Baltic Sea Docs explores documentary filmmaking and mental health
- At the recent edition of the Latvian gathering, a panel examined the complex nature of the mental-health needs of documentarians through the prism of the war in Ukraine
When the most recent edition of Baltic Sea Docs was being prepared, a discussion with a focus on mental health was always on the agenda. However, after the terrible events in Ukraine in February, it became clear how said subject matter should be framed, and thus the discussion “Mental Health in the Documentary Industry During Times of War” was presented by Creative Europe – MEDIA Desk Latvia during the most recent edition of the Latvian-based gathering.
The event was moderated by Rebecca Day, a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and freelance documentary producer who works for Film in Mind UK. She began by making some general points about how much of the documentary world – which is often underfunded – is filled with filmmakers who are driven by passion. As such, it is important to set personal boundaries, something that filmmakers can sometimes find difficult to do. She noted that there are now a lot of qualitative data showing that depression, anxiety and compassion fatigue are all prevalent in the industry. But, as she noted, many of the people in the room were facing conditions even more precarious than the ones she had already mentioned.
Anna Machukh, CEO of the Odesa International Film Festival, mentioned how, after the initial shock of the Russian invasion had worn off, many had to think about how to live practically with the situation that they faced. In canvassing the Ukrainian film industry, they discovered that almost half had lost their jobs, whilst a large number had also fled abroad.
One of those who remained was filmmaker Ivan Sautkin, who had been filming in the Donbas region only five days before heading to Baltic Sea Docs. He is part of Babylon’13, a collective of documentary filmmakers that started in 2013 in order to highlight human rights struggles and counter propaganda. In terms of his mental health, he noted, “To read the news is more toxic than actually seeing what is happening around us.” He mentioned that much of his work broaches emotion, which he sees as more important than dealing with information, especially when trying to strip back bias and propaganda.
He also mentioned that there is a complex relationship between his work, his mental health and the reality going on around him. In making his documentaries, he has been working on the frontline following volunteers, and undergoing practical and tactical training as well as witnessing many terrible sights. He noted: “Seeing people being evacuated is traumatic. There are villages with no water, no phones, and people are scared but do not want to leave. But if you focus on what you can do to help, it’s not so traumatic.”
The war brings tragedy, but for some documentary makers, it also brings a sense of purpose, a sense of doing something amidst the chaos. “It’s a time when everyone is searching for their own place in this new reality. Of course, this reality is terrible; it’s a river of sorrow and tragedy. But personalities are shining like diamonds in this river.”
Ukrainian documentary maker Roman Bondarchuk helped start the Ukraine War Archive (see the news). He noted the importance of the project to human rights specialists for when they are building forthcoming cases, and also for documentaries. But he realised the toll that the work had been taking on his colleagues, as they have had to watch videos and footage that is difficult to stomach.
Day mentioned that it’s hard to prioritise one’s mental health when the psychological needs of your subjects are so much greater. Indeed, after being asked whether the resources available to journalists for managing both primary and secondary trauma were available to documentary makers, Sautkin said: “No, because all of Ukraine is traumatised. We have to wait our turn. I know I’ll be traumatised in the future. But now is not the time.” Machukh mentioned that they had tried to organise something with therapists in Ukraine and – unsurprisingly – all of the therapists in the area are already busy.
The filmmakers talked about some of their coping mechanisms. Bondarchuk, for instance, mentioned his regular Zoom meetings with colleagues, while Sautkin highlighted Baltic Sea Docs and forums like it for the sense of solidarity on offer. Also, to be able to come to Latvia and see many Ukrainian flags is a big psychological boost, in his view. Whilst living with all this tragedy and uncertainty, both filmmakers reflected on how they are still attempting to make art. Bondarchuk was hesitant, as he said, “Art is a privilege of peaceful places.” Meanwhile, Sautkin was more sanguine: “Art is freedom. There are no rules or borders.”
You can watch Mental Health in the Documentary Industry During Times of War in its entirety here.
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