Ukrainian documentalists have been covering the war with Russia from the beginning – since 2014. So, to them, its new stage wasn’t sudden, even though it has seriously impacted their ability to work.
For starters, the personal risk and life threat levels have grown significantly. Then, the war has impacted funding, both Ukrainian and foreign. And, finally, now they not only need to represent the country in the important events, to which world media pays attention, but also lead a constant fight against the Russian presence and continuously explain why this state of affairs is not acceptable.
Alex Malyshenko sat down with Ukrainian directors, producers, and a documentary camera operator to ask them about how the full-scale invasion has impacted their work and what they have to deal with now.
The Ukrainian version is available here.
Translated from Ukrainian by Yuliia Horbenko.
What has the new stage of the war changed in your work?
Yuliia Hontaruk, the director of “Company of steelCompany of steel – an upcoming movie about three volunteers, who, after fighting in the war, return to civilian life, only to be forced to take up arms because of Russia’s full-scale invasion.” and the film cycle “Fortress MariupolFortress Mariupol – a film cycle based on video calls with the soldiers of Azov Regiment who were surrounded at Azovstal.”
For me, filming hasn’t changed at all because I work with those who agreed to be filmed back in 2014 or 2015. So I have open access, it’s just that there are now more chances to “croak” there. Because this is no longer trench warfare. Aviation, helicopters, and artillery are working there. A regular army is fighting, and not just dumb homeguardsmen led by Russian officers.
This stage of the war is, generally speaking, completely different from the previous one because it now applies to the entire country. Before, I often heard people say, for instance, in the central regions of Ukraine, that “this war is somewhere in the East, it’s a political war, it doesn’t apply to us.”
Now, the war has touched all of us. The understanding of a displaced person has changed – it’s no longer about people from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but about those who lived in the Kyiv center and were forced to leave the country.
To document the war, you don’t have to go to the East anymore because it has come to your doorstep. You can see the war and its consequences near you. As a documentalist, I had this overpowering emotional thing on February 25 or 26, when the fighting started in Nyvky near Beresteiska [neighborhood in Kyiv – Ed.], and I went down to the subway without any filming equipment. I had a feeling then that I was in a movie, a film about the Second World War in Great Britain. There’s this reality all around you – scared mothers with their kids, elderly people with blankets, cats, dogs.
I have experience filming in combat zones. It’s one thing when something hits you. But when you’re in the subway, which you ride every day, and this reality surrounds you – I was ticked that I wasn’t filming because historical events were happening.
Yuriy Gruzinov, the co-director of “The First CompanyThe First Company talks about people who fought for their freedom on the Maidan, and when Russia started the first war, the first wave of volunteers went to the front line. Available on YouTube.”
The strength and density of fire, active hostilities, and, respectively, a lot of journalists are already dead. I don’t know about the documentalists. Hopefully, they are all alive, I would really like for them to stay alive. Many wonderful photographers have died.
That’s why you should approach every issue with an understanding of what you’re doing. Because, as my commander tolerantly puts it, anyone can be 200-ed [translator’s note: “cargo 200” is a code that refers to military casualties as they are being transported]. No one is safe from artillery shelling or a landmine. You understand that all of Ukraine’s population is now in equal danger because hits happen everywhere.
It’s just that there, in Donbas, hits are more common. And because of the sheer quantity, one of them is sure to get you. So, on one hand, of course, you should take care of yourself, but, on the other, don’t overdo it.
Is it now justified for documentalists to risk their life?
Yuriy Gruzinov, the co-director of “The First Company”
The way I answered this question is with action – joined the military to be closer. If I were to give advice, then, of course, don’t risk your life. If I were to speak of what I do and will keep on doing, then, of course, I risk mine. I don’t want to tell anyone to risk their life because it’s their choice only. When you’re in the middle of doing something, no questions are left.
During the first stage of the war, there were people who joined combat and filmed it. It’s just, as a journalist, you don’t need to do that. You come for a day, film a story, and leave. As a documentalist, you need to break bread with these people to understand them, figure them out, and find a way to not censor them.
That’s why, the way I see it, it’s a sort of tribute that you need to pay if you want to understand something about war and people’s motivation. You will be trusted more if you are on the same level with this person, and not just a passing guest. It’s like a brotherhood. You have to join this brotherhood if you want to access the secret knowledge.
People in the trenches on the front line have a completely different view of things. There, everything is unambiguous: the enemy is there, the friend is here – that’s all. You drive off for five kilometers, and it’s no longer clear who the enemy is. Despite the whole country coming together, which is inspiring. But even in three months of active warfare you come to Kyiv and see that the war is already over for people there.
Kostiantyn Kliatskin, the director of “Crimea As It WasStory of the officers, soldiers, and sailors, who, during the occupation of Crimea, didn’t betray their oath to the people of Ukraine.”
If you’re going to film actual hostility, it’s clear that you’re signing up for the risk. But whether this risk is justified, I don’t know. In my opinion, an artistic unit who is intact, has their arms and legs and isn’t injured, can bring more benefits than that, which has taken the risk, went there, and got injured.
It is also my deep belief that you now need to film where you won’t be a nuisance. It’s simple: if you, as a documentalist, arrive at the front line, someone needs to take responsibility for you. This means, that someone from the military needs to make sure that, roughly speaking, you’re not killed, and therefore gets distracted from their tasks.
For instance, when we were filming at the front line during the first stage of the war, in 2014 – 2015, we lived in dugouts with the boys, shared the daily routine, and slowly filmed our documentary. The situation was different back then: the front line was stable, and it was more or less clear what was happening when something hits.
Even in those conditions we lived on our side of the front line, it was a nominal gray area because, from time to time, the enemy special reconnaissance groups were working there. Generally speaking, us being there was relatively safe, but even then someone always had to take care of us. Such trivial matters as going to the bathroom 300 meters from the post where we were stationed – even then the boys always had to send someone with us. So, I think we were a nuisance at that point.
Now the filming situation is very different. The military can make their own videos. If you need actual combat footage, you can arrange that, send over GoPros, there are ways to get it. It’s not necessary for people to go to hell. But, perhaps, it’s justifiable to risk your life if you know for sure that you’re not interfering with anything.
Yuliia Hontaruk, the director of “Company of steel” and the film cycle “Fortress Mariupol”
For me, this question is complex because in 2015, when I joined a combat departure with the boys, I clearly decided for myself that I was risking my life. And you have to accept this if, for a film, you want to go somewhere like that. Whether it’s worth it or not, everyone decides for themselves.
In the same way, I went to the Mykolaiv region, to the gray area there, a few weeks ago – to film. I had a choice. But I understood that the main character of my film, who has been out of reach this entire time, finally got in touch, and I had to catch this moment because there might not be a chance to film him again.
It was right on May 9. It was risky because everyone thought that the Russians would march. But, yet again, you’re making this decision. That’s why you can’t ask the question of whether it’s worth it or not to risk your life. Of course, your life is the most precious thing you have. But those at war constantly risk their lives. They are willing to risk it in the name of certain beliefs and ideals. I guess, we’re also risking our lives in the name of certain beliefs.
How has the war impacted funding?
Andrii Kotliar, the producer and camera operator of “Iron ButterfliesAn upcoming hybrid film by Roman Liubyi that meticulously investigates the causes behind the crash of the Malaysian Boeing MH-17 by applying the means of documentary cinematography, performance art, and animation.”
Before the war, there were two large sources, from which you could receive state funding for filmmaking – the Ukrainian State Film Agency (USFA) and Ukrainian Cultural Foundation (UCF). It could’ve stayed the same this year, only UCF would’ve added the development of full-length documentaries, which is great.
Now all of that has changed drastically, state funding in the areas of culture and cinematography is up in the air. The situation isn’t fully articulated by the state structure, meaning that a documentalist – given they don’t have any insights, acquaintances, or rumors – doesn’t know what to expect in terms of funding.
The budgets of these institutions have been transferred over to the military needs, which I personally consider to be the absolute right thing to do, given the situation. It’s only natural that military needs are above all. But, unfortunately, these institutions haven’t offered any European equivalent to these funds.
What could’ve been the better way to go about this? If the Ministry of Culture, UCF, and USFA have written a letter to the leading European institutions, like Eurimage or Creative Europe, and told them something like: “Boys and gals, we’re going to run pitches, but we don’t have money to implement them because the country is at war. We can make a selection – that we can – create a project pool that would correspond to the Ukrainian realities because it’s necessary to form adequate narratives, important to talk about the war and the heroism of people.”
Documentalists have a lot of work nowadays, and they’re going to have even more. It’s been over 100 days of the war but nothing like that has been offered in the industry. There are talks that, maybe, they’ll return funding to UCF but the situation with pitchings and continuation of competitions is unclear. UCF has estimated projects and made a questionnaire, asking if we’re considering the chances of implementing our projects within three months. No specifics. This, I think, is now the biggest issue because people are working off their savings, but those aren’t endless.
In this sense, organizations like Babylon'13 have it easier. I’m not going to say that we have it all figured out, there are loads of issues and open questions. But because we already had certain institutional recognition and a brand consolidated abroad, we were able to attract a few grants to support the activity of Babylon'13 in the first three months. This allowed us to increase the montage and production capacities. We had contacts, which were formed earlier through the European markets, and were simply referring to organizations directly.
A different approach would be to film on demand. This relates more to camera operators and sound directors, less so to directors, but the demand is huge. For instance, a producer from Germany messaged me saying she needed a camera operator in Sloviansk for an upcoming project. They ask to name your price and whether you have a bulletproof vest and a helmet. But these are usually one-time jobs.
There’s also the selling of footage. This means, you go to a hot or cinematographically interesting spot, film a lot, and then offer up the footage. This is a commercial story, not my kind of thing. But it’s bread, and I’ve got nothing against that. You can quickly make good money—$500 or even $1000 per day if it’s a hype request. However, you need to understand that in 99% of the cases you’re saying goodbye to your material. You sign a contract of transfer of rights, meaning exclusivity rights, and no longer have any right to either use or re-sell that footage. In the best-case scenario, they’ll mention you in the credits.
The bottom line, what have we got? We’ve got an increased interest in Ukraine. We have good cases at Babylon'13, when projects that weren’t able to secure funding, now have that funding. Those doors, on which you were knocking a year ago, and received answers in the lines of “You’re great boys and girls, but finish the movie, send us a screener, and we’ll think if we want to buy it from you.” are now open.
Have there been any new opportunities for documentalists?
Darya Bassel, the producer of “OutsideA documentary by Olha Zhurba dedicated to Roma, a boy from a boarding school trying to find his place and love in this world.” and “Butterfly visionAn acting debut of Maksym Nakonechnyi, who this year participated in the Un Certain Regard section of Festival de Cannes. This is the story of an aerial intelligence officer Lilia, who returns from captivity to her close ones and tries to overcome the trauma she has received.”, the co-producer of “A House Made Of SplintersThe new work by Simon Lereng Wilmont, the author of The Distant Barking of Dogs, which, like his previous film, talks about the influence war has on kids growing up in Ukraine.”
I think it’s a bit of a delusive idea that we’ve got a lot of new opportunities. There is definitely an interest in Ukrainian content. But this doesn’t mean that we have at once received a lot of ways to secure funding.
The money is still fairly hard to come by, especially if we’re talking not about the news format or publicism, but actual creative documentary cinema. I know that a lot of people making movies now, and there are a lot of them, are still fighting to secure funding.
Almost all foreign film funds are open to supporting Ukraine and Ukrainian projects. However, there’s another difficulty: you can apply but you need a foreign producer. Which raises the questions: “How can a Ukrainian producer preserve their subjectivity? And how can a Ukrainian project stay Ukrainian, without turning into some other country’s project?”
Those funds that have been supporting our projects, continue to do so. There’s IDFA Bertha Fund, the Dutch foundation International Media Support (IMS), which I know has supported Babylon'13 at the start of the war, supported Listening to the World, a project by Liza Smit, and our project with Olia Zhurba. Yet again, they provide small grants. 10,000 euros is essentially nothing, considering that, to film, you need to drive around a lot, you need gas.
There’s interest from TV channels, but this is a rather long story. European TV channels are bureaucratic structures, they require decision coordination on several levels, and all of it happens slowly. In Ukraine, on the other hand, everything happens quickly and you need money quickly. That’s why documentalists who don’t film publicistic things on demand but make actual movies, tend to work from their own savings, hoping to eventually secure funding.
Different platforms, such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Al Jazeera are, of course, in touch with the Ukrainians and tend to buy small stories, which I consider publicistic content. This allows documentalists to earn money for food and other expenses, and then fill what they consider important in their free time.
In my view, acute support initiatives do not change anything fundamentally. It’s not comparable to the activity of UCF or USFA, thanks to which in the past couple of years several hundred projects have been implemented. I think that if the war doesn’t end this year, and neither USFA nor UCF continue their work, then in two to three years we’re going to feel that there are a lot fewer projects or none at all. I am afraid of that.
Andrii Lytvynenko, an independent producer, the director of “Askania ReserveA heartwarming story about the people who are in love with what they do and have dedicated their lives to looking after the animals in the nature reserve Askania-Nova.”
Compared to the previous stage of the war, the demand for fixers has increased. A fixer is someone who arranges filming, analyzes and translates news for international journalists, helps to develop and select topics, and sometimes acts as a driver. Fixers can also suggest characters. But a fixer’s main task is to translate. This includes simultaneous interpretation during conversations with the characters, and also later during a montage.
Everyone makes arrangements as they see fit. A lot of it depends on what publication is working. I’ve worked at three large companies. For instance, Sky News has an editorial office that manages the activity of three to four groups, each consisting of a driver-bodyguard, camera operator, reporter, and group producer. They’re prepared for different situations because they understand that anything can happen at war.
Some companies work differently, trying to save money. From what I’ve seen: they send over a reporter and a camera operator, who have to montage a story by the evening and then release it on the news. It’s basically biathlon-grade work that endangers people through exhaustion. But even then there are journalists who take it because war is too attractive of a topic, an unbelievable opportunity to raise ratings and get more views.
Before the full-scale invasion, I never worked as a fixer, and now people are sharing jobs because in literally a week the number of requests has grown by a factor of 10 to 20. The market dynamics started to form a month before the war. From the beginning of February, there was a need to involve someone in these processes.
There was a lot of this in Lviv, many English teachers got into fixing, although it can be hard on them. In such situations, I worry whether the people involved will stay alive. Based on statistics, many journalists have died in this war, even though a vast number of them were from large publications, had combat experience, and understood what they were signing up for. So, maybe, it’s my own fantasy about danger, but for young people without any preparation, the danger can be real.
There’s another specialty – local producers. A local producer is someone acting as a subject. There were stories with fixers in Iraq, for instance, that ended tragically. I won’t go into the international journalists who willingly endanger fixers for the sake of filming an interesting report, but this happens all the time.
Success and ratings depend on how near the journalist got to the place of hostilities. Yes, some are interested in the stories of forcefully displaced people, but no one has canceled the three S’ – death, sex, and scandal (in Ukrainian, the word “death” begins with the letter S – translator’s note). And there’s plenty of that at war.
Everything keeps changing all the time now. Perhaps, that’s why this market cannot solidify, as it depends on the events happening in Ukraine. The time when all of this was relevant has passed, and Europe is already tired of consuming our content. Instead, there are now documentalists, who use different formats to get material, contacts, or search for something. They don’t work like the journalists used to, making two or three stories per day, the pace is slower. Because the demand keeps changing, the market changes too. But it’s good that we have demand because a lot of people now don’t have anything to hold on to.
Russian and pro-Russian cinema at festivals: what is the situation and what are the possible reactions?
Darya Bassel, the producer of “Outside” and “Butterfly vision”, the co-producer of “A House Made Of Splinters”
We are not able to fully reach this goal [banning Russian cinema – Ed.], at least for now. It’s not going to happen any time soon. The most we’ve achieved so far: a huge chunk of the festival programs is now dedicated to Ukrainian cinema, with only one or two Russian films selected – those tend to be protest and anti-Putin films.
They show us these movies and explain what they are about. But we don’t decide on the final selection because, in any case, we don’t have the right to tell other festivals what they can and cannot do. At the very least, all of it goes through us.
For instance, we’re going to compile the program for Sheffield DocFest in June – that’s about how the collaboration goes. Even though our goal was to try and explain to them why we are against Russian cinema and don’t want them to show it, where these demands are coming from and why they are important. It seemed like they understood us, we had a lot of Zoom calls, and all of it took several months, but in the end, has not resulted in the complete exclusion of Russian cinema.
That’s why I now understand that I am satisfied when most attention is paid to Ukrainian cinema, while Russian gets close to none. Generally speaking, in Cannes, where we were with Butterfly vision – was something like that, even though, of course, there was a different balance than in Sheffield, and influencing Cannes was a lot harder.
Some festivals meet us halfway. We’ve spoken to the head of the Warsaw Film Festival and asked him whether there are going to be any Russian films. He told us there wouldn't be any. We didn’t even need to explain anything. I think it’s just a matter of the country's experience, its people. Poland, Estonia and all other countries that are closer to us historically understand us and don’t need any arguments. They can make all those arguments themselves.
There’s this feeling like we are at a shrink’s office. We’re like a person who needs help, and they’re like a therapist who is politely listening to us, sympathizing, telling us that they understand, but then still doing whatever they see fit. It seems to them that all we need is for someone to listen. Let us talk, and everything would be OK, they would be free to invite Ukrainian and Russian directors to the same residence.
I would like it if we spoke more about Ukrainian cinema. There’s always this imbalance: we talk about Russian cinema a lot, and it sells well, like a hype topic, but in all this, we yet again lose ourselves and our cinema. It’s like we’re demanding from the world: give us space, give Ukrainian voices a place. But then we ourselves fall into the trap of discussing Russians. Oblivion—that’s what I wish upon all Russian movies and their culture.
Alina Gorlova, the director of “This Rain Will Never StopA powerful black-and-white philosophical documentary that talks about Andrii Suleiman, a Kurd, who, while escaping war in his homeland, got into the heart of another opposition – in the East of Ukraine.”
It seems to me that we need to keep reacting how we’ve been reacting. Write letters, discuss, demand to exclude films. I can see that this works. I can see that festivals become more careful through this constant pressure and think twice before accepting a Russian film.
There are also examples of festivals and industry events that have abandoned Russian films altogether, it’s their official stance. For instance, the industry program of Baltic Sea Forum writes that they will accept projects neither from Russia nor Belarus. Moreover, they won’t even accept films that speak about Russia or Belarus. Meaning, they don’t want to support the discussion about what’s happening in those countries, considering that the war in Ukraine is a better representation of their internal processes.
People often say something like how can this be, this is culture. Some panic that the culture will disappear. This won’t happen, however, because we ask to boycott culture for the duration of the war. Until Russia leaves and we return to the borders that Ukraine had in 2014.
It is far more important to me that our people have gone to the front line, film professionals in particular. Some of them, unfortunately, die, and this is the main reason why we have to boycott Russian films. But also to give a voice to those countries that have never been heard because of the pressure from Russian cinematography and it being treated by the world as the main voice of our region. This pattern, I think, needs to be destroyed, and we need to revise the narratives created by Russian films.
International journalists: competitors or partners?
Slava Tsvetkov, the camera operator for “This Rain Will Never Stop” and “The Earth Is Blue as an OrangeA film-observation by Iryna Tsilyk, following a family from Krasnohorivka, who, throughout the filming of the movie, comprehends the events they’ve gone through during hostilities.”
If you imagine that every international journalist working in Ukraine gathers information and sends it to a different country, where thousands of people will be able to see it and connect to us emotionally and will learn, for instance, about Bucha and Mariupol, then this information will connect other people to our issues. I think it's a good thing for us. What matters is that the information is high quality and professional.
I can’t call this competition but making a documentary, from the outside to many people on the streets looks the same as journalistic work. The problem is, in most places, through which journalists have come, lingers a negative attitude towards people with a camera – and journalists are almost always the first ones to be there. Sometimes, people hope that journalists can help them fix the elevator in their building or send a message to politicians, but, of course, the chances are slim. The sacred attitude towards people with a camera, who can make it so the world hears your problems, does not tend to resolve personal conflicts.
We were filming in Mykolaiv how people stood in line to get some drinking water. There were a lot of people there, and when some of them noticed us filming, they started to say “Why are you doing this? So they know where to shoot? So we get hit?” People are scared of fast information, scared that information can cause their death. There is a conflict, in which people think that we make money from their suffering. Mostly, reporters present human pain and suffering to people who tend to live in different locations or countries.
A professional who films every day is psychologically protected from the information they’re working with because it’s impossible to keep taking in the pain of others. I was filming together with three photographers from different large international publications. We were in a bomb shelter with sick kids. All three of them concentrated around a mother with a little child. They took hundreds of pictures and then almost simultaneously turned around and left the building. I couldn’t film anything apart from the scene with photographers because even if they weren’t in the frame, you were always able to hear the sound of camera shutters. For this reason, I have no desire to come across or take up such work whenever I’m offered. This is a separate world with its own rules and understanding of reality.
Journalists are different, there are a lot of them, and amongst all, there are those, whose pictures change the world. All of us consume flows of information and big publication names have more authority. We believe that the journalists employed by these publications approach their work in interesting and highest-level ways. I know that Ukrainian fixers working with foreign groups tend to quickly adapt and make profitable connections. This way, through them, we can also get to the remote objects.
My job is impossible in the presence of journalists, so, in most cases, I avoid coming across them. When filming documentaries, we often go back to the people or places we’ve already filmed, to give the picture more dimension and deepen the experience of time perception. We are interested in becoming friends with those people, or at least staying on good terms.
Volodymyr Tykhyy, the director of “One Day in UkraineAn upcoming film by Volodymyr Tykhyi was filmed in one day in Ukraine – the Day of Ukrainian Volunteers (June 14). It’s a collective portrait of all those who have joined the defense of the country in their own way: some by taking up arms, and some by picking up a knife and a potato.”
In any case, they are partners. This partnership has a good influence both on Ukrainian journalism, and on also Ukrainian cultural space. They are partners in news coverage. Even if, in our opinion, they emphasize wrong things, they are still creating additional media space.
Half a year ago our media space was practically turned into a swamp. The media community has resigned themselves to this, which testified to a lack of responsibility for their own talent and also the demands of the public.
It’s still brooding, still hasn’t reached the stage of adult players, like European journalism. Of course, they also have media of business interests and politicians there, but at the same time, there is the institute of publication image, a journalist’s good name, neither of which we, unfortunately, have.
Our power structures have tried to make journalistic work as easy as possible. One of my friends working there asked me to help when we received a leading Japanese photographer. I grasped onto this story because we’re always interested – it’s its own genre – in seeing how other nations and cultures see us. Thanks to the Japanese photographer, we were able to see what happened in Irpin completely differently. Through him, this absurdity, terror, and tragedy became closer.
To me, it seems that now our focus is not that different from that of foreign journalists. Cultural anthropology is actually a top-rate thing in the cultural space. It’s exploited at the level of successful Hollywood series. Of course, the images of characters are the load-bearing wall of any story, but in reality, it’s the texture and anthropology of these stories that are the next important topic.
In terms of anthropology, Ukraine is fascinating. What we are with our world – attracts attention. It’s not just the destroyed building, but the cupboard with a rooster that has become Ukrainian pop culture. I think that it’s a good key to European empathy. Not only through pain and sympathy, but also through the interest in our country.
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