We at the ICO have been shocked by the terrible events currently taking place in Ukraine. While thinking about how we could show solidarity with and support Ukrainian people, we were approached by Elena Rubashevska, a director and film critic from Ukraine, about writing some articles to help spread the word about what is happening in the country at the moment. In this first blog, Elena discusses the onset of the war and her experiences as a filmmaker in the days preceding and following the Russian invasion.
2021. My name is announced on stage during the Venice Film Festival. The Goteborg Film Fund have selected my debut documentary, Symphony of Donbas, for development support. Soon, the Ukrainian State Film Agency commits to support the film too. We begin pre-production, with the final stage of location scouting due to end on Friday, February 25 2022.
Thursday, February 24 2022. My DOP and I wake to the sound of missiles. The city we are based in, Kramatorsk, is the first to be attacked by Russians. And this spells not only the end of peace; this is the end of our project too.
Ukraine has been in a state of war for eight years now. Working on a project related to Donbas was not a piece of cake, especially during the days preceding the invasion, even though our film had an innocent historical and industrial folklore focus.
For two weeks we’d been scouting the vast and rich land of Donbas. We climbed chalk mountains, had the car rescued from muddy forest roads, and descended coal and salt mines. We had a map marking battles from 2014 to hand, but nevertheless, while looking for a perfect angle among primal forests, we would often spot a sign warning “DANGER! MINES” and silently abandon the place, knowing that each step might easily be our last.
We knew that most of the objects of interest to us were in the no-fly military zone. Still, driven by the desire to see them from above, we decided to risk launching a drone. We managed to fly it, but the signal was very unstable and we found ourselves running through fields that could also contain mines to catch the out-of-control device. But each and every shot we took was worth it!
One day, in a rush to check a reportedly beautiful exterior location before sunset, we were stopped at a checkpoint and the police became suspicious at the sight of our filming equipment. They split us (me, the DOP, and the driver) and interrogated us separately.
While I was waiting for them to deal with the two men, a guy from special service approached me and said that normally, to make a woman more eloquent during interrogation, they would undress her and throw her out in the cold for 30 minutes, then ‘heat her up’ – and then interrogate. Whilst saying this, he was laughing.
When my turn came, they took my backpack and rummaged through my stuff. Among other things, I had my travel notepad with me – the one I’ve been using for the last couple of years. In there I had treasured up many stories people in Donbas had shared with me, a lot of them relating to war and telling of crimes committed by both sides during the conflict. The police started reading those testimonies aloud. Just imagine how it looked: a big dirty car, three people in touristic (but military-looking) clothes, a drone and camera, and suddenly, this. Add the Donetsk registration in my passport on top of that.
It took them over an hour to check our profiles and make sure we were indeed just fanatic filmmaking nerds who dared to go location scouting in days when all the news was exclusively filled with talk of an oncoming war. Later, my ‘documentary filmmaker hobo’ look played against me one more time. I was stopped by municipal guards, thoroughly checked, and advised to take off my NATO boots and khaki jacket (But what else could I wear? By that time all roads leading to my home were destroyed, the clothes I had on were the only clothes I had with me).
On the first day of the war, after spending several hours in a hotel basement together with members of the international press, we managed to get a car. Back then, no one could imagine Putin would attack the whole country, so we thought our main task would be to escape the Donbas region. But by the time we reached the Dnipropetrovsk region, Kyiv had been targeted too.
We found out that our colleagues had managed to get out of the capital just in time and found shelter in their father’s house in the Cherkassy region. We made a detour there to drop off the equipment and materials from our trip. Then we headed to Kyiv.
Upon arrival, my DOP decided to enroll in the Territory Defense squad. He figured he could be of help with his technical skills and filming equipment. I, unable to get home because of battles and having no place to stay, fled to the border and asked for asylum in Poland.
Eighth day of the war. From time to time I’m able to get in touch with my producer, who is stranded in Ukraine with no means of escape. Her life is endangered and I am so worried about her. She, being professional in every situation imaginable, texts me: “Lena, are you sure the equipment is safe where you’ve left it?!”
I am safe for now, but I can’t stop contemplating what destiny awaits my project. So many efforts made, so many talented people involved, so many unique characters found and ready to participate… now it all seems lost.
Even before the war began, Ukrainian filmmakers had problems getting their projects financed. During our location-scouting trip, we joined and signed an open letter to the Ukrainian State Film Agency demanding an explanation: what was the reason for the delay with distributing funds for the winning projects? Those who were announced as finalists in the middle of 2021 still had no signs of the state being ready to proceed with the paper procedures, let alone allow the start of production. But with the help of the Goteborg Film Fund, we were able to start moving towards our dream. Until the day we heard the sound of bombing.
These are but a few excerpts of one film project’s misadventures. There are so many other great stories that will no longer have the chance to be told. It goes without saying that from now on the Ukrainian state will have other priorities than spending money on our artistic ambitions. Even if the war ends this very day, how long will it take us to recover and return to our filmmaking routine? Will that ever even be possible?
Elena Rubashevska is a film critic and director, based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), the program coordinator at the OKO International Ethnographic Film Festival, and a member of the international film critics’ commission for Arab Film Awards. She has worked as a director and screenwriter, creating media content for non-governmental organizations and socially responsible businesses such as WWF, OSCE, and the UN, with a special focus on projects related to the East of Ukraine. As an editor, she runs the website kinoukraine.com. She is also the author of a series of video lectures dedicated to the history of Ukrainian cinema. After escaping Ukraine in February 2022, she became part of the EnergaCAMERIMAGE Film Festival in Torun, Poland.