Alisa Kovalenko stands in a Toronto cinema after the screening of her documentary, We Will Not Fade Away. She’s surrounded by audience members reaching out to shake her hand, many just saying: “Thank you.”
The 35-year-old filmmaker’s documentary is part of the Made in Ukraine series at the annual Hot Docs Festival, which is wrapping up Sunday in Toronto.
We Will Not Fade Away tells the story of the five Ukrainian teens, on the cusp of adulthood, living in the eastern Donbas region before Russia’s 2022 invasion, where they dream about their future and training for what they call “an adventure therapy trek” in the Himalayas, funded by a Ukrainian star athlete.
The documentary intimately captures the teens’ intergenerational households, their many pet cats, and their hobbies. One boy fixes up an old motorcycle. A girl loves to paint. Another boy composes pop music. They spend summers swimming in the river, lying in the long grass and rambling through the countryside.
“I found their daily life even more interesting [than the trek]; how even in this depressing and grey world, they managed to have fun and enjoy life, and have dreams and illuminate all this darkness with their dreams,” Kovalenko told the Hot Docs audience.
Then came Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The teens’ dreams were put on hold; some of their homes and villages were destroyed.
“I felt so powerless and useless as a filmmaker,” said Kovalenko. “So I felt that I could not film anymore.… I decided I will help the protagonists be evacuated from the war zone. I joined the army and went to fight. I became a soldier.”
She returned to the edit suite five months later.
“I couldn’t watch the rough cut without tears, because three of the protagonists were by then under Russian occupation in Zolote … and we didn’t know how to help them,” said Kovalenko.
“And all this reality I had filmed was now so valuable. It was like a time capsule. It’s like a part of the world that doesn’t exist anymore.”
All the documentaries featured in the Made in Ukraine series — 10 in total — tell stories of a year at war and are available to watch online in Canada until May 9. (The ‘Made in’ program at Hot Docs focuses on a different country each year.)
But Myrocia Watamaniuk, a senior international programmer at Hot Docs who curated the series, says not all are “war films.”
“There is such a diversity of approaches to telling the stories of Ukrainians right now,” she said. “That is how vibrant the documentary scene is in Ukraine.
“The war did not stop films from being made, but in fact gave motivation for filmmakers to go even broader in their creative range to get the truth on the ground out there.”
Filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov presented his documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol, at the festival to a standing ovation. He is a video journalist for the Associated Press who stayed in the eastern port city of Mariupol to chronicle its siege by the Russian military. It fell to Russia last May.
“It is the most graphic documentary I have seen in my 21 years programming documentary films, hands down,” said Watamaniuk.
It needs to be that graphic, both she and Chernov explained, because it is the truth of what happened.
“You have to see the full brutality to appreciate the fact that Russian media screened the same images in real time, but claimed these were all actors, fake news,” said Watamaniuk.
But also featured was Guests from Kharkiv (director Halyna Lavrinets), a sometimes-funny portrait of people who are evacuated from Ukraine’s second-largest city to a family farm where they are oftentimes more annoying than helpful — too lazy to help dig potatoes and they complain a lot.
Anna Palenchuk is the producer of Euro Donbas, a film about Europeans’ historical presence in the Donbas. She left Kyiv for Toronto eight months ago, with her three children in tow.
“My film, Euro Donbas, was filmed before the war,” she said in an interview. “Almost all the cities in the film are now destroyed. My characters are now refugees and displaced people.”
Many of the documentaries in the series were made on the run, she added, with no immediate funding.
“Russia has destroyed most of the places in these films already,” said Watamaniuk. “So these films prove that films, culture, is evidence; culture is proof of human experience and has to be treated as such.”
Another film, When Spring Came to Bucha, is centred on the city on the outskirts of Kyiv that was occupied by Russian troops for several weeks soon after the start of the war. When those forces pulled out, a trail of death and destruction was left behind.
By necessity, director Mila Teshaieva worked on her film without any pre-production.
“She jumped into filming when she realized she was an eye-witness to a mass murder,” said Palenchuk.
According to Palenchuk, all of the documentaries in the series show “how brave Ukrainian filmmakers are.”
“How they can tell stories in really difficult situations — with power blackouts, with shelling,” she said. “It’s our way to fight Russia, to continue to make films.”
Jeanne Dovyhch didn’t travel to Toronto for the festival, but is also part of Ukraine’s tight community of documentary filmmakers. Her latest film, Peace for Nina, is already in post-production. It’s about a mother’s fight for justice after her son was tortured and killed in captivity in Russian-occupied Donetsk, back in 2015.
Today, many of Ukraine’s filmmakers are not filming anything, she said in an email interview from Kyiv, “but are fighting with weapons in their hands.”
She noted that late last year, one editor she knew, Viktor Onysko, was killed; he had become a company commander during the war.
“The Ukrainian army is an army of mostly civilians who went to defend Ukraine from destruction,” she said. “Not only professional militants are dying, but also former journalists, film and theatre actors, teachers, scientists, businessmen … The cost of this war is terrible.”
Despite the continuing conflict, all of the Ukrainian directors featured in the Hot Docs series say they’ll stay in Ukraine. And Palenchuk says that will one day include her, too.
“It is my dream to return to Ukraine,” she said. “It is the most beautiful country, with beautiful people.”