“Everyone has a home. And we have nowhere to go. How do we know whose war is it?”
Nikolaevka in East Ukraine, at first sight, looks like any other town in East Europe; Block Soviet buildings, some shanties, remains of statues- but it is not long until you spot ruins, and not just the ones in the streets.
Georg Genoux, a German director and playwright, presented his movie “Anyone Can be Saint Nikolai” in London’s GRAD (Gallery for Russian Art and Design) on 14 May. He captured his experience and dialogues, which he had working in Nikolaevka as a volunteer to re-build a bombed school. Genoux said that even though after the referendum more than 80 percent backed the ‘independence’ vote and about half of its people still actually sympathised with the separatists, you cannot feel this mood any more in the city. “In general there is fear to speak about feelings, about what happened, about the EU,’ he said.
In the movie, the director’s conscious decision not to show interviewees works perfectly; as he puts it, there is no need “to see an old crying woman” when her words and background images of the town draw tears from the audience itself.
Gripping stories of everyday life in Eastern Ukraine reveals that unrest in the country had not just a political impact but a deeply personal one on its residents. Everyday tragedy confuses people, some of them can no longer answer questions about their nationality and country so easily. What were once obvious things now are questionable and fragile. Deep identity problems have silenced the streets of the city but not the minds of its people, and Genoux invites us to look for our own answers amongst the rubble.
One interviewee was especially worried about children’s destiny and tragedy in the conflict. While normally children are excited to see a plane in the sky, little ones in Nikolaevka cannot help but tremble after hearing an airplane in the distance. Headaches, insecurity – all these are consequences of the conflict. The interviewee noted how her niece hiding in a bomb shelter when the aerial assault had begun. She did not know what is happening and after every explosion she shouted: “Hooray!” The girl had thought it was fireworks. After leaving the bombshell and seeing what the “fireworks” had done, she never wanted to go to back the basement. She could not even pass it.
After two days of explosions children stopped going to school. Everyone tried to stay with their friends: “It’s not scary when you are together. Not that scary…”
Another vital issue raised in the film was the question of identity. The war can take away your country, change its status or name, but one thing no one can do is to take away your identity. Though some of the people from East Ukraine are no longer sure who they are, where they belong. ‘We are all Slavs… I don’t see any benefit from the fact that I live in Ukraine,’ one interviewee said.
Even though he had never been to West Ukraine, he did not see anything left for him in what was once his country. ‘I want to see Russia,’ he said.
This issue is understandable in Nikolaevka. Russia is just over 200 kilometres (125 miles) away, and a lot of people used to go there to earn money and to travel. If they supported Russia before, it was not hard to convince them that after joining Russia, life would be the same in Nikolaevka. But it was not. After separatists’ troops started to build check points in the city and the bombings started, the area changed irreversibly. The deathly silence spread everywhere with people too afraid to talk. Most residents gave up cleaning the smashed windows and rubble off the streets as no one knew when they would be covered in destroyed remnants of their city again.
Nevertheless, some people have not lost their hope and patriotism. “How someone cannot love the place where they live? I don’t know if there is more beautiful place than Nikolaevka.”
Even though Genoux and other volunteers were happily greeted in Nikolaevka, some interviewees said that locals, especially older people, still have the Soviet mentality that no one does anything for nothing. Maybe those westerners support some political party, maybe they are spies, and maybe they will ask for something in return…
But younger citizens were happy that “volunteers heard us when we needed help and help came.” During the post-movie discussion Genoux said that children in the school were able at least to enjoy their Christmas when the director himself came dressed up as Saint Nikolai (Santa Claus) and gathered students’ letters and wishes. The moment took him by surprise.
“’I want an iPhone and peace for Ukraine,’ ‘I want doggy and peace for Ukraine,’ everyone asked… peace for Ukraine…”
After volunteering, Genoux realised that it is not material help these people need the most, “it is personal support and just knowing that they are not left alone.”
It was the fragile and personal fragments of the movie made it so natural and thought-provoking. Democracy is facing a crisis in the 21st century and it should concern everyone. Georg Genoux, speaking as a German, said: “If Europe is a town, the street next to us is Poland, then the street after that is Ukraine.”
As one interviewee said, before breaking into tears “I live in New York [a hostel] now. I was happy as a young person, but I am not happy as an old person… I don’t know, was it occupation or liberation.” For Europe to be a town, the continent needs to stop those words repeating themselves into the future.
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