Ukrainian Director of CPH:DOX Title Shuns Red Carpet to Film Evacuation of War Refugees

Ukrainian Director of CPH:DOX Title Stays Home to Film Refugees
Courtesy of CPH:DOX

While her first feature-length doc “Outside” is having its world premiere in the main competition at the Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX), Ukrainian director Olha Zhurba will be back home. The young filmmaker has decided to stay in her country to document the evacuation of refugees fleeing the war brought on by Vladimir Putin.

“I’m Ukrainian and I need to film this for my nation,” she told Variety over the phone. “We will need to reflect on what is happening to us in the future to cope with the trauma of this tragedy. I believe that films and art are part of this recovery that we will need on a psychological and mental level, and these films will be important in this process,” said Zhurba, who is best known for her fiction short “Dad’s Sneakers.”

She said that on February 24, when the Russian invasion started, she was awoken in Kiev by the sound of explosions. For the first day or two she was in shock and scared, like everyone around her. But then she picked up her camera and started filming.

“I film because it’s easier to film than just observe what’s happening to our country, when I film I focus on work and it helps me to cope with war,” she explained.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Moon Man

At first she stayed in the capital, but she soon headed south to Zaporizhzhia, which lies on the evacuation route from the besieged city of Mariupol to the relative safety of Western Ukraine.

“We’re trying to record their stories – audio stories as well. We’re trying to film the big scale of this tragedy because we feel we can bring all this pain that our people are going through to the outside world and it’s our mission – something we must do as filmmakers,” she said.

Audio recordings also play a major role in “Outside,” which tells the story of Roma, a young boy who lived on the streets of Kiev and became a poster boy for the 2014 Maidan revolution. Zhurba follows him from the streets to an orphanage and back to the streets again, in a poignant doc that mixes phone conversations, security camera footage and seven years of filming Roma’s troublemaking, drug use and drifting through life.

“I wanted to show that this is not just Roma’s story but a general portrait of such kids who grow up in orphanages. I hope it will help people better understand the scale of this problem: in our society, children who grow up in orphanages or in dysfunctional families don’t have a future,” Zhurba said.

As it travels back and forth in time, “Outside” shows how Roma is forced to leave the orphanage as soon as he turns 18. Left to fend for himself with nowhere to live, no education or job, he soon gets into trouble. Only months after leaving the orphanage he ends up in prison charged with stealing a motorbike.

“He was cut off from education, housing or any kind of financial support – he was supposed to get support from the government but never did – but he had perfect access to this criminal world through his brother and his old friends. This is very typical for children who live in orphanages in our country,” said the film’s producer, Darya Bassel, speaking to Variety from what she described as “a safe place in Western Ukraine,” where she is working remotely with Zhurba on her next film.

Bassel is also one of the main organizers of the Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Kiev, which was due to bow on March 25. She has been helping channel logistical support to filmmakers in Ukraine since the start of the war.

Bassel’s Moon Man production company previously co-produced another doc focusing on Ukraine’s orphans together with Copenhagen-based outfit A Final Cut for Real: Simon Lereng Wilmont’s Sundance sensation “A House Made of Splinters.” “In that orphanage, the kids are lucky,” she said, “because the people working there care about what they are doing, but this is very rare, the system is very corrupt in our country.”

For Final Cut for Real producer Anne Köhncke, the two are what she calls “sister-films.” “Both films focus on the most vulnerable in a society under pressure,” she told Variety. “They pose the question: how can a society take care of its children?”

Zhurba, who took a course in order to become Roma’s official mentor, said they are still in touch on a regular basis: he calls her when possible from the jail where he is detained near Kiev.

The film’s team says it will take advantage of the Copenhagen premiere to launch a crowd-funding event to raise money to pay for a place for Roma to live when he gets out of prison.

“We’re doing the same for Oleg and his grandmother, the main protagonists in [Simon Lereng Wilmont’s directorial debut] ‘The Distant Barking of Dogs,'” said Köhncke. “In the case of Oleg and his grandmother, they need to build a new home. We want to raise funds so that Roma has a base when he comes out, because not having a home is a recipe for disaster.”

“Outside” is produced by Bassel and Viktoria Khomenko (Moon Man, Ukraine), and co-produced by Köhncke and Monica Hellström (Final Cut for Real, Denmark), and Willem Baptist and Nienke Korthof (Tangerine Tree, The Netherlands). Deckert Distribution is handling world rights.

The film will have its world premiere in the main competition at CPH:DOX on March 25.