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“Women of Maidan” sweeps through Florida’s Gulf Coast

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Olha Onyshko at the Fort Myers Films Festival, where her film “Women of Maidan” won the award for Best Documentary.

Courtesy of the Fort Myers Film Festival

Olha Onyshko at the Fort Myers Films Festival, where her film “Women of Maidan” won the award for Best Documentary.

LONGBOAT KEY, Fla. – Olha Onyshko’s documentary film “Women of Maidan” captivated the hearts and minds of Gulf Coast Floridians recently, as they embraced the compelling story of how Ukrainian women of all ages and backgrounds championed freedom and justice in Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity. Residents from a 150-mile swath of coastal cities, from Naples to St. Petersburg, came out to screenings of the film or meetings with the filmmaker as the film and its creator swept through the area between March 9 and 14.

The Washington, D.C., filmmaker’s weeklong swing through Florida’s Gulf Coast was precipitated by the acceptance of her film at the seventh annual Fort Myers Film Festival, which took place in the balmy southwest Florida city on March 8-12. “Women of Maidan” was screened on March 9 to a full house in the beautifully restored Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center in downtown Fort Myers. The film is 66 minutes long, in Ukrainian and Russian, with English subtitles.

A news clip on the local Fox News TV channel’s evening news captured some of the excitement felt by film festival attendees as they entered the venue. It included several comments by Ms. Onyshko about her first impressions of the Fort Myers Film Festival and her enthusiastic response to being part of it (http://www.fox4now.com/news/film-festival-drawing-crowds-in-swfl).

In the filmmaker Q & A that followed the screening, Ms. Onyshko expertly and sensitively fielded a variety of questions from some of the 100 film enthusiasts in the audience – many of them clearly affected by the understated yet intense emotions emanating from the film, in which dozens of women reveal their reasons for joining the civic actions on Maidan, the central square in Kyiv where thousands demonstrated for months and where some 100 protesters ultimately lost their lives.

Eric Raddatz, director of the Fort Myers Film Festival, later said: “Several audience members told me they were moved at levels they did not expect, as was I, and we’ve seen thousands of films. When Olha came down from the audience, there was such great warm applause. I teared up as she walked towards me. I believe the Q & A made the film even more meaningful as we learned the difficult and risky circumstances under which the film came to completion. Olha’s strength and vision are inspiring.”

On March 12, the final day of the festival, “Women of Maidan” took top honors in the category Best Documentary. The filmmaker, unaware, had already moved on to points north.

As Ms. Onyshko traveled through Florida’s Gulf Coast, she was not alone: everywhere she went, she had a supportive network of Ukrainian American women who did their best to facilitate her visit and maximize the effect of her presence as a way to share information about the role of women in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and about Ukraine generally.

For instance, part of the enthusiastic audience at the Fort Myers screening and Q & A were a dozen Ukrainian American women, members of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America Branch 136, based in Naples, Fla., some 50 miles south of Fort Myers, who came up to the festival to support the filmmaker with their presence. Indeed, Ms. Onyshko’s attendance at the film festival was made possible by the fact that the women of the Naples branch, headed by its president, Natalie Santarsiero, had agreed to provide logistical support to the filmmaker at the event. Branch member Halyna Traversa provided transportation between airport and festival venues and generously hosted Ms. Onyshko in her home.

In addition, a few weeks earlier, UNWLA Branch 56, based in North Port, Fla., had already familiarized the audience in their area with Ms. Onyshko’s work. The screening of “Women of Maidan” was the centerpiece of a February 26 program with the theme “Commemoration of Women Heroines” held at St. Andrew’s Religious and Cultural Center (“Oseredok”) in North Port, with some 85 people in attendance. The screening of the film had been planned months earlier, at the suggestion of branch member and program chair Vira Bodnaruk. Branch President Ann-Marie Susla and her executive backed the branch’s decision to screen the film, thereby generating financial support for the film and its creator. The branch was also the sponsor of a subsequent screening of the film on March 14 at Sarasota’s Selby Library.

Fresh from a few days at the Fort Myers Film Festival, Ms. Onyshko’s next stop was 75 miles north, on Longboat Key, where on March 12 she was a special guest speaker at a presentation titled ‘”Ukraine Update: From the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity to the Present.” The presentation began with Longboat Key resident Anisa Mycak speaking on the situation in Ukraine and current international relations involving Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and the United States. In response to the recent increased interest in Ukrainian affairs by Longboat Key residents, Ms. Mycak has given talks on Ukraine there for the fourth time in as many years. Ms. Onyshko’s segment focused on the filming of her interviews with women on the Maidan, her harrowing experience of bringing the footage safely out of the country and her involvement in fund-raising for international humanitarian airlifts of injured demonstrators .

On March 13, Ms. Onyshko was the guest of honor at a benefit luncheon held at a private residence on Longboat Key, which was attended by Ukrainian American women from across Florida’s Gulf Coast – from St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Longboat Key, Venice, Osprey and North Port. All of the attendees are members of UNWLA. The event, masterminded by Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, together with co-organizers Romana Rainey and Ms. Mycak, raised a much-needed $2,500 for the filmmaker’s various post-production costs. A number of UNWLA members who were unable to attend the luncheon generously sent checks for the fund-raiser.

The luncheon event was reported by Katie Johns in the March 14 online edition of The Longboat Observer, as well as in the publication’s March 30 print edition. (For the online story and nine-photo gallery, go to http://www.yourobserver.com/photo-gallery/locals-celebrate-women-of-maidan-filmmaker-olha-onyshko.) The Ukrainian Weekly carried a commentary on the luncheon in its March 24 edition (“How to make $2,500 in three hours” by Ms. Hepburn, http://www.ukrweekly.com/uwwp/how-to-make-2500-in-three-hours/). That story was reprinted in the March 31 print edition of Longboat Key News and was subsequently made available online (http://www.lbknews.com/2017/04/09/how-to-make-2500-in-three-hours/).

The final event on Ms. Onyshko’s whirlwind tour of southwest Florida was a March 14 screening of “Women of Maidan” at the Selby Library’s Geldbart Auditorium in downtown Sarasota. Ms. Mycak welcomed the audience on behalf of the sponsoring organization, UNWLA Branch 56, and introduced Ms. Onyshko. The screening was followed by a Q & A with the filmmaker.

Audience member Gerry Swormstedt, from the U.S. National Committee for U.N. Women, Gulf Coast chapter, called the film “a profoundly moving document that everyone should see.” She added that “the dedication shown by the women was inspiring, the gravity of what they went through was quite profound, the depth of emotion was very moving, and the coverage that the filmmaker provided was extraordinary. In our current climate, the film shows how people getting together and protesting can make a difference.”

The event was covered on the local evening news on WWSB Channel 7, part of the ABC network, with brief background information about women’s role in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and comments by Ms. Onyshko (go to: http://www.mysuncoast.com/news/local/film-screening-at-selby-library-tells-dramatic-story-of-life/article_b61abb28-0990-11e7-bbb3-1fff9a020e39.html ). The story by Erica Brown dated March 15 appears on the station’s online website.

Shortly afterwards, as Ms. Onyshko was enjoying a post-screening dinner with friends and supporters at a downtown Sarasota restaurant, she received a phone call from the director of the Fort Myers Film Festival informing her that “Women of Maidan” had won Best Documentary at the festival on March 12. Glasses were raised and toasts were made to celebrate Ms. Onyshko’s achievement and to wish her further success in sharing the story of Ukraine’s rebirth on the Maidan and the role of Ukrainian women in the Maidan story.

There are many women who contributed to making Ms. Onyshko’s six-day Florida tour a success. In addition to the UNWLA Branch presidents mentioned above, thanks are also due to St. Petersburg UNWLA Branch 124 President Olya Czerkas for disseminating information about Ms. Onyshko’s Gulf Coast appearances and to Atanas Kobryn for including it in his column in the North Port press. In addition, the enthusiasm and moral support provided by UNWLA member Anya Reynarowycz and her grandson Alex Harvey, a talented young entrepreneur, both of Fort Myers, during the early planning stages of Ms. Onyshko’s Gulf Coast tour helped propel the project forward.

Writing to the many women supporters she encountered during her Florida tour, Ms. Onyshko said: “I am deeply moved by the warmth of your reception and by your soul-touching support. …Thank you for believing in me! And thank you for being the Guardian Angels of ‘Women of Maidan!’ ”

Since her Florida Gulf Coast tour, Ms. Onyshko has attended screenings of her film at Johns Hopkins, the U.S. Institute of Peace/Atlantic Council and Harvard University, as well as in Detroit and Toronto. On March 28, the film was screened at the U.S. Capitol under the sponsorship of Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) as part of Women’s Month in Washington and in tribute to women’s role in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity.

In a testimony to the high regard in which he holds the filmmaker and her work, Eric Raddatz, director of the Fort Myers Film Festival, traveled to Washington to present Ms. Onyshko with the “Best Doc” award at the event in the U.S. Capitol.

For information about the film, readers may go to www.womenofmmaidan.com. A link on the site will provide information regarding tax-deductible donations to “Docs in Progress” (Memo: “Women of Maidan”). To contact Ms. Onyshko regarding future screenings, write to oliafilm@gmail.com or call 202-257-7356.

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