A girl on a train sings songs or reads poetry; people palm a few bills into her hands. Young people stand in dark metro stations. A middle-aged woman quietly swears at the birds on the windowsill. Gleaming art pieces advertise an industrial creative capital. The sea does what it always does.
We're sitting in fforst, a creative space/cafe on the Frankfurt side. Illia Gladshein is with us from 86, an emerging film festival in Kyiv, and he's projecting a sequence of short films onto the wall. 86 has a number of different sections but today we're seeing MyStreetFilms, a section dedicated to amateur filmmakers who received support from the festival itself to make their projects. Most if not all of the selections today are from East Ukraine.
"But what about all this nostalgia?" one of the participants asks. "What does it mean that everything looks so good?" And it all does: everything's aesthetic, compelling, haunting. What does it mean when you're looking at things through this kind of lens – what experiences are missing from the camera? What impression are we giving people of the region? Does this just create the kind of victimhood narrative we're interrogating in class?
Illia acknowledges the questions coming in and asks us to remember that a lot of the films made are from people originally from the Donbas region – some of them are displaced persons themselves. Even if they're not directly from the separatist-controlled regions, the area's been so transformed that their lives might be unrecognizable.
And then, with all the films having come to a close already, people are asking questions. Mostly the Ukrainians, many of which are from the region themselves. Or struggle with what the conflict means to them, with how the region's crept into their lives in a way they're still trying to reconcile with. People offer comments, compare stories. Half the room's invested in the way you get invested when it's your life up there on the screen. Some of us, maybe the rest of us, aren't sure how to participate.
I think of some of the curiosities: a short film creating the illusion of a new Berlin (itself a white stag) in Ukraine's depressed industrial zones. Artists making things at such a pace they have to leave them on the street. They call the town Svetlograd. In another clip, someone's mother catches a mouse on an adhesive pad. She offers it to a supremely disinterested cat. "Come on," she coaxes, "don't you like this little mousey?" A man in shorts lies on the ground and offers philosophical asides. People laugh, not knowing if that's really an erection he's got going on. Someone mentions a Soviet children's classic that gets translated, in the subtitles, as Pinocchio. Svetlograd means 'city of light.' Illia asks who couldn't believe it was true. Most of us raise our hands.
Then there are the controversies. A woman films life at her dacha, posting it (I guess) on YouTube. She hears shelling and notices a new roadblock at the edge of the village. She speculates it's coming from a particular town – that town was connected to a stream of Russian propaganda streaming into the region a few years back. We're told that, at the premiere (back in May), audiences were wondering if the filmmakers were prompted by the KGB. Spreading Russian narratives. They just wanted to show how one woman thought at a very particular moment. She wondered if she was going to be shot. People have been telling her others are coming to kill her. Days later she realizes no one is coming.
Some, at the same premiere, wondered if they were trying to make Ukraine look bad. Why show these industrial buildings? Why record these particular streets – why not the central squares, when thousands of people are on them? But many of us, in this room today, find it very, very beautiful just as it is. Some are crying. Some are from the cities. Some know the exact mountains in the background. They see something resembling a love letter, but still feel the need: ask why. What's behind this. have a conversation. Mariupol is onscreen and decaying apartment blocks cut to the shoreline. Someone here's from Mariupol. We've been talking a hard game this week about memory, narrative, the ways we carry the past. Today we're not detached observers and it's all here. We're the ones implicated.
Cameras glide through a mirrored art hanger. Hollowed out buildings in Donetsk region stare out onto the street. "Karlovich," a woman purrs at a crow in a cage. What are you thinking? Are you a good boy? Mountains, cities. Tramlines. The sea does what it always does.