Art & Entertainment

Sanity Of Art And Cinema In Ukraine's War Zone

Filmmaking has become a casualty of the Russian war on Ukraine, with filmmakers finding it difficult to work on their craft, owing to a funding crunch, and make ends meet.

Caught in War: Screen grabs from The Earth is Blue as an Orange
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Anna, a single mother, and her four children make a film together about their lives in the frontline war zone of Donbas to cope with the daily trauma caused by bombings and chaos. While the world outside is nothing but a cloud of grey and gunshots, the family struggles to keep their home a safe haven, full of life and light. The award-winning documentary The Earth is Blue as an Orange, directed by Iryna Tsilyk, outlines how transferring the horrors of war into art is perhaps the only way to stay humane.

In 2019, Tsilyk travelled to a cine camp where she met the two sisters featured in her film. The camp was for children living in war zones. There, she found the characters for her debut. She never wrote a script to film real people in a war zone, because it is very difficult to predict what will happen next.

Nearly 1,000 km away, two soldiers are on their way home when they meet in a bus in the suburbs of Kyiv. They have just quit the army. Catching up on all the years missed together, they get down at a deserted place and check into a motel to spend the night. Drunk and nostalgic on a cold winter night, inside a quaint wooden cottage, they talk for hours about the long-lost ‘normal lives’ before the army. Through their unfolding interactions, they wonder if living a normal life would ever feel the same. Broken, directed by Solomia Tomaschuk, reveals how war leaves an imprint on you even after you leave the war.

Culture has an important impact on politics in general and on democratic institutions in particular.

The Earth is Blue as an Orange and Broken were featured at a recent event, evocatively titled, ‘Wise Women ... Mudri Zhinky’, hosted by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, in collaboration with the Ukrai­nian Female Film Industry (UFFI), in New Delhi in September. The two films were part of 11 curated documentaries directed and produced by Ukrainian women filmmakers, who took us through different aspects of Ukrai­nian life, stifled by an almost decade-long war. The similarities in the frames’ thematic content, sequencing and presentation demonstrate efforts to expose the realities beyond the frozen tren­ches of Ukraine where the war is being fought. Documenting them over the years has been traumatic for the film artistes, who have had to experience disaster, tears, destruction and death brought on by the Russian Army.

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Caught in War: Screen grabs from The Earth is Blue as an Orange

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 jeopardised not only the country’s territorial integrity but also its democracy,” writes Lucan Ahmad Way in his article “Ukraine’s Post-Maidan Struggles: Free Speech in a Time of War”, published in the Journal of Democracy. Culture has an important impact on politics in general and on democratic institutions in particular. Thus, filmmakers are struggling to preserve the fundamental values of their culture.

Tsilyk narrates that filming children in a war zone can get scary. “You have a responsibility. It’s like walking in some white field where you should be very careful because you have the power to change a very few important things in a child’s life. It is not filming actors but real people and real lives.”

In their attempt To make the cries of Ukrainians reach the corners of the world, however, filmmakers are fighting a severe funds crunch amid a plummeting economy.

“We work with difficult subjects; characters who have gone through traumatic experiences. So, we have to be very attentive to other people’s fee­lings and personal borders,” says Svitlana Rud­iuk, a director, screenwriter and film producer from Kyiv. The 38-year-old filmmaker, who prod­uced a short fiction film, Oh! , adds, “When you drive through broken villages and cities, talk to people who have lost everything, you can’t help but let it pass through you.” In the first weeks, Rud­iuk filmed in a children’s hospital to tell the story of a boy, Vova, who was injured in the war while travelling with his family and came under fire.

In the course of filming, Rud­iuk, along with the boy, underwent a number of complex emotions. Although Vova is currently in Poland and is receiving treatment, they keep in touch following a sense of “responsibility and belongingness” towards each other at a time of crisis. In their attempt to make the cries of Ukrainians reach the corners of the world, however, filmmakers are fighting a severe funds crunch amid a plummeting economy.

Until February 24, Ksenia Bugrimova signed contracts with international majors for the purchase of the rights to her projects. But as soon as the war began, they terminated the contracts because they did not want to deal with Ukraine. Like other producers, the 38-year-old producer, director and co-founder of the UFFI wondered if there would be food on her plate in the coming months.

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Caught in War: Screen grabs from The Earth is Blue as an Orange

Bugrimova, who currently stays in London, keeps travelling back to Kyiv. Living between the two countries, she returned from Kyiv three weeks ago when there were active missile attacks. “I’m a refugee with a lack of funds and work, left in Lon­don with a three-and-a-half-year-old son, but my parents, sister, nephews and family are in Kyiv,” she says. “Such was, of course, not the case before the war began in February. All the money went to the military and the war machine,” says Larysa Gutarevych, Ukrainian producer, cultural diplomacy agent and co-founder of UFFI.

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Following the political circumstances, the industry has lost most funding from the Ukrainian government and the Ukranian State Film Agency to support artistic films. While many filmmakers continue to live in Ukraine to work and support the economy, many were compelled to leave over financial and security concerns.

Acknowledging the plight of film artistes, Bugrimova says, “The state of unemployed filmmakers has reached 85 per cent in the past months. In fact, many filmmakers have been instructed to go to hotspots while risking their lives to shoot footage of the war and war crimes perpetrated by the Russian troops.” Several well-known artistes are “paying a bloody price for their art”. “Cinema takes a long life cycle to be made, from a year to several. And, now, most filmmakers protect us with weapons in their hands and I am afraid that we will lose many talented professionals from the industry,” rues Bugrimova.

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As a way to survive the socio-cultural crisis, Ukrainian filmmakers have started venturing outside the country to host film festivals and seek support. ‘Wise Women’ was one such example. “At a time like this, it is important for us to send a message to the international community that life goes on,” says Lara, a member of Producers Without Borders. Currently, she is in Georgia and has been in talks with producers from across the world, including South Asian countries, for funding her next line of porjects.

Bugrimova warns that the disappearance of one culture will have a domino effect. The experience of living during the war and the destruction it entails, perhaps, should be preserved through the art of cinema.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Facing Double Jeopardy")

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