Roxy Toporowych arrived in Ukraine on a December night in 2013, just after the statue of Vladimir Lenin in central Kiev had been toppled and was being pounded to bits.
“I landed in the middle of a revolution,” says the Parma native and New York University film graduate, who spent two weeks there for the country’s film festival.
Less than a year later, Toporowych returned to Ukraine on a 10-month Fulbright grant to film a documentary about the country’s children. She ended up visiting soldiers in the local hospital, an experience that inspired her first feature film, Julia Blue.
The movie makes its world premiere April 6 during the Cleveland International Film Festival and is included in the festival’s new international narrative competition.
“It was a complicated film to do,” says Toporowych, who wrote and directed the movie. “The language was a problem. The casting process there is like old Hollywood — the casting directors are also agents.”
She wrote the treatment for Julia Blue in three months and completed a first draft of the script six weeks later. And then there was the weather.
“It would be sunny one minute and then snowing the next,” she says. “It was basically Cleveland weather times 20.”
Set in post-revolutionary Ukraine, the film is a love story between an idealistic student activist and a traumatized soldier. “For me, it’s a film about understanding people from a country people don’t really think about,” says Toporowych, whose resume includes work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, A Most Violent Year and Saturday Night Live.
Toporowych is quick to credit cinematographer Sashcko Roshchyn, who she met on that first fateful 2013 visit to Ukraine. “Sasha and his camera crew were incredible and elevated the look of Julia Blue,” she says. “I wouldn’t have a movie without him.”
Raised in Parma’s tradition-rich Ukrainian community, Toporowych is thrilled the film is part of the festival. “I’m so psyched the premiere is in Cleveland,” says the Normandy High School alum. “It makes sense that the whole process started there and it’s ending here. I have two scripts set in Cleveland that I still want to make.”
In 2016, Toporowych won the Calvin Klein Live the Dream grant for emerging female directors, an award she received from actress Margot Robbie. “Oh, I lost my mind,” she says. “Margot was super lovely. I ran into her in the bathroom later and we talked about movies.”
Toporowych hopes Julia Blue will shed light on the plight of Ukraine and the strength of its women. “The most important thing for me is when people leave the theater, they want to learn more about the country and how beautiful it is,” she says. “It’s still bad over there.”