I arrived in an empty airport. Those places are always eerie but this was on another level. I guess Ukraine is not at the top of most people’s list as a summer destination. At the border control, I was greeted by a sign advising me not to bribe the officials. It felt a bit like when someone adds “no, seriously” after paying you a compliment. The fact that someone thought that it had to be said, spoke volumes.
Sasha, our Lithuanian-born Russian translator, was waiting for me. She was to take me to an artist’s flat to join the rest of the crew and film our first interview. She had chartered a cab driven by Ishmael, from Dagestan, who welcomed me with a Salam in stark contrast with the wooden crucifix hanging from the mirror. I guess needs must the world over. He was a jovial man who didn’t mind me smoking in his car, on condition that I shared my Virginia tobacco with him since, as he put it, the Ukrainian leaf would be better served with vinaigrette.
He got us to our destination in half an hour and though my Russian was nonexistent at the time, I understood something was up when after a brief exchange of a few sharp words with Sasha, he started staring at me. Ishmael wanted 70 US dollars for the trip. Moments before, being a good host to foreign visitors in his country, he had invited us to a game of laser-tag but now he wouldn’t budge on the price. I was an English speaker who had just flown in and the man smelled money like sharks smell blood. Phil, the director, appeared and grudgingly resolved the problem, which was dandy as I didn’t have any money on me, let alone green one.
We made our way up to the artist’s lair, at the top of a huge Soviet tower. Vlada quickly showed me around what I thought must have been in the past reserved for party leaders, seeing as it was on two floors and took us to her studio where Kuba, the DoP, was waiting. She told us she’d only started painting three years ago but by god, had she been busy. Every square inch of the walls was adorned by a sketch, text or graffito of some description. My mother who wouldn’t let me put my feet on the couch, would have gone spare. Large canvasses rested here and there, making the place look more like a gallery’s backroom than somebody’s bedroom.
Her work was striking and shocking. Dark scenes of depravity and violence that, if you hadn’t met her, would made you think this was the brainchild of a demented mind’s feverish nightmare in a padded cell. It was hard to reconcile with the angel-faced nymph sitting before us. She had an easy, contagious laugh, a certain levity about her and explained, at length, that the driving force behind her paintings was love. She gave long, thought-out answers during the interview and though again this was in Russian, she radiated poise and control. Maybe that’s what it was, the definition of her work: controlled chaos. Love being a destructive force by nature, maybe she was taming the beast by painting it, just like the seen predator or named problem looses a little bit of its power.
In between takes, whilst we were setting up shots, she played classics effortlessly on the piano. We were on a hunt for talent and there it was, out in the open. She was as accomplished at the keyboard as she was with a paintbrush. It made me wonder if this was the result of the Soviet education system, it being famous for what we would describe as pushy in its pursuit of proficiency in a wide range of disciplines. Of course, in passing comments, we discovered that she was also a poet and occasionally harangued the crowds at what I thought sounded a lot like our own Speakers’ Corner.
Happy with the interview, we decided to retire to a nearby bar for a welcome drink but not before Vlada bestowed on each of us, a gift. Sasha and Kuba each got a painting, Phil, a wooden bird-shaped flute and I, a leather wristband. I was a little embarrassed and tried to protest but she wouldn’t hear it and on I went bejewelled. We were to experience the same generosity at the first bar we tried where, as it was full, we were, I kid you not, given a couple of shots of the local moonshine for our trouble. Invigorated by such a warm welcome, we found our way to Argentina, a nautically themed watering-hole, exclusively staffed by men who wouldn’t have been out of place at the Mineshaft, in New York circa 1980.
The beer was crisp and it was good. We started discussing our plans for the evening. Kuba, who had been to Ukraine before, was supposed to meet a few friends at a boat party later on. They were in turn supposed to hook us up with other potential participants in our film. Dark birds were circling the towers around us, which I saw as a bad omen. I made the conscious decision to play it safe, have a relatively early night and preserve my forces for the get-together we were planning for our last day.
I must have gone to bed at around nine, the next morning, metadata on iPhone pictures being more reliable than memory. We’d left Argentina for our flat in central Kiev, which had one bedroom instead of the three advertised but by then, I was past caring. A few more beers set us off to a riverside party in a boat-shaped bar. Not quite the boat-party we were promised by my legs voluntarily provided the swaying. There we met Victory, Yuliya and I believe, Ola. Though the first two were to become main actors in our adventure, the latter was never seen again after that night.
I was rather enjoying our view of the Dnieper but the girls didn’t like the music and decided to take us to a club just around the corner, which of course turned out to be about three miles away. Overselling started to look more and more like a national sport but I didn’t mind. The air was warm, the beer cheap and the conversation pleasant. We were greeted by a militiaman who let us in onto the patio where we would spend most of the night. Beyond the occasional trip to the bar by the dance-floor where a pick-me-up was easy to find, we mostly held court atop plush cushions under the stars. Conversation was erratic but fluid and by the end of it, we’d become friends, Victory, Yuliya, Kuba and I.
I think I went to bed with a smile. That first night reminded me a lot of my clubbing days at the turn of the century. There is such a thing as a brotherhood of the night, a place populated by people from all walks of life but where, for a few hours, they become generous creatures, happy to lend an ear or offer advice and cigarettes, drawn in by a shared craving for oblivion until dawn comes and the tedium of reality claws its way back in. I had found it in Kiev that night and the dawn looked promising.