“Nobody reads articles anymore,” says Sarah Hurst, bluntly. And she’s right – even this piece is written with the full knowledge that most readers will probably only skim through it. Nowadays, we’re so overloaded by information that anything more than 140 characters long can go overlooked. We’re increasingly getting our news online rather than in print, and more often than not video is the way to go.
That’s partly why, after a long and successful career in print journalism, Hurst decided to try her hand at filmmaking. Armed with nothing but a home-video camera and her own questions, she set out to interview a selection of Russian political activists seeking asylum in Ukraine. The result is feature-length documentary The Way to Ukraine. She showed a few excerpts from the film at Pushkin House, talking about some of her interviewees and their lives in relation to the political and socio-economic situation between Russia and Ukraine.
The documentary itself has a distinctly “homemade” feel about it. It was filmed over a period of just five days, on no budget whatsoever, and was intended for the small screen. The whole thing is available on Youtube, and that’s exactly where it’ll stay, she says. The shots captured by the small handheld camera are shaky at times, cuts between frames are abrupt, and the poor sound quality from the internal microphone render some pieces almost inaudible – especially those filmed in the windy outdoors. The Way to Ukraine would be entirely out of place in a cinema with a large screen and huge amplifiers, designed to spotlight the technical skill in professionally shot and edited movies.
That doesn’t matter, though. This is a film to be appreciated not for its cinematographic flair, but rather, for the stories it tells. Numerous audience members admitted they didn’t even know that the phenomenon of Russian political activists and sympathisers migrating to Ukraine existed. The Way to Ukraine serves, above all, as a way to educate the general public on the existence of people like Sasha Sotnik, the creator of Sotnik TV, an online channel that is highly critical of the Kremlin’s policies, or Irina Belachew, one of the organisers of the “White Rally,” a political rally that travelled from Moscow to Astrakhan.
The online nature of The Way to Ukraine is particularly fitting in this context. Mainstream media being so heavily censored in Russia, the internet is the only outlet for alternative political comment. The story of Andrej and Tatjana Telsenko, two more of Hurst’s interviewees, provides a striking example of this. Living on low wages, they couldn’t afford both a television and a computer, and so opted for the latter. They stopped following mainstream media, and began getting their news online, and that’s what turned them from patriots into oppositionists.
With the refugee crisis currently dwarfing the Ukrainian unrest in British mainstream press, it might be tempting to think things have settled down. It’s true that casualties have dropped in recent months and the latest ceasefire seems more or less to be holding, but the fierce debate that raged during Hurst’s Q&A really brought home how emotionally charged an issue this still is. Sparks flew in Pushkin House’s basement as audience members engaged Hurst in a lively debate on a variety of complex topics, from the reliability of Russian media sources, to the status of Ukrainian political émigrés in Russia.
Hurst makes no secret of her own views on Russian politics. When asked if she would ever consider making a similar portrait of Ukrainian migrants in Russia, or of pro-Russia separatists, she flatly stated that – while such a topic could be interesting – she fears for her own safety in Russia. It’s not hard to understand her scepticism towards Russia, a country that has made asylum seekers of so many of her close friends. Some of the lines put out by the Kremlin to explain Euromaidan are frankly laughable – that it was all started and funded by the USA, for instance, or that peaceful protestors – doing nothing other than holding signs stating their support for Ukraine – pose a serious threat to national security. Nonetheless, proper critique of Ukraine’s own approach has been somewhat lacking in British media, who have often tended towards portraying the conflict as a simple case of innocent Ukrainian underdogs fighting the big bad Russians.
That’s not Hurst’s agenda, though. The aim of this film isn’t to answer any complex questions about the rights and wrongs of the war, nor does it offer any solutions. Rather, its goal is simply to tell the stories of some of those caught in the middle. In any widely reported conflict, it’s easy to get lost in huge death tolls or political jargon, and lose sight of the people behind the headlines. Hurst’s remit is to give us a glimpse into the world of those individuals making waves, as well as those caught in the middle by pure accident. And that, she does very well.
Sarah Hurst’s The Way to Ukraine featured as part of the ongoing cultural programme at Pushkin House, London. To see the film online, please click on the image below.