Can a Film Festival in Eastern Ukraine Give Voice to the Region’s Displaced?

A report from this year’s MeetDocs Eastern Ukrainian Film Festival in Kharkiv

‘Life continues as normal here, but just 250 kilometres away a conflict is raging’, says Yevgeniya Kriegsheim, founder of the MeetDocs Eastern Ukrainian Film Festival, held in Kharkiv at the end of September. The city of 1.4 million people is known for its vibrant underground music scene, street art and constructivist architecture. The writer Serhiy Zhadan, the ‘bard of eastern Ukraine’ lives and works here. But so do thousands of people displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Some of them have become filmmakers, with stories to tell.

The war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has entered its fifth year, and despite recent overtures to peace, it simmers still. The need to give voice to those displaced by it feels more urgent with every kilometre closer to the front line. At a panel discussion on 28 September at Drukarnia, an NGO in Slovyansk, just 50km from the front line, two local artists suggested that the obstacle to giving voice to the Donbas is not inspiration but infrastructure. When shots were fired, the fledgling communities of artists and filmmakers in these depressed (post-)industrial regions fled their homes, leaving their studios and archives behind the front lines. They did not return home after a month or two. Like so many, they dispersed across Ukraine and abroad. In a country as large and as poorly-connected as Ukraine, the dissipation of a social group can spell its destruction.

The event began in 2017 as the Kharkiv MeetDocs international film festival. Kriegsheim and her colleagues are primarily documentary filmmakers, and strongly believe that the genre is ideal for giving voice to the region and the conflict which scars it still. Hers is also a festival of cinematography, providing workshops to the few local filmmakers who have remained in the city. ‘The first film in Ukraine was shown in Kharkiv 120 years ago, but Kyiv has since become the capital of Ukrainian cinema,’ explains Kriegsheim. ‘We’re trying to revitalise local cinema here.’ But even if more films are produced in Kharkiv, the city has only a handful of cinemas in which to screen them.

Nariman Aliyev, Homeward, 2019, film still. Photograph: Anton Fursa © Limelite

Ukrainian cinema is gaining prominence. Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, perhaps the most widely-known film about the conflict in the East, opened the Un Certain Regard category, which celebrates young talent and cinematic innovation, at Cannes in 2018. The country’s latest nominee for Cannes, Nariman Aliyev’s 2019 film Homeward, opened the Eastern Ukrainian Film Festival. It is the story of a father and son, Crimean Tatar refugees living in the Ukrainian capital, who attempt to travel to Crimea to bury their son and brother’s body on the peninsula, occupied by Russia since 2014. The 27-year-old director says he was influenced by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the Russian Andrey Zvyagintsev; theirs is a fitting style for the estrangement and silent trauma which defines the lives of Ukraine’s displaced people.

Homeward was filmed primarily in Crimean Tatar, which helped it qualify for state funding. But this state support for films comes with caveats: over 90% of the dialogue must be in Crimean Tatar or Ukrainian, a complex demand in predominantly Russophone eastern Ukraine. Kriegsheim praises the new drive for raising the profile of Ukrainian cinema, but has reservations: cinematic works must meet certain ‘patriotic’ criteria, leading her to fear the rise of ‘opportunistic cinema’ and political demands sacrificing artistic merit.

Dmitry Lavrinenko, Parts, 2019, film still. 

The films shown last week in Kharkiv were not ‘patriotic’, or at least not the two dimensional hagiographies demanded by the loudest patriots. Given the festival’s slant towards documentary cinema, these films do not need to enact fantasies of martial valour. Dmitry Lavrinenko’s 2019 film Parts follows behind-the-scenes rehearsals by a group of refugees who fled the self-declared, Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ in Ukraine’s war-torn southeast. Their stories gently unwind through a series of team-building exercises. One of these invites them to re-enact events in their lives; there is the woman who breaks down when confronted with an unnervingly persuasive impression of an intolerant local who compares displaced people to the homeless. A veteran casually drums on a helmet as he discusses PTSD. Together, they are invited to write a letter to fear: ‘Dear fear, I know things have been difficult between us for a while, but today was the last straw.’ As the curtain lifts, the documentary ends.

‘They are ordinary people with their own stories,’ explains director Dmitry Lavrinenko. ‘I am marginal too; marginality can be very freeing: I don’t need to imitate my heroes, and I can find original solutions to artistic problems.’ Lavrinenko suggests that this ‘marginality’ naturally suits such observational documentaries, which in turn avoid the clichéd portrayal of conflict. ‘I am also a refugee in a sense; I left Russia in 2014 but didn’t immediately see Ukraine as my home. And what do you do when your fate intersects with that of your actors?’ asks the Ukrainian-born director.

Alexander Mikhalkovich, My Granny from Mars, 2018. Courtesy and ©: Volia Films 

Alexander Mikhalkovich, My Granny from Mars, 2018. Courtesy and ©: Volia Films 

Lavrinenko’s fate is not unusual for critically-minded filmmakers in this corner of Europe. It is fitting that this year’s festival was dedicated to independent journalism and activism; amplifying the voices of the victims of war can only be an activist act when doing so runs up against the moral certainties of the frontline. In Alexander Mikhalkovich’s 2018 film My Granny from Mars, the Belarusian director presents multiple generations scattered behind hardening borders, focusing on his grandmother who retired to Crimea; the Red Planet representing the peninsula’s inaccessibility and the alienness of the receding late Soviet generation. This is a festival where even a film with the stirring title Brothers in Arms (2019) can show a soldier saying that he loathes shooting. ‘Unfortunately you will not be able to see all the people in this film alive’, begins the introduction to Serhiy Lysenko’s documentary. This is very likely to be true.

Eastern Ukraine does not always need actors to ventriloquize its tragedies. By chance, I later got a lift from Alexander Fomenko, one of the heroes of Lavrinenko’s film, after leaving a cinema in suburban Kharkiv. ‘I lived my own personal tragedy,’ he said, as we sped home under darkening skies and over pockmarked tarmac, ‘but that film healed me.’

Main image: Nariman Aliyev, Homeward, 2019, film still. Photograph: Anton Fursa © Limelite

Maxim Edwards is a Berlin-based editor and journalist specializing in eastern Europe.

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