Documenting Ukraine

(co-authored with Tom Rowley; first published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/thomas-rowley-darya-malyutina/documenting-ukraine)


As we end four days devoted to documentary cinema, theatre and debate in London, never have documentary forms had such an important role to play.


Under an intensely red safe-light, a photographic print begins to develop before our eyes: from close up, two tanks move away from us – their turrets pointing into the distance. The tanks, provenance and location all unexplained, are ominously close – so close we can touch them – but yet remain out of reach, strange. The tanks are, of course, somewhere in eastern Ukraine. This image, which opens Release Oleg Sentsov (a new film about the film director from Simferopol, Crimea, currently detained on terrorism charges in Moscow), seems to capture much of the current conflict – so heavily ‘mediated’ for people outside the borders of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), but so violent, terrifying and destructive for people caught inside of it.

Unfortunately, though, just as Ukraine has only recently ‘arrived’ in the European mindset, so has it disappeared. Mission creep outside Mariupol gets slant column inches, and neither does life in the ATO – the death toll for May is already rising. The now 1.2m refugees flounder without proper state support, nor much interest in the West. Ukraine’s economy has hit rock -bottom under the stress of conflict, annexation and years of mismanagement.

Against a backdrop of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ for Western audiences, the four-day festival Documenting Ukraine (14-17 May 2015) aimed to place Ukraine squarely on the agenda through a programme of documentary cinema, theatre and debate.

Documentary theatre

In recent years, documentary theatre has come to the forefront of experimental theatre practice across Russia and Eastern Europe. In their continued efforts to negotiate civic injustice and its connections to the past, theatre artists from numerous post-Socialist countries have taken to incorporating material from real-life events in their portrayals of everyday life onstage.

With two evenings of theatre performances at London’s GRAD gallery, the first part of Documenting Ukraine focused on recent documentary theatre responses to the conflict in Ukraine. While the first performance (14 May), led by Georg Genoux, reflected on the director’s experience of volunteering in the town of Nikolaevka (Mykolaivka) in eastern Ukraine, the second day saw Ukraine’s leading New Drama playwright, Natalia Vorozhbit (author of Maidan: Voices from the Uprising) present her most recent play Can I or Can’t I, read by Amanda Drew.

Genoux’s story is a thoughtful and affectionate elaboration on the lives of adults and children living in war-affected Nikolaevka, a town which was occupied by pro-Russian separatists, before the Ukrainian army took back control in July 2014. The occupation and military actions resulted in a number of civilian casualties, as well as destruction of some parts of the town, and volunteers from western Ukraine have been working with the local population in order to restore peace and support the community.

The footage together with the interviews provides a multi-vocal account of diverse people trying to overcome the traumatic consequences of the war and restore their normal lives. There is little editing to the audio; there are dramatic monologues and barely intelligible mundane conversations; in the background of some of them, one can hear squeaking of the snow or children laughing. This raw and realistic material is combined with an eerie video: the camera slowly glides through the streets and buildings of the town, some of which bear signs of shelling and bullet marks on the walls.

Genoux’s work captures the tensions and contradictions of the everyday lives of his ordinary subjects, with their joys and sufferings, ambiguous feelings towards the separatists and Ukraine, trust and suspicion towards the volunteers, fear and solidarity. Stressing his ethical concerns about avoiding the exploitation of people’s pain, and grasping the diversity of first-hand experiences, Genoux succeeds at giving his subjects voice and space to express themselves, eschewing the appropriation of their stories.

A different path

Natalia Vorozhbit’s play cuts a different track – an autobiographical monologue of a woman travelling to Donetsk airport through war-torn eastern Ukraine to do research for a screenplay, and who falls in love with the officer accompanying her.

The play offers an insightful take on the war from a female point of view, and includes a combination of the tragic, the routine, the macabre, and the comedic, constantly stressing the coexistence of the intimate and the deadly as its main focus. Stylistically resembling Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, the draft of Can I or Can’t I also represents a kind of ‘fieldwork’: anecdotal, empirical, emotional, and seemingly very personal.

The questions of personal involvement and defining one’s position in respect to the ongoing conflict, either as a journalist or as an artist, have become key issues in today’s increasingly hostile climate. Vorozhbit stressed that her current work is a reflexive attempt to voice not only the concerns of other people, but also to speak for herself, while also being part of the ongoing crisis. Natalia Gumenyuk, co-founder of Hromadske.tv, noted that working on Euromaidan and the war in Ukraine as a journalist has been a specific experience for her: ‘As a journalist, the main thing is to make your account as human as possible. You are just a transmitter of information, but you need to make people care; and even though you are emotionally affected you can’t put in too much of an emotion.’

In line with the main idea of the festival, Gumenyuk underlined the importance of documentary as a means of gathering information and presenting it to the audience, particularly stressing the need to pay attention to the ways in which the war has affected the routine lives of the people. While it has become increasingly difficult for Ukrainian journalists to gather first-hand information in the East, such materials are invaluable for any analysis of the conflict, its risks and implications.

Quality media, then, is critical for creating opportunities to digest and adjust to the consequences of the war with the least possible loss. A documentary approach, whether in theatre or on the screen, is a potential way to increase empathy and understanding, facilitate dialogue between diverse parts of the society, and bridge distances. Vorozhbit and Genoux’s initiative of creating a theatre performance with the children from the East, based on their stories, and take it to the West of the country is one of the ways to do that. Gumenyuk asserts that for creating a credible media narrative in the current circumstances, it is vital to speak to the people on the ground and present the material in an accurate way.

Lastly, a question that is bound to be raised in regard of any attempt to portray sensitive and political issues by an outside observer, concerns the ability to represent the events and human experiences in their complexity, and the dilemmatic choice between giving people voice or speaking for them. Are we at risk of commodifying personal narratives, of involving ourselves in crisis tourism, when it comes to artistic response?

Though this question remains unanswerable, these performances, based on interviews and real experience, raise the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ (in both Ukraine, and beyond).

Documentary cinema

Organised by Open City Docs and DocudaysUA, and with the support of O’Neill Consultancy, Documenting Ukraine: Cinema aimed to bring not only the conflict, but some of Ukraine’s cultural history to audiences in London.

While the late 1980s saw a resurgence of committed documentary making in the Soviet public mind, the 1990s – with the upheaval and funding difficulties that decade brought – were far from kind to documentary cinema in Ukraine. The 2000s, though, have seen bold steps in the making and funding of documentary film – partially aided by technology.

The film festival opened with Sergei Bukovsky’s Ukraine: The Countdown (2011). Produced to mark the twentieth anniversary of Ukrainian independence, Bukovsky, now a veteran of documentary cinema, tells the story of how Ukraine became independent in 1991 through interviews with political and cultural figures from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the US.

That story of independence, under however much pressure in 2011, experienced another radical break in 2014. The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, has altered the political landscape of both Russia and Ukraine completely. Release Oleg Sentsov, a film by Askold Kurov (director of Children 404) and Andriy Lytvynenko, details how Oleg Sentsov, a film-maker from Simferopol in Crimea, found himself caught up in that situation.

Sentsov is currently detained on terrorism charges in Moscow after he was arrested in May 2014. While other people arrested in that operation have been sentenced up to seven years in prison for their alleged activities, Sentsov was later tortured and accused of being a member of the Right Sector group, planning a campaign of terror against the newly-acceded peninsula. He is now awaiting trial – though the hearings are constantly pushed back. With powerful footage from the last few months, Kurov’s film follows Sentsov’s sister Natalia Kaplan as she attempts to help her brother in prison, as well as the international efforts by film-makers to intercede on Sentsov’s behalf.

Indeed, Agnieszka Holland made a special appearance at this event to raise awareness of Sentsov’s case: ‘He is a young man. He is a talented man. He is a man full of life and courage. He remains in prison with incredible strength and courage. I just want to see him free in the country he chose, making his movies and raising his children.’ Russian by nationality, Sentsov has stated that he is a citizen of Ukraine.

The necessity of hearing people, of objectivity, has never been more relevant, and personal stories cut through the media narratives and clichés. As photographer Aleksandr Glyadelov, whose prints accompanied the festival, put it: ‘we are, unfortunately, too accustomed to statistical reports: the day before yesterday 3 people were killed and 7 injured. I give another way of looking. When you know people directly, you can’t forget what is really going on. The sharpness comes back.’

In this sense, never has documentary been more needed than now. Anthony Butt’s The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country (in production) fulfills this function perfectly by tracing the formation of the Donetsk People’s Republic through real life ‘characters’ who participated in the events of 2014. As if a response to the call to ‘Listen to the Donbas’, Butt’s film lets people in the Donetsk region speak for themselves – even as Butts gets right up close to the messy and brutal formation of the DPR.

Messy and brutal may be the words to describe the final part of Saturday’s programme, focused on Maidan, with a series of shorts from different directors charting the emerging situation in January-February 2014. Shot on hand-held cameras, these films are almost too intense to watch – to be in the crowd during the violence on both sides, as a society (as these films depict) visibly breaks apart, is too much. Influenced strongly by photojournalism, these shorts return to those recognisable moments from 2014 – the crowds and the riot police clashing, bodies in central Kyiv, and the uncertainty of what would come next.

The time before

There was also time for recent documentary cinema from Ukraine before the country became known for violent conflict. Going back to the 1920s, Ukraine has long had a pedigree of documentary film-making and poetic cinema, and the Cinema section was packed with treasures: Tomorrow is a Holiday (1987), Mum died on Saturday in the Kitchen (2010), Crepuscule (2013) and Dziga Vertov’s Year 11 (1926), re-scored by Anton Baibakov.

While Maxim Vasyanovych’s touching family portrait Mum died on Saturday in the Kitchen made its UK premiere, Sergei Bukovsky’s perestroika picture took us right back to a time which, for many, is all but lost. Movingly shot in black and white, Tomorrow is a Holiday tells the – gripping – story of a chicken factory in Soviet Ukraine during the late 1980s. Crepuscule, made by Valentyn Vasyanovych, focuses on the personal relationships in a Zhytomyr village – the arguments, slow pace of life, and, unfortunately, the slow death of the Ukrainian village.

Maxim Vasyanovych’s piece, though, stole the show in many ways – technically accomplished, its self-reflexive editing and engaging subject matter herald a new age of documentary. On stage, it was clear the representatives of two very different generations of film–makers were far from being on the same page when it comes to the technological innovations and strict financial constraints documentary film now faces.

One hopes that, some one day, this kind of conflict might supersede the current one.


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