It’s about time British people saw a rounded portrayal of Ukraine. Since conflict first broke out in November 2013, Ukraine has dominated our screens on and off, yet most of us are no closer to understanding what’s going on than we were a year and a half ago. We are fed a sensationalist, two-dimensional caricature of reality. The British media depicts a troubled country, invaded by Putin’s army and torn apart by pro-Russian separatist rebels. Conversely, the Russian media shows a nation oppressed by fascists, valiantly rescued by heroic Russian forces.
It’s rare that we get to see Ukraine as it really is: a complex country, in the midst of a difficult time, but with a vast cultural heritage that precedes the fighting by a long way, and that will live long after the war has ended. This is the country that brought us Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Gogol, Nathan Altman, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nekrasov…the list goes on.
The Documenting Ukraine festival, therefore, served two purposes. First of all, its fly-on-the-wall documentaries and open, honest debates shed new light on the current conflict. For perhaps the first time, layman British audiences were able to see the many facets to the political turmoil and the human beings behind it. Secondly, it reminded us that Ukraine exists beyond the newsreels. This is the Ukraine of ordinary people – mothers, sons, husbands and wives. The Ukraine of farmers and of politicians. Of revolutionaries and of chefs. It reminded us that Ukraine – like any other country – is vast and varied.
Documenting Ukraine consisted of two evenings of theatre, hosted by GRAD, followed by two days of cinema and debate held at the Frontline Club. On the festival’s final day, three films were shown, interspersed with debate and discussion.
First, the audience was treated to the UK premiere of Anthony Butt’s documentary work-in-progress The Donetsk People’s Republic: The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country. Butt spent two months alongside some of the key figures in the separatist camp with a view to showing the real people behind the headlines: the pastry chef who was made redundant because of her “revolutionary” ideas; the woman who has supported Russia for 20 years but fails to be elected a counsellor in the new people’s government. One of the revolution’s fighters likes to be known as Lenin. “This is Andrey when he was a little boy,” says Lenin’s mother, showing the camera a photograph of a smiling child, aged around five. “When will you come and see me again?” she asks. “Soon,” is her son’s answer as he embraces her tenderly, “once we’ve defeated all our enemies.” Shortly afterwards we see him storming government building, gun in hand, and threatening anyone he sees supporting Ukraine. The film is hard hitting precisely because it shows this contrast between the revolutionaries’ love for their families and the violent reality they live in every day. The film forces us to consider the individuals behind the statistics and death tolls. The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country highlights, above all, how desperate economic conditions can force ordinary people to do extreme things. As a Ukrainian flag burns on the ground, a small child asks why. “There was once a big friendly country,” replies his father. “Now it’s gone. Burnt like this flag.”
Yet before we’re able to dwell too long on the war, the second film of the day, Crepuscule, reminds us that Ukraine is still a beautiful, peaceful country in many ways. Valentin Vasyanovich filmed his great-aunt Maria and her son Sashko in their countryside home over the course of a year. He intervened as little as possible: there is very little editing, and no extra-diegetic sound whatsoever. As he explained after the showing, “I tried to make myself transparent.” This, he said, is a film above all about life and death. In contrast to the heaviness of The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country, Crepuscule has a kind of calming influence. There is a certain tenderness in the mother-son relationship that must surely speak to any audience member with a family as Maria helps Sashko cut his hair with old-fashioned manual clippers, or as the pair quarrel over how best to build an unidentified electric device. Life and death are eerily close throughout. One moment a new-born calf frolics around, and the next, Maria lops the head off a chicken. Family friends visit and share the woes of their new baby, while Maria and Sashko commission a neighbour to build their own coffins. Life is shown close up, in all its beauty and ugliness, whether it’s flies on the windowsill or a hacking cough or a beautiful sunset over rolling fields. Death, on the other hand, is accepted as the natural next step. This is a world away from the political turmoil we saw in The Curious Tale of the Handmade Country, and it’s comforting to have this relative calm after the storm.
The final film of the day was Dziga Vertov’s documentary masterpiece The Eleventh Year. Shot in 1928, it shows the construction of a hydroelectric dam, part of the huge wave of “electrification” of the Soviet Union. This time it was accompanied live by stirring original music by Anton Baibakov. In true Vertov style, images are spliced over one another to create striking visual effects. These include Lenin’s face in a powerful wave of water, or a giant worker standing over the construction site. In contrast to the calm of Crepuscule, The Eleventh Year is full of energy and promise. The Soviet Union is in its relative youth. The bloodshed of the October revolution is perhaps partially forgotten, and the terror of Stalin’s reign has not yet begun. Pro-Soviet propaganda it may be, but it’s certainly effective. We have happy workers, smiling children and the powerful force of hydroelectricity all accompanied by Vertov’s stunning editing skills and Baibakov’s rousing modern accompaniment.
All in all, the final day of Documenting Ukraine was clearly a roaring success. It was thought-provoking, shocking, and stirring. The programme moved seamlessly between its various themes. May there be many more events like this!
‘Documenting Ukraine’ was part of London’s Frontline Club’s ongoing programme of screenings, conferences, lectures and discussions on ‘issues affecting media, journalism, foreign affairs, and politics around the world.’