Collecting sparkles of real life and splicing them together: documentaries about displaced persons filmed in Ukraine

Hromadske TV and the Thomson Foundation have produced two documentaries about the lives of forcibly-displaced people from Donbas and Crimea. The documentaries were made within the framework of the “Regional Voices” project funded by the EU.

Oleksandr Nazarov, the Hromadske TV documentaries director, and Olena Sadovnik, the Thomson Foundation project coordinator, told our journalist about their cooperation, the experience shooting the films, and the main characters of the two documentaries.

Oleksandr Nazarov

When and how did you come up with the idea of shooting a film about displaced persons?

Nazarov: Representatives of the Thomson Foundation with whom we had worked about three years ago approached us. We had shot a series of short documentaries about the adaptation of displaced people to their new locations. The documentaries drew a fairly wide audience and received positive accolades. As a result, at the end of 2015, the Thomson Foundation suggested continuing our cooperation with a larger-scale project and creating a one-hour film about displaced persons. Over the past year we were shooting material for the new film and ended up accomplishing even more than we intended:  two 40-minute documentaries.

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Olena Sadovnik

Sadovnik: The Thomson Foundation spent a month advising journalists from Hromadske TV on how to make a documentary about people who were forced to leave their homes and start a new life in the capital city. So far, more than 130,000 internally-displaced persons have been registered in Kyiv.

David Hands, a Thomson Foundation consultant, spent four weeks with the Hromadske TV team searching for the documentary’s protagonists, defining the story lines, discussing theory and practice of documentary film directing, and shooting the film.

Tell me about “Looks like home”, your first film. Who is it about?

Nazarov: First of all, we had to pull together a team of people who would be willing to participate. After some time, with several brainstorming sessions behind us, we decided that the most interesting stories could be heard at the Kyiv Theatre of Displaced Persons. There were people working on their own production, and we used their rehearsals and preparations to shoot material about their lives.

Thus, our first protagonists were women from the “Dyvyna”creative performance group. They sang folk songs from the eastern regions of Ukraine, their places of origin.

Soon afterwards we met our second protagonist whose name is Oleg. He is a really colourful character. Oleg has long thick black hair, wears a bright bead necklace, and definitely stands out from the crowd. We took notice of him immediately.

Our third main character is Natalya Mykolayivna. She makes muppets, which are hand puppets. She likes them very much, and never tires of speaking about them. She has moved to Kyiv and dreams of opening her own puppet show.

Each of our protagonists is engaged in his or her own area of activity while also being part of the same theatre, and participating in preparations for the final performance, which we show at the end of our documentary.

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Who is your second documentary, “Bread and Cheese”, about?

Nazarov: It is about a family of Muslim displaced persons from Crimea. The family resettled in the Carpathian village of Borynya, whose residents are mostly Orthodox Christians. We did our best to show how the displaced people adapt in a new environment, and what they do to defy the stereotypes the other villagers have about them.

For example, the village residents have Sunday as a day of rest, whereas Muslims work on Sunday and rest on Fridays. Another example is when the locals suggest the Crimean tartars have a drink; their refusal may lead to a conflict situation.

On the other hand, with this film we have also shown examples of migrants cooperating with local inhabitants. The reason we’ve called our documentary “Bread and Cheese” is because when the Crimean family resettles in Borynya, a local family teaches them to make cheese, and the newcomers started producing it on their own. At the same time, the locals bake their own bread. At the end of the documentary, one of displaced persons takes cheese the family made themselves, stops at the house of the local people baking bread to collect it, and travels to Lviv to sell both as the fruit of their common labour. Customers in Lviv buy both and think they are delicious.

How was the filming done?

Nazarov: When we were shooting “Looks like home,” we were assisted by David Hands. He is an experienced documentary filmmaker born in Cyprus. I might as well say that we made this documentary in partnership with David.

A British filmmaker named Simon Hastings helped us to shoot our other documentary, “Bread and Cheese”. Simon is super professional and knows his work extremely well. When working on location in the Carpathians, we lived in a dormitory where all conveniences were in the corridor. Simon endured all the hardships stoically, without any complaint. I think that this new experience might even have been interesting for him; it was kind of exotic.

In general, we had a wonderful team and we all remember the time spent together with fondness and gratitude.

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Did you have a good relationship with your protagonists?

Nazarov: We had a very short timeline for producing the documentary: just two and half months in total. It is hard to expect that people will truly reveal themselves in such a short time. Still, all our protagonists were quite open and were easy to get in touch with. They instantly agreed to be filmed. In my opinion, in this short time we managed to make friends and to show them as they actually were.

Our team was quite small. There were times when I just went to meet somebody from the “Dyvyna” performance group and we just filmed everything in their homes. Once we were drinking tea together, trying to understand each other and make friends, and we filmed all of that. In other words, we tried to do everything casually, to collect sparkles of real life and splice them together.

You did make a series of films about displaced persons before. What were you trying to emphasise this time?

Nazarov: The emphasis did not change compared to our previous films. The main idea has been to dismantle stereotypes about displaced persons. They are all living people who have found themselves in difficult situations. It would be wrong to single them out and stick labels on them. They are all just common people with their dreams in life and their high aspirations. In essence, they can destroy all those stereotypes themselves. You just need to show them as they are.

In general, we were trying to show our protagonists as realistically as possible, simply the way they are, without any prearranged footage. We were just watching them and filming them from the sidelines for as long as we had time to.

Sadovnik: The documentary authors were faced with the task of professionally telling the audience about all these people and also creating commercially-attractive content that EU television networks would want to buy. By doing so, we tried to leverage the Hromadske’s potential as a source of information. There is almost no information about the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine in the European media, or about the fact that there are more than 1.5 million internally-displaced persons who have become hostages to the conflict in the eastern part of the country. The Thomson Foundation and Hromadske TV have made two innovative documentaries about these displaced people that, we hope, will increase awareness among the general public in the EU about the problem.

When and where will screenings of the films take place?

Nazarov: These two films will be released in parallel. A festival agency is taking care of them now, sending them out to different film festivals. For the time being, we have limited ourselves to a closed viewing of the “Looks like home” documentary. The screening took place about six months ago at the “Kyiv” movie theatre and collected charitable donations for building a playground in Kharkiv.

Starting this fall we are planning to show the films on Hromadske TV and 1st National Channel in Ukraine. We have also made arrangements with public broadcasting companies from other countries.

In your opinion, how well has the subject of displaced persons been explored in Ukraine?

Nazarov: The problem has been widely discussed. Unfortunately, there are more than enough stories like the ones shown in our films. There is a lot to film, show, and talk about. Documentaries like these are worth filming, though many people might say that displaced persons have been around for years and we need to find new subjects.

At present, you cannot find many deep, quality stories about displaced people that are not tinted with either pessimistic or overly optimistic lenses. Personally, I think that we lack stories that depict reality as it is. Real life is always more interesting than anything invented.

Background information:

The purpose of the “Regional Voices” project financed by the European Union is to reduce the risk of conflict in communities that have accepted forcibly-displaced persons by publicising well-balanced, ethical materials. In addition, the project is aimed at establishing professional contacts between journalists from different oblasts of Ukraine and with their colleagues in the European Union. Within the scope of this project, Hromadske TV received a grant for its participation in European professional media events with the aim of establishing cooperation with foreign partners and marketing the two recent documentaries: “Looks like home” and “Bread and Cheese”. The project is implemented by a media consortium of organisations led by the Thomson Foundation, which is the oldest international organisation engaged in media development.

More about the “Regional Voices” project here:

Photo courtesy of Oleksandr Nazarov