said she’s finally able to process the long path she took to get it made and feel pride that she brought some unfamiliar history to the spotlight, she said.

“My grandfather wrote down his life story so I would understand,” said Chalupa. “I’m so privileged and honored by that. It’s such an important reminder to all of us to preserve these stories in our own families. Knowing this history has helped me make so much sense of my own life and the world around me.”