The green streets of Ukraine

Kyiv’s greenness startled me. Growing up in 1980’s USA, I had assigned a gray palette to the Soviet world, a moody designation that lingered long after the fall of the USSR. Indeed, the events of the past two years had only reinforced the grayness: though the ousting of President Yanukovych seemed to promise a new beginning for Ukraine, the news told tales of thrown bricks, grinding tanks, and crumbling buildings. The Ukraine of my mind was a colorless world, now racked with conflict. 

Strange, then, to walk the leafy streets of Kyiv, to squint at the sunlight flashing on the golden domes of its churches, to hear the clatter of cappuccino cups and the thumps of a brass band playing for coins. War continued in the East, despite a ceasefire agreement, but the capital seemed downright peaceful, and undeniably verdant. How should one live when one’s country is at war? What’s the role of a filmmaker in a country grappling with its very future? 

 Church tops are golden; I did not identify many of the trees.

Church tops are golden; I did not identify many of the trees.

On my first full day in Kyiv, I joined Michael Donaldson at IndieLab, a workshop for up-and-coming Ukrainian documentary filmmakers. In a small room decked out with state of the art editing stations and smelling distantly of cigarettes and instant coffee, we watched ten short works-in-progress and heard pitches from small teams of directors and editors. Tellingly, nine out of the ten films revolved around the political upheaval of the past year. The way Americans speak of life “post-9/11,” these filmmakers spoke of life “post-Maidan,” referring to Kyiv’s central square where the key protests occurred. For these young filmmakers, many of whom were born after the fall of the Berlin wall, Maidan was the biggest upheaval their lives had known. 

What immediately struck both me and Michael was that these films seemed made for a very local audience —for Ukrainians who were deeply intimate with the dramatis personae of the Maidan, and the complex geography of the ongoing conflicts. Fair enough; most of my own films are targeted towards an American audience. And though both Michael and I encouraged the filmmakers to explore making the films more accessible to a wider audience, I was moved by the sense of community and purpose behind the films. You got the impression that these filmmakers were trying to help their country figure itself out. 

 These stars are poplar pollen.

These stars are poplar pollen.

After workshop one day, we got a tour of the city from Lucy, the daughter of our wonderful Ukrainian attaché Anna Sumar. Breezing past the tourist spots, Lucy led us to some of the abandoned lots and overgrown yards where wisps of poplar pollen settled down like snow on makeshift park benches, DIY urban garden plots and art sculptures. Looking proudly out over these unusual landscapes, she remarked that  something very new and very strange was happening in Kyiv: young people were asserting themselves in the public spaces of the city, building parks, staging performances, innovating and experimenting. “It’s funny,” she said. “I used to think I’d leave Kyiv as soon as I got older. Now I don’t want to leave even for a week, for fear of missing out on something new that’s happening.”

Nowhere was this energy more palpable for me than at Kyiv’s old film studios, where Michael and I gave a talk on independent filmmaking to a small group of filmmakers, artists, and entertainment lawyers. The physical space was enchanting: fading sound stages from the 1960s, a rambling arboretum planted by director Alexander Dovzhenko, scores of Soviet-era trucks used in heaven-knows-what-films. Young filmmakers had reclaimed some of the spaces to collaborate on a range of projects, including making sizzle reels and trailers to help them get the word out about their projects. It provided perfect context for a discussion about the challenges and opportunities involved in distributing independent films. Piracy and funding came up again and again: how do we get people to pay for our work? Who should support these documentary films, given the important role they can play in helping the country heal? 

 Gaze upon my works! Etc

Gaze upon my works! Etc

Towards the end of the first week, I shared a few of my own films at the film festival in the center of town. At first, it seemed a little odd to show a film about the loss of the night sky in a country grappling with the loss of its very borderlands, but I was buoyed by the audience’s response. We talked about the ways in which reconnection to the natural world - whether through wilderness, wildlife, or the intangible beauty of the starry sky - restores a sense of perspective that can be elusive in wartime. I was reminded of a visit to Sarajevo some years back, when I watched the transit of Venus through cheap portable telescopes with local astronomers who had seen their own observatory reduced to rubble in the opening salvos of the conflict there. For me, the stars are a reminder of why we fight to keep civilization afloat: for the sake of art and science, those two boundary-pushing expressions of humanity at its best. 

 If you visit the old Soviet planetarium in Kharkiv, you see this above the ticket kiosk.

If you visit the old Soviet planetarium in Kharkiv, you see this above the ticket kiosk.

To cap off the trip, we spent a few days in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which had see-sawed during the past year between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine forces. As Ukraine finally asserted its grip, local metalworkers scaled the heights of the town’s central statue and severed Lenin’s ankles, toppling the 12 meter symbol of Soviet pride to cheers from thousands. By the time we arrived, all that remained were his shoes, into which someone had plunked a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. We met more students, showed more films, lunched on sushi at a restaurant called “Favorite,” and appeared on a handful of television and radio talk shows. The city is closer to Russia, and was once envisioned as the capital of a new pro-Russian country split off from Ukraine. But walking the streets, there was no way to sense this. Young waitresses served espresso to men in trim grey suits; dreadlocked percussionists pounded djembes near public fountains; teenagers necked on park benches. 

One of the filmmakers we’d met in Kyiv, now serving as our interpreter in Kharkiv, his hometown, shared with us a new edit of his film, The War and the City. He’d intercut images of Kharkiv’s protests with footage of a hospital teeming with wounded soldiers. As one soldier put it, staring dazedly at the ceiling, “it’s hard to tell who’s fighting whom.” Flying out of the country the next morning, I looked down at the agrarian Ukrainian countryside and saw no borders, no smoldering ruins, just green as far as the eye could see.