May 11, 2019

Film director Stefan Bugryn on the Russian-Ukrainian war


One is the miniseries “Chernobyl,” coproduced by the American cable network HBO and the British Sky TV, directed by Johan Renck, and starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, Paul Ritter and Jessie Backley. The festival program thus announced the mini-series world premiere that was held on April 26: “On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union, suffered a massive explosion that released radioactive material across Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, and as far as Scandinavia and Western Europe. ‘Chernobyl’ dramatizes the story of the horrific nuclear accident, one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history, and of the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from disaster.” The mini-series premiered at Tribeca 33 years to the day after accident under the rubric “Tribeca TV. New Series.”

The other film is a 15-minute documentary short “War Mothers: Unbreakable,” written and directed by Australian director Stefan Bugryn and produced by Steven Zelko. It is about a grassroots response to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. “As her country goes to war, 18-year-old Yana puts aside her dreams of becoming a doctor, and creates a national movement that almost costs her her life,” the program notes.

This writer, the director of the Ukrainian Film Club of Columbia University, interviewed Mr. Bugryn via Skype during a stop he made in San Diego on his way to the New York City.

Can you tell me about yourself – what you think is important for the viewers of your film to know about you as film director?

For six or seven years, I have been making short films. I started with comedies. I got more serious when the conflict in Ukraine erupted. I was following the news and became very emotional. I am of Ukrainian background. One day I read a story titled “A War Mother.” It was about a Ukrainian mother who lost her son in the war. She wanted to do something to help. She joined the Ukrainian Army, the unit that her son had served in. In war one rarely hears what happens to soldiers’ mothers. I decided that the mother’s story is what I wanted to do my film project about. I wanted people to learn more about war mothers in Ukraine. I quit the advertising job I had then and in 2016 went to Ukraine. I was put in contact with people in the war zone, with Ukrainian soldiers.

Was it your first time in Ukraine?

First I went there as a “plastun” (Ukrainian Plast scout) in 2012. I went with my brother. We met our relatives. I saw what an amazing country Ukraine was. So this time around, in 2016, I went to the city of Zaporizhia simply because a friend of mine in Australia, Sasha Vazhnenko, was herself from that city. I met a lot of volunteers there. A lot of people travel through Zaporizhia to get to the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation – until recently the Ukrainian government’s designation of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas]. That’s where I met with Yulia Matviyenko, who joined my film crew; I also met two other war mothers, Svitlana and Halyna – all the three women in one trip. At that point I decided that my film would be about them. We organized a crowdfunding in Australia. We got funding from Time Out Australia, a publication similar to the one you have in New York. We also got money from the Ukrainian community, in particular the Karpaty Foundation. Thus we got the first half of our project off the ground.

Would it be fair to say that the subject of both your films was prompted by life itself?

I did not particularly want to do a documentary about Ukraine initially. But when the story of these women became known to me I quit my job and flew to Kyiv and then to Zaporizhia. I spent some time on the front line as well to meet Yulia Matviyenko, a sniper. She is very dedicated to her job, she has a sense of duty and she is required to be on the front line very often.

When did you start working on the short “War Mothers: Unbreakable” that is now competing at the Tribeca Film Festival?

We began working on the short “War Mothers: Unbreakable” or the second part of the same project once we finished the first documentary. Producer Steven Zelko was the first person whom I told about my project. He got very much behind the project. He is of Slavic background and his family got affected by the war in Yugoslavia. That’s how a personal connection emerged between us, and he decided to join me in the project. The second short is a story of Yana Zinkevych, an 18-year-old girl from western Ukraine whose dream was to become a doctor. When Russia attacked, she decided to join the war effort and founded the Ukrainian Hospitallers, a grassroots organization of war nurses whose primary purpose was to help the wounded and traumatized Ukrainian soldiers. She divided her time between the frontline and the organizing activities of rehabilitation centers for soldiers in the rear. 

Yana was not your typical Ukrainian girl. She was rebellious at home and a leader in the quickly growing movement of volunteers. Once day she got into a horrific car accident that left her paralyzed from her waist down. Miraculously, not only did she survive her many grave injuries, she also kept her pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy baby girl. What’s most important, where many others would succumb to self-pity and depression, Yana found a new mission for herself and became a powerful source of inspiration to others. She continued working with the wounded and deeply traumatized soldiers leading them to recovery by her own example. In her adversity, she found a new sense of mission.

I thought her story to be truly inspirational. I called her and told her about myself and the film I was working on. It was to be about her. So I started at the end of 2017 and spent some five weeks into 2018 working on the short.

How much time did it take you to make both “War Mothers” and “War Mothers: Unbreakable”?

The first short took us three months and the second almost a year. When we finished the second film we got a call from the Tribeca Film Festival and were told that they wanted to hold the world premiere of the film.

How aware are Australians about what has been going on in Ukraine since 2014? 

To be honest, for a while now there has not been a lot of coverage of the conflict. Before we left for Ukraine, we asked people on the street “What do you think about the conflict in Ukraine.” And most Australians responded, “What? Is there a conflict there?” Most of Australians are not aware of what is going on in Ukraine, because the news stopped telling stories of Ukraine. There was hardly any other motivation for us. So we told ourselves: Let’s keep the conversation happening. Let’s make sure that people do not forget about Ukraine.

Did your own perception of Ukraine change as a result of your filming there? If so, how?

Generally speaking, I found there what I expected to find. What I really loved was that a lot of the volunteers, mothers and soldiers became very united. There is a strong emotional bond among those people now. That bond was not there before the war. Now for each of them to say “I am Ukrainian” is a political statement. They all know that if they laid down their arms they would lose their land. For me the Pryval volunteer center was a very special place where everybody fighting for Ukraine would get a warm welcome, no matter who they were. Every soldier is treated like family there. I learned that Ukraine is a country at war and saw what war does to people.

How many people in Australia have seen your films about Ukraine?

We have done events in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide. At the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, “War Mothers,” the first part of the project, won the Best Short Film and the Best Director Award. The second part, “War Mothers: Unbreakable,” technically speaking was not screened publicly since it is competing at the Tribeca Film Festival.

How did your Australian viewers react to the film?

Theirs was a very emotional reaction. The film is often hard to watch. It is a very realistic story of mothers who lost their sons. Though in the case of Yulia, she did not lose her son. Even though she is a mother, she decided that her country needed her. Her husband takes care of their children and their grandmother. Yulia spends about 10 out of every 40 days on the frontline fighting. It is an aspirational story. Instead of staying crippled by trauma, she fights back and starts the volunteer center Pryval. It can house 30 wounded soldiers at a time. 

We wanted to make the film as universal as possible. You don’t have to be Ukrainian to understand the loss of a mother. People in the audience did connect. We were particularly proud that someone in the audience wanted to go to Ukraine and visit Halyna at the volunteer center themselves. A lot of people after the screening made donations for the center. At one of the screenings we got an Australian flag with a kangaroo, and we invited people to write a message to the Ukrainian soldiers. 

What was the most challenging thing for you when you were filming in Ukraine?

A small challenge was that I spoke Ukrainian and nobody in Zaporizhia spoke Ukrainian or English.

They would not switch to Ukrainian with you?

They would, but then would eventually slide back to Russian for this is for them their natural way of talking. I would ask “Is it Russian?” And they would go, “Oh, sorry!” The big difficulty was, when you speak with a mother who lost her son, you feel the way she does. Every day for two months, I heard such stories of loss, and it took a toll on me. On one occasion, I was with a group of mothers whose sons were missing. The mothers were trying to find them. The group wanted to tell me their stories and I wanted to hear them all, but sometimes it was too much for me. And of course, there was the difficulty of being in the war zone. 

This was the first time I worked in a war zone. At one point I was so stressed out by what I had seen plus the diet of sausage and chocolate that I felt physically sick and called an ambulance only to be told that there was nothing wrong with me, other than the stress of it all. 

Did you ever question the description of the war as an Anti-Terrorist Operation? 

I did. I noticed that it is used to paint a certain picture. But it’s a very complicated situation. That’s what I learned when I went there. It’s not simple. In Pavlohrad, for example, I was struck when I heard this. I was interviewing Yana Zinkevych in a café. We also spoke with a couple of people there. And they told us they wanted to be a part of Russia. That was shocking for me to hear that there are people in Ukraine who wanted to be a part of Russia. They told me that to my face. Such a thing did not happen often, but I did hear some people say that. It was also confusing to me. I did not understand how with all the things that were happening some people could want that. Again it is very complicated. 

The way it looks to me is that Russia is definitely involved. Their soldiers are there and that is not even questioned anymore. They are like “Yes, we are there.” We are fighting Russia. Ukrainian troops had captured Russian prisoners of war. I just wanted the war to end. Nobody is winning in this situation. We drove through villages that were empty. It is too dangerous to live there. The damage that is happening to the country is horrible.

Do you have a background in filmmaking or did you become a citizen filmmaker on the go?

Citizen filmmaker on the go. In 2013, I started making some advertising films, maybe four short films. Then some more. I still am in the early stages of my career. We have more stories, we have a documentary film concept and want to talk about it with people at Tribeca and in Ukraine. We definitely want to keep making documentaries in Ukraine. I also want to make a feature, a 90-minute-length proper film.

What is your feature-length film going to be about?

I am going in two different directions. One is a story experienced in Ukraine by my girlfriend, and I wanted to tell about it. The other one is a trilogy about Ukrainian history: one is a story about the Holodomor, secondly, there is a story about Chornobyl and finally about the Euro-Maidan. I feel like these Ukrainian stories are rich with emotion and universally appealing. Ukraine seems to be the most interesting place in the world for me. Ukraine is an amazing place. People there told me stories, and I’d like to tell those stories to people in Australia, the U.K. and Europe.

What do you plan to do after Tribeca?

I want to go back. My intention after Tribeca is to find the funding, go to Ukraine and make another short documentary. I have some colleagues in Ukraine who are interested in cooperating with me. My grandparents from Ternopil, Ukraine, brought me up as a Ukrainian in Australia. I am a member of Plast (Ukrainian Scouting Organization), I speak some Ukrainian and I wanted to explain the situation not as an outsider but somebody who is connected to Ukraine and its people in so many ways. I wanted to be one of those Ukrainians telling their story as best I could.