The Theatre of a Warfare: How one Ukrainian theatre reacted to the war
Since the beginning of the war, volunteering has penetrated nearly all spheres of peoples’ lives in Ukraine, particularly in the cultural scene. Spaces and people have been transforming in response to urgencies at hand. Theatres are turned into shelters and centres of humanitarian help. Actors, theatre directors, and art managers work to help their community to settle in the theatre-cum-shelter, where they organise transfers abroad, collect humanitarian aid and medication and reach out to other volunteers delivering help around the country.
To explore such formations, with the help of Olha Tuharinova, Oleh Halaidych filmed Lesia Ukrainka Drama Theatre, where art, joy, and mutual support is experienced in heightened intensities during a time when notions of community and expression entail extremely high stakes.
Here, we present to you our interview with Oleh.
Who is behind this film project? We would like to know more about your team and how you got together
In February 2022, my friend Olha and I attended the first-week session of the IndieLab workshop for young documentary filmmakers in Kyiv. In the middle of the session, on the 24th of February, Russia launched a full-scale war, so our initial idea has never been filmed. Soon I evacuated to Lviv. Here, I had the opportunity to film the activity of Lesya Ukrainka Drama Theater.
Since before, Ella Shtyka and Dmytro Tiazhlov —mentors at IndieLab— have been guiding me in production and editing. Now, they are helping me with this new project. I am very thankful for their support.
Also, at the theatre, I was introduced to Oleksandr Fomenko, a theatre and film producer. We ended up in the Lesya Theatre independently, as he evacuated from Kharkiv (my native city as well). I was really happy to meet Oleksandr because he supported my idea, helped with interviewing and gave me consultation during the filming process.
Tell us a little about Lesia Ukrainka Drama Theatre’s past and present. And how did you initially decide to make a film narrating their activities?
When I came to Lviv, Roma Ternevich, my classmate at the Sergey Bukovsky Film Program, suggested the idea to film at Lviv theatres, many of which have been transformed into volunteering centres and shelters. My initial intent was to make some sort of reportage, but soon I realised that in its transformation, Lesya Theatre and its collective is a self-sufficient small world, and it might be interesting to capture their activity in a documentary film form.
Lesya Theatre’s repertoire was always aware of the war with Russia since 2014. When the full-scale war was unleashed, the theatre collective reacted immediately. Right on the first day, they adapted themselves to shelter and accommodate various volunteering activities. Now they are back to their direct professional duties while continuing volunteering work.
After the 24th of February, a musical-poetic performance, ‘Imperium Delenda Est’ (transl. ‘The Empire Must Be Destroyed’), was created and premiered at the Festival d’Avignon 2022. Now they are touring Europe.
What is the role of arts and culture in times of war? What new meanings are added to this sphere in such drastic humanitarian and political crises?
First thought: there is no place for culture now, as war is made with weapons, not poems. This war can only be stopped on the battlefield. Nevertheless, war is not exclusively the frontline, and militaries will be the first to say so. Without them realising that there is a whole country behind them supporting them (with resources as well as morally) and waiting for their return, there will be major problems with motivation.
And culture is about the quotidian life to which people want to get back. Culture reminds humans of what makes them humans. It is more about the feeling of identity and values one stands for rather than something aesthetic. And while culture for sure is not the most important thing right now, it is a sphere where unity can be reached while fragmentation can be opposed. If poems, films, songs are not the first things one would think of under shelling, it is crucial to recall them after the war ends. Otherwise, there will be only stunning trauma.
Talking about Ukrainian artists today, I noticed that many want to be either a ‘voice’ or a ‘bullet’. The former want to communicate to the world about the war crimes of the Russian occupational army, and the latter want to cause damage to the enemy in any field where possible.
What do you hope to highlight in your film? What kinds of discussions do you wish to prompt?
For me, Lesya Theatre represents how civil society reacted to the war in the first days of a full-scale invasion. Self-organisation, self-mobilisation, mutual support and willingness to help those who are disconnected from the normal world, became driving forces without falling into the role of victim or escapee.
And this theatre is only one small but representative piece of a huge mosaic of the whole phenomenon of the civil volunteering movement, which is a prominent feature of modern Ukrainian society. The horizontal and democratic manner of taking responsibility within the collective tell a lot about the values Ukraine is fighting for.
At the same time, this film is about the life of young people. They have fun, fall in love and continue to do art despite all the disasters around.
We hope to draw attention to Ukrainian culture in general, the impact of war nowadays and why traces of the imperial nature of Russian culture from the past and present have an influence nowadays. We believe there’s a need to redefine the impact European cultural institutions have on their audiences – building their awareness and shaping the vision of Russian and Ukrainian culture. What is referred to as the ‘Great Russian Culture’ is great precisely because of its diverse representatives from Ukraine and other countries, oppressed throughout Russia’s imperial history.