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Romania / Ukraine

Helena Maksyom • Director

“As a serving member of the Ukrainian military, I am a soldier first and a filmmaker second”


- We talked with the co-director of Everything Will Not Be Fine, who is currently fighting in the Ukrainian army, about her war experiences and filmmaking future

Helena Maksyom • Director

A few years ago, Ukrainian Helena Maksyom became a fixer for the production of Romanian director Adrian Pârvu’s documentary Everything Will Not Be Fine [+see also:
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interview: Helena Maksyom
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. In one of cinema’s most recent and endearing examples that documentary film projects are fluid and can change at any time during production, Maksyom soon became both the film’s co-director and its protagonist, marking a drastic turn in her career. When the war broke out in Ukraine, she chose to join the army instead of fleeing the country; here is what she has to say about fighting on the front and her new personal project as a filmmaker.

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Cineuropa: Most Ukrainian filmmakers chose to fight the invasion in their own ways, from a safe distance. What urged you to become a soldier in the Ukrainian army?
Helena Maksyom:
When the large-scale Russian invasion started on February 24th, I knew I had the option to go abroad. Many friends offered me a place to stay but it didn’t feel right to leave Ukraine. I initially started helping out refugees, travelling with volunteers in small vans to cities under Russian attack to rescue vulnerable people, mostly children and seniors. After taking people out of Bucha and a family from Kramatorsk who had just survived a rocket attack, I ended up in Kharkiv and met members of a national guard unit. It happened quite fast, but I felt that I needed to go to war with these soldiers because evil had come to my home. I spoke with a commanding officer and told him about my background as a filmmaker and that I wanted to document the experiences of front line soldiers and I soon enlisted. Several weeks of weapons, tactical and medical training followed, after which we were deployed to the front in the Luhansk region.

What does a day in the life of a woman director fighting in the war look like?
As a serving member of the Ukrainian military, I am a soldier first and a filmmaker second. Life in a war zone when you are under artillery fire every day, like we experienced in Luhansk, is a complete mess. Military order, the people around you and your wits are what can keep you alive in this world of chaos, where thoughts about making art or movies seem at times completely ridiculous. But there are precious and very rare moments of silence when one can dream about a life beyond the war. These moments allowed me to gather disjointed pieces of my life and the lives of my comrades over there. One thing that hit me hard was the stark difference in life on the front line and life back at headquarters. Combat is an experience that only those who live it can understand and very few can convey the experience to others.

Your first film, Everything Will Not Be Fine, was refreshingly and endearingly personal. What can you tell us about your second feature, which you are currently shooting on the front?
I'm answering these questions during a brief respite from the front and I will return there soon. I am still living this but I am also filming. At this point I see it as the diary of a soldier who started this war as a kind but naive person and who has lost her naivety. I am grateful I did not lose my kindness, but the barbarity of the Russian invaders has taught me that not all human beings are redeemable. My journey is not unique, many Ukrainians who worked regular jobs and never imagined ever carrying a weapon or digging a trench are now serving in the army. I`m just a filmmaker who is documenting this experience. 

You recently organised a fundraiser in order to buy an action camera that will help you shoot more safely while fulfilling your army duties. How does the concept of your documentary accommodate these ultra-personal shots?
I shoot using a hand-held professional camera and a shotgun microphone, and in combat conditions, this is almost impossible. I intend to use the action camera to gather material while doing my duties as a soldier and medic. As I mentioned previously, in combat you don’t really dream about the future, you just try to keep yourself and your brothers alive. Only when the shelling dies down for a bit, you start remembering that you are a human with dreams and aspirations who sometimes laughs and tells stories with friends. Making a film in wartime conditions requires two different types of camera to capture both experiences and I hope I can blend these in a journal approach in order to tell my story. 

What is your opinion on the ban of Russian films in international film events? 
Firstly, we have to keep in mind that Ukrainians did not ask for a ban on Russian culture but rather a pause in the promotion of Russian culture on the international scene until Russia leaves Ukraine entirely and repatriates the 3,000,000 Ukrainians (300,000 of which are children) who have been forcibly deported to Russia. Moreover, very few Russian filmmakers have outright condemned Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine and many have failed to admit the fact that this is more than a war started by a brutal dictator, it’s an imperial war of conquest that Russian society largely supports. I believe it is a failure of Russian culture and its representatives that their country started a war of conquest and is committing acts of genocide in the 21st century. 

Is there anything the filmmaking community can do in order to help you?
Some in the international film community, especially from countries that experienced Russian oppression throughout the centuries, have been very supportive and helped some of us continue our projects or sent direct aid. However, I and many of my colleagues are disappointed in the faux pacifism that comes from some intellectual circles in the West. Asking Ukraine to stop fighting equals to the destruction of our people and our culture. Pushing for peace at any cost dooms people in the occupied territories and the millions illegally deported to a horrible fate. Ellie Wiesel once said “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

As a filmmaker, what I am asking the international community now is: support us in our fight for survival. Push your governments to send us heavy weapons that will enable us to defeat the Russian army on the battlefield. We don’t need you to spill your blood, just give us the tools that were built to defend Europe from an expansionist Russian empire. We will spill our blood for you. Peace will come only through Ukrainian victory and, with a genocidal empire like Russia pursuing our destruction, weapons are the only help we need right now.

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