"We don't make news, we make certain meanings in that news": how Babylon'13 documents the war

"We don't make news, we make certain meanings in that news": how Babylon'13 documents the war

Babylon'13 was founded on November 30, 2013, when Berkut broke up a protest on Independence Square, or Maidan Nezalezhnosti. The project was a response to the beating of students and Yanukovych's retreat from European integration processes. During the Revolution of Dignity, the community grew to more than 40 filmmakers.

Since the beginning of spring 2014, documentarians began to create an audiovisual archive of Ukrainian history already in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war: the occupation of Crimea and the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. On February 24, 2022, the workload increased several times.

Svidomi spoke to the Babylon'13 team about how the full-scale invasion has affected work, how the team makes films, and how documentaries and feature films are countering Russia's informational influence.

"Babylon'13" team

The main part of the team is based in Kyiv but has representatives throughout the country and beyond. In addition to people from the cinematographic professions, the community also includes PR, marketers, subtitlers, and site administrators - mostly volunteers.

"Babylon'13" has recognition, a brand formed over 8 years, and it is a great platform to start from. When you write a grant or festival application, it's not just a name, but a brand and a production company that has been making documentaries for many years," says producer and cinematographer Andrii Kotlyar.

In the first weeks after February 24, the team partially moved to Lviv. At the same time, the office in Kyiv continued to work.

"The problem was that it was not possible to film in Kyiv - everything is prohibited for security reasons. You either work for the defence, or you don't interfere. That is why many chose to do something, and it was possible in Lviv. There were a million stories in the city, all destinies, often broken," says director and screenwriter Kostiantyn Klyatskin.

In the first days of the full-scale war, the "Babylonians" collected videos taken by military and civilians, where the battles were fought.

"It is very difficult to find video materials from which stories were edited. The peculiarity is that we try to create what is relevant at the moment when it happens. What was created on the Maidan (Revolution of Dignity) was created directly during the process. People from Hrushevskyi came to the Babylon'13 shelter in the Cinema House, immediately disassembled the material and edited it. It's the same now. The new form with vertical videos is also about the reflection of the moment, which conveyed both our understanding of the situation and what was happening," Klyatskin explains.

Later, filmmakers returned to carefully composed, in-depth stories about specific events. It became possible to shoot and publish films related to combat operations thanks to permission from the Ministry of Defense. It is necessary to show the world crimes of the Russian Federation against Ukrainians.

One of the first full-length works shot during the full-scale war is "The Day of the Ukrainian Volunteer" by the director of Babylon'13 Volodymyr Tykhyy. The footage tells about March 14, 2022. Filming took place during one day at different locations. The film has already received a special award at one of the largest documentary film festivals, Sheffield Doc/Fest-2022.

The impact of war on financial support

It was bad, it got worse - this is how the impact of the full-scale war on the financing of the film industry is commented upon. Until February 24, funding could be obtained from the State Agency for Cinema and the Ukrainian Cultural Fund.

"The budgets of these institutions were transferred to the needs of the Armed Forces, and this was a correct decision in February, but not now. The state has opportunities to cover the needs of documentary films. And this is not about the needs of Babylon'13 - the whole industry with a great desire to shoot and show reality was left without a job," explains Kotlyar.

Thanks to the "Babylon'13" brand, several grants were attracted for activities, and cameras and technical equipment were purchased.

"I am aware of stories when cinematographers I know assemble furniture because they are out of work. I understand that there is a war, but, strangely, for 5 months there is no understanding from the Ministry of Culture on what to do next. Will there be grant programs? No one knows. To represent Ukraine in Cannes? Certainly! Necessary? Obviously! But there is no dialogue," notes Klyatskin.

Where and what is "Babylon'13" filming?

The shooting locations of "Babylon'13" are scattered throughout the country. In 5 months, the filmmakers posted about 200 videos on the YouTube channel. All these are stories about the realities of war, the courage of Ukrainians and the crimes of Russians.

On July 17, "Babylon'13" presented the trailer of the documentary film "Iron Butterflies" by Roman Lyubyi and Andrii Kotlyar. The tape examines the circumstances of the downing of passenger plane MH17 by the Russians.

"This is an important event for me personally because this is my first production project. The premiere is scheduled for early next year at the festival, which will help to once again remind us about one of the biggest war crimes of the Russian Federation in modern history," comments Andrii Kotlyar.

On February 24, the team had train tickets to Mariupol - they were planning a film about the events of spring 2014.

"I don't remember the project, but I am sure that it is always relevant, so I’m planning it for after the war. It was difficult to find participants in the civil resistance against the Russian occupation in 2014, and it is even difficult to imagine how it will be after this phase of the war," says Klyatskin.

On February 24, the director completed the application for financing the film, even though the invasion had begun.

"It calmed us down a little: we were sitting at the laptop and writing the application, and explosions rang out. It was a good bridge to the future - I will submit this application anyway because more than a month has already been spent on it. I won't let it go just like that," Klyatskin adds.

Materials, which Kostyantyn shot back in February, are currently in the editing process - the film about Bucha and the story of the marines who defended the Kyiv Sea.

Director Anastasia Tykha is structuring material about internally displaced people who live in the Kurbas theatre. Next up is the work with the Ukrainian Healthcare Center on how Russia is destroying Ukraine's medical infrastructure.

Documentary and feature films as a way of fighting in the information war

It is important not only what you say, but also how. Russian propaganda uses clear basic forms. The scheme for working with human consciousness is simple.

"It should be the opposite from our side. Cinema speaks here and now, it is not only informative but also figurative and ideological, reflected — it stays longer and penetrates deeper. It works on other levels," says Anastasia Tykha.

During the 5 months of the full-scale war, the team received requests to create a movie for a Russian audience. In part, the requests were from foreigners - they believe that there is an audience in Russia with whom it is necessary to speak.

“We don't need to think about it, it's not our focus. It is necessary to communicate with the West and Ukrainians in the temporarily occupied territories, and not drag the Russians here. We don't need Russian pseudo-intellectuals to tell us how to live, make movies, and do politics”, Kotlyar says.

"Babylon'13" encourages Ukrainian viewers to watch quality documentaries. Its feature is multi-layered.

"Documentary is interesting because you are always looking for something fresh. This is not television. You always have to approach work in a non-standard way. For most people, our realities are traumatic, so they do not accept reality, their reflection in the mirror. They want to be better, to have a more beautiful life. This is post-totalitarian and colonial education. We do not make news, but certain meanings in these news, we search for them, find them and reproduce them," says Volodymyr Tykhyy.

Documentary cinema is now more relevant than ever. If the team does not fully understand what to do with the material, then the very fact of recording and turning it into an archive is already good, says Andrii Kotlyar.

"Certain themes and stories will emerge over time, so we may be missing something now. Some materials will lie down because the distance is needed. But later there will be a different meaning, and the materials will have a different value," adds the producer.

The same is true of feature films. In Andrii's opinion, there is no need to rush to shoot a feature film. The events of the war must be experienced and understood. This was the case after the Maidan (Revolution of Dignity): in eight years, conscious statements began to appear, which not only have a context, but also a separate world built around the fact itself.