Eastern Ukrainian Dialogue (dir. Sashko Protyah and Oksana Kazmina, 2018)
Freefilmers is a collective of filmmakers and artists, a self-described “cine-movement”, originally from Mariupol, Ukraine. Since 2017, they have explored questions of urban transformation, working class creativity, industrial heritage, and resistance in eastern Ukraine in a series of remarkable films that are by turns experimental, funny, confounding, and invigorating. Their filmmaking practice is avowedly anti-capitalist, based in collaboration and a rejection of the centripetal forces of “cultural centres” and official historical narratives. They offer an invaluable corrective to narratives imposed onto eastern Ukraine from outside, reminding us of the universal value and relevance of stories told by and for the subjects excluded from mainstream coverage.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the members of Freefilmers have been dispersed, their energies redirected towards humanitarian work, fundraising, solidarity screenings, and other curatorial projects. Their home city of Mariupol is currently under occupation. In their own words: “We don’t need producers and directors from the Global North to come to Ukraine now and hire us as fixers for their revealing feature-length movies about the war. We don’t want our stories to be retold to the whole world while we are struggling to protect our basic rights. Help us to survive, and we will make our own films about what we have had to live through.”
We spoke to two members of Freefilmers, Sashko Protyah and Natasha Tseliuba, about the past and present of their artistic and social work, pre-occupation Mariupol, the question of “decolonial” filmmaking, and more.
Can you describe how, where, and why Freefilmers was formed? What were the guiding principles behind it? Did you understand Freefilmers as responding to a particular “deficiency” in Ukrainian filmmaking, and did you have any particular influences or models when you started out?
Sashko Protyah: The meeting point was Mariupol, with its vibes as a rapidly changing city with lots of transformations and opportunities. After a brief occupation in 2014, it suddenly became a showcase for European aspirations in eastern Ukraine. It was relatively economically successful and attracted lots of young people, in particular from the territories which were occupied by Russia. Not all the changes appealed to us as independent filmmakers and artists. The cultural agenda was mostly imposed and curated by organisations from the EU or US, or at best by cultural agents from the western part of Ukraine. The cultural agenda often ignored the local historic background and working-class issues.
Natasha Tseliuba: I’d assume that “European values” functioned as some kind of a precondition for NGOs as regards receiving financial support, and that their promoters totally misunderstood and undervalued the local context.
We didn’t have any models as to how we could develop as an NGO or how we could deal with our doubts and disillusionment. But the deeper we peered into reality with our cameras, the more leftist we became as filmmakers
SP: Revitalisation projects always involved art interventions and temporary community events, but hardly ever any repair of social infrastructure. All the equality-oriented projects always talked about gender equality but hardly ever about economic equality, or even economic issues. There was a certain market for civic activities that framed all the possible changes. You could work on gender equality projects but without addressing poverty issues as such. You could work on transparency and anti-corruption projects but without questioning capitalism. So, there were some filmmakers who were critical of the domineering agenda, and this is how Freefilmers got together.
We met in Mariupol, but not everyone was based there. Basically, in the beginning we just wanted to film what we found meaningful, but gradually we became more conscious of our special position towards official cultural processes. For a while, we honestly tried to become part of them and influence their course: our first project was to produce two television documentary films for a wider audience. But although the project was quite successful, we immediately understood the impossibility of reflecting on eastern Ukraine within the framework of the toxic neoliberal reality, where you’re expected to impress your benefactors by raising optimism in your community or telling success stories about internally displaced persons. We didn’t have any models as to how we could develop as an NGO or how we could deal with our doubts and disillusionment. But the deeper we peered into reality with our cameras, the more leftist we became as filmmakers. Natasha joined Freefilmers later, but we definitely had quite a lot in common.
NTs: When I joined the Freefilmers team I was already an independent curator, artist, and filmmaker, so I found this invitation a huge possibility to find new soulmates. Of course, I had heard about Freefilmers before. I was based in Zaporizhzhia and was considering moving to another city. So, this invitation was very handy at that moment. I can’t say that in my creative circles there were a lot of inspiring options. One very important thing for me was honesty, intimacy, the soft power of political impulses in art, and a little punk and DIY culture.
Natasha Tseliuba’s animation from 100% Off (dir. Sashko Protyah, 2022)
I’m interested in the question of format and how you incorporate different media into your works in a non-hierarchical way. Natasha, for instance, maybe you could talk about the use of animation in 100% Off? Or the way that local music scenes and musicians are part of the filmmaking process in films like Khayt.
NTs: First of all, I need to say that I trust Sashko’s choice of topics in creative projects, and when he asked me to create animated pieces for 100% Off, I was super excited to be part of this collaboration. I knew the main idea of the film and it aligned with my personal interest – to do research and immerse myself in an atmosphere. I received references and draft videos and then I wrote the script. The whole process was so horizontal that in the end I completely forgot that this was not my film but the result of equal synergy. We have proof for that: the last episode was based on the story of one of my friends, but I was scared to ask her for the details, so my drawing was totally intuitive. A few days ago, I received feedback from her, and she asked me, “How did you know how it literally happened? How the landscape, the road, and gas station looked back then?”
SP: As for Khayt, we wanted to imagine a multicultural and multi-identarian Mariupol of the future. Historically, Mariupol is a Greek city. It was founded by Greek settlers from Crimea. Their culture has been endangered since the Soviet regime crushed the Greek revival in the 1930s. Back in the 1930s, the main drive of the urban North Azov Greek culture was literature and theatre. For the film, we choose music as the most relevant medium to dream up a futuristic Mariupol. Vasyl Lyah, as a composer, put North Azov Greek melodies into modular synthesisers, Dake joined the improvisation as a beatboxer, and I, as director, added the rest: 16mm industrial footage and some underground spirit. It worked.
now I can see one benefit of being a filmmaker from eastern Ukraine. It immediately makes your western interlocutor feel uncomfortable, your presence means being a party pooper
How do you understand Freefilmers as situated within or against the history of “Donbas film”? What does it mean for you to be “local” filmmakers?
SP: I don’t know what you mean by “Donbas film”. Most Mariupol residents would question the idea that Mariupol is in Donbas. They believe that Donbas is only mining towns to the North, whereas Mariupol is in Pryazovia. If you mean in terms of historical legacy – for example, Dzyga Vertov’s cinematographic experiments in the 1920s and ‘30s – I admit that he was a unique figure that we should keep in mind while filming in any industrial environment, or when the context concerns transformations and utopia.
Does “global” mean something that can be easily understood and commodified anywhere? I’d definitely prefer to be a “local” filmmaker, then. “Global” implies the domination of the supreme ignorance of the Global North. “Local” means paying attention to things which can prove elusive for global capital.
NTs: It’s so interesting, what do you mean by “Donbas film”? Is that some trend in cinematography? I can’t describe myself as a Donbas filmmaker, or as a local filmmaker either.
SP: I’d add that if the term “local” is all about promoting a “scene”, like the Seattle scene or the Bristol scene, then we all know where this labelling comes from. We are not part of this capitalist bullshit trend-making. However, now I can see one benefit of being a filmmaker from eastern Ukraine. It immediately makes your western interlocutor feel uncomfortable, your presence means being a party pooper. Of course, we have lots of friends in Europe who’d prefer to poop the “party” together with us.
Khayt (dir. Sashko Protyah, 2021)
This must be a particularly difficult question, but I do want to ask: what was it about the character (social or artistic) of Mariupol that made it a good base for Freefilmers before the invasion?
SP: It was on the margins: of Ukraine, of Europe, of global capitalist interests, and at the same time it was right in the middle of intensive transformations. People rallied in Mariupol to support Strajk Kobiet [the women’s strike] in Poland and the Belarusian protests in 2020. But anyway, Mariupol was authentically at the back of the beyond. It was always cinematographically beautiful, which doesn’t equate to being a popular tourist destination.
NTs: I didn’t live in Mariupol, so I’ll skip this question.
SP: But Natasha, you visited it twice in 2021!
NTs: Yes, but unfortunately, I’m not “local”’, I’m not even the bright star of Donbas filmmaking. Also, I’m not sure that those two short visits showed me the social and artistic character of the city. By the way, Sashko, do you feel any similarity between Mariupol ‘14 and Zaporizhzhia ‘22?
SP: You mean how Zaporizhzhia is becoming the new so-called “Ukrainian outpost” or fortress of Ukrainian resistance, in place of Mariupol? I guess Dnipro is planning to nab this role – at least Google says that this phrase is already used a lot to talk about Dnipro. But I’d say that currently Zaporizhzhia has to deal with very different problems. Mariupol was divided after 2014, with a substantial part of its population believing Russian propaganda, so Mariupol civic society was expected to work on reconciliation; one of the international organisations’ illusions was that they could fix this problem by promoting a specific cultural agenda. The more events the better, but not all political issues and discussions were accepted. Zaporizhzhia is very different now, in this respect: there’s a political consensus in the city that Zaporizhzhia is Ukrainian and pro-Russian views are minimal. However, it’s too early to talk about any revival of the local cultural or /political scene, since at least five air raid sirens per day and at least a few explosions per night still remind us that we’re on the brink. Cinematographically, Zaporizhzhia is also very different, and has many more identities and mysteries.
I’m interested in how your approach to filmmaking is related to your approach to film watching/screening. For instance, the TvorchSkhid [Creative East] documentary films have a very open/reflexive approach to capturing dialogue on film, which seems of a piece with the solidarity screenings you have organised in Ukraine, which take place in less “traditional” cinema settings and are accompanied by discussion and intervention.
SP: Unfortunately, I’ve only attended a few solidarity screenings, as it’s more important for me to be in eastern Ukraine. I can’t say that all the solidarity screenings have the same vibe. Some of them are probably more artsy, in galleries and art centres; some are much more informal. Our films might seem slightly intricate, but you don’t need to be a cinephile to watch them and to talk about them. That’s why I believe our screenings are more friendly than festival shows. In May, 100% Off was screened at an event called Reconstruction of Happiness event in Berlin. People were so attentive to the details, and they were so involved in the discussion, although in the backyard there were already tables set up with varenyky and DJs playing music. If we talk about participation and solidarity, the value of the event was incomparable with the film festival that I’d attended a week earlier. That was just a regular film industry event. Natasha will know more about the secret of how to hold events that talk about complex things without turning them into elitism.
NTs: There is no secret. My main strategy is that at each step of the organisation process I try to find independent and punk venues or partners who I can identify with. I always choose small pubs with friendly people over high-tech cinemas.
I can’t see how we can start talking about colonialism seriously in the realm of competitions and industry events. We just change labels and trends, while exploitation and alienation persist
If you are able to, I would be really grateful to hear your thoughts on how you have reintroduced filmmaking into your lives since the full invasion began. For instance, I remember Sashko speaking to the Samizdat Film Festival last year about how he began to start filming the minivan drivers who were evacuating civilians from the frontline zone. Has your understanding of the “purpose” of filmmaking changed?
SP: In general, there’s a kind of division of labour in the reality of the war. Ukrainians are doing low-skilled jobs, protecting so-called “European values”, de-mining heavily contaminated fields for the sake of global food security – basically risking their lives all the time – or, for example, working as fixers for smarter Western journalists and film directors. And residents of the Global North are in a much more privileged position, they’re often busy making important decisions as to whether to help Ukrainians or not, and how to make raw pictures from Ukraine look less emotional and more comfortable for festival-goers and social media scrollers. I’ve come across the implications of this division many times and we have to talk about it openly.
So, at first, I couldn’t understand why I should extract imagery for regular European bystanders instead of just helping people affected by the war in situ. But then it became obvious that if we don’t do this work ourselves, our stories will be told by big names from abroad. Sometimes even by people who curate and direct the whole production online, without even going to Ukraine. I’m still mostly involved in humanitarian aid work, rather than full-time film production. It definitely makes more sense to me. I wonder how Natasha thinks about the purpose of art now. And is there any difference between her vision of art and her colleagues’ who are based in the EU?
NTs: In my case I had vague plans to make a movie before the invasion, something playful, just for fun. But then I found this idea irrelevant. So, I’d rather talk about my experience in art. Personally, it was hard to continue curatorial and art practices when all media information should be about the war and ways to support Ukraine. Then I realised that art and curatorial issues are my self-defence method and I had to go on, since this is what makes me a personality, what cures me. And the question about differences between the visions of EU-based colleagues and those based in Ukraine is very complicated. First, I need to say that there is a huge difference between practices and personalities. For example, some European curators have their personal vision, and they have a different way of conducting research, finding methods, and giving a voice to Ukrainian artists. If it’s a non-hierarchical carte blanche then that’s one thing, but if its intention is to give equal footing to Ukrainian, russian, and belarusian cases then I have a lot of objections. Of course, I can’t say that I see this kind of ignorance often. In these cases I have a small recommendation for EU curators: just ask artists/filmmakers/curators first if it’s OK for them to be grouped together with russians, if it’s OK to show films that exoticise the eastern region of Ukraine, if it’s necessary to come physically to the event, or whether the money that you spend on travel costs would be better served donating. Just ask us.
My Cosmos (dir. Natasha Tseliuba, 2019)
Sashko, in another interview we published recently, you said the following about the idea of “native” or “indigenous” cinema: ‘I can easily imagine this term being used and manipulated by imperialist powers, or, for example, in film industry marketing. The term could be more radical if we could also talk about “colonial filmmaking”.’ Could you expand on that as it relates to Freefilmers and maybe Ukrainian or eastern Ukrainian filmmaking more broadly?
SP: It was my comment on the program at goEast Festival in Wiesbaden, which is dedicated to eastern European cinema, whatever that means. We never organise “western European” cinema festivals. Western Europe is ubiquitous and self-evident by default. It was rather weird to find myself in a city proud of its casinos and its Dostoevsky connections to talk about indigenous cinema. I felt like I had been trapped again in a context curated by Western experts who retained all the power. I might sound too pessimistic, but I can’t see how we can start talking about colonialism seriously in the realm of competitions and industry events. We just change labels and trends, while exploitation and alienation persist. But I can see examples of more radical venues for dialogue and mutual support, like Hungry Eyes Festival or Filma Festival.
What labels or descriptions of cinema do you think are acceptable, if not regional ones? Or would you argue that it’s best to avoid them altogether?
NTs: I’d prefer to compare this question of definition with music genres. Some musical artists define their own style by themselves, and others give the opportunity to critics and listeners. In my case, I don’t like to use regional markers because they can turn my work into commerce and clickbait. I’d prefer to use markers like “Ukrainian independent” or “grassroots” cinema.
SP: And yes, it’s colonial to talk about cinema using regional labels. Freefilmers emerged in Mariupol, but Natasha’s film My Cosmos is about a neighbourhood in Zaporizhzhia. And I believe the vibes of this neighbourhood can be found in any big city in the world where a person feels alienated and lost, where memories disrupt the future. And we’ve worked with these topics, as filmmakers and artists, not only in Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, or elsewhere. And we do have colleagues who share our values in other countries. There should not be any cultural centres: we make films not to dominate and win, but to share and create networks of mutual support.
Read more about Freefilmers on their site and watch a selection of their projects on their YouTube channel here.
Please consider donating to the group using the details here.