Roman Bondarchuk: “There are too many people who keep pretending everything is alright”
Ukrainian filmmaker and the artistic director of DocuDays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, Roman Bondarchuk, and his family have been living in Bucharest for some two months.
The 19th edition of DocuDays UA, scheduled for March 25 – April 3, was postponed in the last possible minutes prior to the start of the war with many of its staff now speaking out across the worldwide film industry on ways to help, draw awareness, and apply pressure on those sympathetic to Russian aggression. Bondarchuk is no exception. The Ukrainian Film Academy board member and director of such relevant documentaries as Euromaidan. Rough Cut (2014) and Ukrainian Sheriffs (2015) has spared no words in his open letter calling for a boycott of Russian cinema and culture, while consistently engaging in dialogues and relevant screenings across the continent. Some of these dialogues have occurred locally, at One World Romania, for example, while others travel to the likes of Krakow Film Festival where this year’s DocuDays UA National Competition films will screen.
To hear more about Bondarchuk’s experience, thoughts, and hopes, we met to discuss everything, from his open letter to personal experiences crossing the border, in a far-reaching conversation. The conversation comes as part of our monthly Dok.cetera column.
Have you spent some time in Bucharest before?
No, this is my first time. It made no difference where we went. We originally wanted to stay in Kyiv because it was our town and we had an apartment there. On the day they started shelling, we still decided to stay. I had bought canned food and all this touristic equipment. The tourist shops were still open, and I grabbed everything like pots and heaters. I also bought filters for rainwater and some other things. But, from the second day of this experience, it was crazy. There was no chance to even walk. The city center was full of defense groups. I tried to walk with the kids, and they checked me for my papers. They said I was crazy [n. for going out with the kids] as there were many saboteurs around who planned to take the parliament and the presidential palace. That’s how we decided to leave, but some of our neighbors stayed. They created a Viber chat to share some of their experiences. It’s not terrible there in relation to other places because it is very central and somehow these saboteur groups were not activated. They are probably still there waiting for some orders. Their original attack failed, so they’re just waiting for something to come.
What was the process like crossing into Romania?
At first, I called one of my friends who was on her way out of the country. There has been a traffic jam since 8 am. She was stuck there the whole day and moved only 70km with two kids. By the time she reached some relatives, she had run out of gas, and there was no chance to fill it. She spent two weeks there, in a very dangerous place. It was still around Kyiv, not far from Bucha. They were hiding in the basement and starving. Another friend of mine applied to the Ukrainian military forces, who accepted him as a videographer. He managed to bring a car and some gasoline. That’s what literally saved them.
For us, it was easier. We chose some side roads and small villages. It took almost six days to reach the western border. You cannot drive at night. Everything is blocked.
What did you do at night to pass the time? Where did you stay?
Luckily, we have a big network of regional partners who run the traveling DocuDays UA festival in different parts of the country. We created a Telegram chat where we asked if people could recommend places to stay. For the first night, we stayed in this traffic jam. We stayed in some people’s houses and apartments from the second night, sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor. It was much more practical as it’s very difficult in the car.
We wanted to stay in the west of Ukraine, but there was nothing to rent there anymore. We had a night in a motel fully booked by people who had already stayed there for 5 or 6 days. It was really scary. That is how we came to this idea to move forward. I have three kids, and it is a privilege for me to be able to cross the border. Our friend, Illeana Stanculescu, documentary director from Romania, told us we have a place to stay there. They also had relatives on the Ukrainian side of the border. When we arrived at the border, there was a very long queue, so my wife and kids spent the night in the relative’s house, while I waited in the car for the whole night. It was a very interesting experience. The whole goal for the night was not to allow any cars to jump the queue. Some girls from Mariupol there organized guarding shifts. Some people would sleep, and some would watch the queue. It was very cinematic.
Now that you have been in Romania for about two months, have you engaged with any of the filmmaking community here?
One World Romania suggested we conduct some warm-up events. Two weeks ago, they screened a film on nuclear energy, and we organized a discussion with a Ukrainian expert. They also promised us to acquire 50% of the funds organized by DocuDays UA. We are supporting Ukrainian filmmakers who are currently filming. We also prepared a collective appeal from Ukrainian filmmakers, and it is played before the screenings. We had some more events, like a panel called “The Responsibility of Cinema in the Face of Russian Invasion”.
We have prepared a list of documentaries from recent years that reflect the country and Ukrainian life, documenting some events that maybe one can connect to this war. We have sent this list to many festivals since the war started.
I’m curious to know some of the titles you have included. Even though there are many such events around the continent, many of the films and filmmakers are the same, so I’m curious to see who you have included?
In 2014, DocuDays UA produced Euromaidan. Rough Cut. It screened at IDFA and had quite a successful international distribution. There is a big demand for this film as it explains the whole chronology and development for the revolution. It follows the core events from the eyes of local filmmakers. We probably have a screening of this film somewhere every day.
Also, Ukrainian Sheriffs is there, which is my film. We also recommend This Rain Will Never Stop by Alina Gorlova. There are some poetic rhythms in that film about this war and the war in the Middle East.
I’d be curious to see this list. I think it’s important to have some more localized and intimate looks at the war and the events that led up to it. A few titles and a few names are being highlighted worldwide, but surely others are important.
It’s also annoying for us, especially with Sergei Loznitsa. He is being promoted so much. The whole Ukrainian community has asked him to let other people speak. We are united now as never before. For instance, Dennis Ivanov, Ukrainian producer of Loznitsa’s Donbas posted: “Could you imagine that a French director, who was not living in France for 30 years, does not speak French, declaring that France was created by occupants, is pretending to be the main voice of French cinema, in times of war? In Western media everything is possible.” Nariman Aliev, director of Homeward called him a “little Russian”, a person who is used to sitting on several chairs at the same time, who has no right to speak on behalf of Ukraine. Iryna Tsilyk, author of The Earth Is Blue As an Orange stated that Loznitsa’s rhetoric and his personal imperial views strongly contradict the image of the director who should represent us on the world stage today.
I doubt his life has changed since the war started and he can express some emotions about that. He is now trying to find a cinematographer to film the war. He just hires a cinematographer and edits the footage, as he did with Maidan. He wants to do the same now. I have many cinematographers on my friend list and I see their posts about it. They laugh and ask each other, “did he call you?,” and they say, “yes, he called me, and I said no, of course.” All of them refused.
This is cinema-specific, but it is still a relevant peripheral conversation surrounding the war and its spokespeople. But another cinema-specific conversation I just remembered was involving Sean Penn. He was there on the ground when the shelling started, working on a documentary, meaning he had been anticipating something. Do you have any knowledge about this project?
I guess it was an invitation from the president’s office. Andriy Yermak, the right hand of Zelensky, used to be a film producer, so it was probably his idea to get a famous Hollywood actor to make a documentary. For him, it’s something very important to integrate Ukraine in this western pop culture discourse. Angelina Jolie and Bono were also there recently. At least it wasn’t Oliver Stone.
Oliver Stone did a huge Putin propaganda piece a few years ago. These days it seems like he’s keeping quiet, though.
I hope so. There are too many people who keep pretending everything is alright.
Changing gears, the 2022 DocuDays UA National Competition will be hosted at Krakow Film Festival this year. It is made up of four films. Can you say anything about these films?
All of the films were somehow picked up by DocuDays UA and took part in our meetings or industry section. This is our mission and what we’re proud of. 7 or 8 years ago, we had no national competition at all. There were no films that were good enough to put them next to big international projects. But step by step, we developed the infrastructure to do so. We first developed the DocuClass and the Industry program to help them grow.
How would you describe the characteristics and legacy of Ukrainian documentaries? Would you say a particular style or approach is definitive in Ukrainian documentary cinema? For example, I watched The Balcony Movie the other day and I was reminded of Poland’s rich legacy in observational documentaries. Would you say there is something comparable in Ukraine?
I think we are reinventing ourselves. We had this huge gap in the ‘90s-early ‘00s, where we had one film production per year. That was when the technology was very heavy and expensive. We had no film funds or active studios. Because of this, we had this gap between generations. Of course, we have some masters who are still active, like Serhiy Bukovsky. When I graduated from film school, the Ukrainian film tradition was shown as poetic cinema. The way of storytelling was dependent on these poetic images. We had only geniuses and losers [laughs].
We had no trusted platforms to learn how to produce and distribute films. No one was interested in showing documentaries on TV. So, me and the whole Ukrainian community learned how to pitch projects, compress ideas, and finely tune them. I had another experience with this on Ukraine Sheriffs, where my international workshop tutor was very practical. We had so many conversations about removing the pieces where certain scenes may look nice but have no practical purpose. So we are always trying to find this balance between poetic atmosphere and practical storytelling.
How do you see the war, and the two years of pandemic before, altering the kinds of stories that Ukrainian filmmakers are looking to tell? How did these two very substantive events play into that process of balancing traditional presentation with modern technologies and approaches?
In Ukraine, the pandemic measures weren’t as strict as in other countries. At first, there was a tough lockdown, but then no one paid any attention to it. People lived their normal lives. The only disadvantage was that traveling abroad was difficult, so it wasn’t a big stress. But since the war started, no one remembers the pandemic. It just seems to have switched off. In Kyiv, there were restrictions, but in Kherson, for example, you wouldn’t even see a single mask. So it’s not too interesting to compare the pandemic to war. It’s more interesting to compare Maidan with the war. We had access to affordable DSLRs during those days, so most people could film life around them and do so from their perspective. Many filmmakers showed up, so we were able to make this almanac. And we had some more films to be released next year. It was an explosion of new names and films. Now with the war, it’s much more difficult because you have to buy so many additional items, like body armor and helmets which are very expensive. Secondly, you have to get a press accreditation, which is not enough even if you have it. People are very suspicious, especially at the checkpoints. I can understand that. They risk their lives, and being filmed is not a priority to them.
Are you in contact with any filmmakers actively working in the field now?
Yes, but the paradox is that, since the war started, filmmaking is not very important for most of my colleagues or myself. We spent the first week evacuating friends and relatives from these problematic zones. A friend of mine, a composer, started working as a driver. So only a few friends decided to keep filming. I think 70% of them applied for the military forces of Ukraine just to be part of some organized group. Otherwise, as an independent filmmaker, you can only film on the press tours. It’s like a bus of 30 people just having like 15 minutes somewhere to film. But I believe there are many videos from people on how they see this war from their perspective. In March, we announced that DocuDays UA was collecting this evidence. We have already collected lots of hours of footage. The idea is that if they want to contribute to the future archive, we will protect these videos and send the ones with evidence of crimes to human rights organizations who are likely to include them in their cases. Future investigators, researchers, and filmmakers will use this archive to keep history alive when the war ends. After Maidan, we had hundreds of videos posted online. Slowly they all disappeared from YouTube. That’s why I think this archive is very important. We are developing a quite sophisticated database that you can search by text, keywords, and make your own selections via group and video.
I read your open letter on how to approach the cinema and culture coming out of Russia. As I read it, there is a point in the future to welcome Russian cinema and culture back into a wider conversation, but right now is not that time. I find myself conflicted about this general topic. I am a person very much against any form of cultural blanket bans.
The keyword here is probably “colonialism”. The whole Ukrainian culture was always in the shadow of this empire. There are many examples, starting from VUFKU, a Ukrainian film studio in the ‘30s. Very famous in Europe, and even probably in the States and very successful. When the Soviet Union was strong enough to deal with Ukraine, they just brought all the creative people to Siberia, closed the studio, and opened Soviet-Ukrainian film productions.
In terms of the artists, it was not possible to establish yourself in Ukraine and consider yourself a Ukrainian artist. Even nowadays, festivals have regional advisors. They consider the territory of Ukraine a post-Soviet territory and they have an advisor for this territory in Moscow. To put it softly, it’s a conflict of interest. A Russian advisor will always advise on Russian films. Maybe they pay attention to some Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Moldovan films, and it still goes like that. Venice, Berlin, Locarno, and even IDFA have Russian natives advising on films from the whole region, which is pure colonialism and a wrong understanding of Ukraine as an independent state.
The third thing is that the Russians aim to erase any kind of Ukrainian identity. They are also destroying our museums, libraries, churches, and historical buildings. The aim is to turn Ukraine into Russia. In case Russia wins, then Ukraine will not exist as a culture anymore. That’s why I think it’s important to put Russian culture and films on hold as a gesture of respect, especially if there are dissidents in Russia who understand what is going on. They still have the possibility to work. Nothing is happening to them personally or to their art.
Another thing is that Western festivals or cultural institutions don’t have the proper expertise to distinguish so-called dangerous Russian art and films from normal ones. The example I used in this open letter is Brother and Brother 2 by Aleksei Balabanov, which was very much respected abroad. But it’s a film that created the basis for this war. The quotes from this film are written on Russian tanks now. They created the image of the sniper who was against Americans and all the Western influence, and he was ready to kill them all. There are many films from Russia which have this imperialistic layer. So a film festival can be part of this propaganda apparatus without knowing it. They have to reconsider the procedures and include more experts from this colonialism aspect to reinvent the process. I know some advisors personally, and they are absolutely pro Putin guys. They can receive some advice to include these films and then be a part of this nightmare. So that’s why I strongly believe that they have to wait.
I want to go back to your reference of the film This Rain Will Never Stop. That film is unique because it depicts the struggles of Middle Eastern refugees in Ukraine, then affected by a second conflict. As someone experiencing the same, what are your impressions on the dynamic between how Europe has accepted and vowed such people from the Middle East and Africa versus those from Ukraine?
It is difficult to compare because I only have my experience. It is probably more friendly with Ukrainians because of the borders. Ukraine is part of Europe. We have aesthetic and cultural similarities. From my experiences, most people have been friendly and extremely supportive. I never expected this when my parents succeeded in leaving Kherson. We met them at the border during Easter, and neighbors brought food and cakes. My mom started crying and said she had never received such support from neighbors. But what do you think?
I think the conversation should be separated into country vs. continent. Some countries do not have the same relationship with receiving migrants from Afghanistan or Syria as they do with Ukraine. But, as a continent, I can’t help but notice the contradictions rooted in senses of “otherness,” and I find that problematic and disheartening. People are affected by conflict and oppression all over the world, and the European ideal is one of equality and opportunity. I feel anyone affected adversely, not even by conflict but simply, for example, by racial, ethnic, or sexual marginalization, needs to be welcomed openly wherever they decide to go…
It is difficult to judge. Take the example of Germany. They started by supporting us with food packages for soldiers. They were absolutely sure that if they brought weapons, it would only increase this conflict. At that time, no one truly believed Ukraine would be able to resist. Then they agreed to deliver some helmets. We’ve joked that it will probably be German porn films after helmets. Only after some investigators proved that Germany was delivering military technologies to Russia were they almost ready to send heavy weapons to us. Everyone expects leadership from Germany because it’s the most powerful country in Europe. But you see what is happening. They are so slow and so unsure. There are so many losses and deaths in Ukraine, and only after some terrible massacres do they slowly change their minds and decisions. How many more deaths do they need to make big decisions?
So even within the relationship between Ukraine and Europe at large, you still feel there is room for improvement? It’s not as absolutely supportive as some media depositions claim?
Even organizations like the United Nations have this internal direction not to name the aggressor. They call these events a conflict and nothing more. They are not allowed to call it a war. There are also difficulties with the Red Cross, which have some connections with Moscow. They are not effective at all. In the beginning, many events and festivals would hold these screenings and donate the proceeds to the Red Cross. I was very surprised by this. I asked them why they didn’t donate to Ukrainian organizations, and they responded by saying the Red Cross was trusted despite being funded by all kinds of different states. Even here in Bucharest, I saw a craft beer shop that proceeded with a box of beers with the Ukrainian flag and Red Cross sign. The money from those beer sales also goes to the Red Cross and it does so in the name of Ukraine. It’s funny that it turns into some cheap marketing stunt even at this level. It’s changing, but there are still too many questions for the entire system.
Finally, in your own words, what do you think is the most important aspect of this war for people to keep their minds open to?
It’s on every level. Everything is important, starting from the vocabulary. It’s not enough to call this a conflict or say, “just stop the war.” Even if Russia wins, the war will be “stopped.” It’s important to call things as they are.
Then it’s important to protest and to keep the visibility. Lots of things that are happening now in support of Ukraine are thanks to media coverage of this nightmare. But, as with every event, it can become less visible over time. This would be terrible because we have so many losses right now. Our best soldiers and defenders are dying there. Money-wise, it’s difficult to imagine because something like 70% of our infrastructure is destroyed, so of course, we would need some plans and guidance to rebuild. Otherwise, Russians will come again and probably even further into Europe. They already brought more than a million people to Russia and settled them so that they cannot leave the area. They are brought to remote places in Siberia. So I believe we won’t manage on our own without funding, weapons, and some plan to rebuild the country.