Gonzo in Ukraine – part six: taming dragons

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I was in the taxi taking me back to Boryspil, sweating beads of booze and my hands shaking violently, when the events of the past 24 hours or so, brutally came back to me. Luckily the driver was a man of few words, giving me ample time to ponder the previous day and its significance.

I had woken up with the warm feeling of a whisky hangover. The night before, Yuliya had taken me on a grand tour of Kiev’s secret watering-holes, places where the carpet is rarely treaded on by foreign feet. I remember two in particular. One buried under a cinema, where they showed old movies on a giant screen and which oozed the futuristic baroque style of the bar scene in Blade Runner. The other, a speakeasy where a password granted us access to a stylish cocktail bunker. Its bartender made a kick-ass Old Fashioned and one thing leading to another, I quantum-leaped to the next morning, somewhat made a little fragile by the breach in the space-time continuum.

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When I came to, I found out that Kuba had organised a last interview. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself before we were speeding down the streets on our way to meet Yuri. We got caught in a greasy rain, the kind that gets through anything to soak you to the bone and so the first thing we did when we arrived was to shed our drenched attires and do our best to warm ourselves up. Our host was happy to accommodate and before long some colour had returned to our faces.

Yuri was captivating. He had this air of nonchalance yet of complete poise and deep intensity about him that you often find in accomplished artists. His demeanour perfectly reflected in his lair, part leaving space, part mad-scientist laboratory with cables running up and down the room, across the bed-cum-chill-out area to an assortment of computers, mixers and musical instruments. This was  once again controlled chaos, dragon taming and Yuri, the master of the house, seemed like he wasn’t going to let petty preoccupations like sensible interior design get in the way of creativity. He knew what everything did, where everything went and had absolute control over the madness before us, like a lighthouse guard in the storm.

He made a living as a video-editor, a career he had developed off his own bat, the money from each job being reinvested in ever better equipment. He told us about how he started pretty much from scratch, recycling whatever broken piece of kit he could get his hands on and putting them back together to be used in his projects. In a country where, as we’d be told told, creativity had until recently somewhat been stifled, his artistic gifts had got him noticed. His endeavour was a success and it now allowed him to travel quite a bit, recently to Zurich on an assignment.

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Now, the fantastic machinery before us served another purpose beside video-editing. Music was Yuri’s other passion. He composed his own pieces which could only be played live once, seeing as he never wrote anything down. Early in the morning, he would broadcast live performances for his friends over Facebook, using both a mixer/sampler and a guitar or bass, letting the inspiration flow freely for hours. He played us one of these whilst he was setting up a show just for our crew. I couldn’t and I supposed shouldn’t, quite define what kind of music it was. The rhythm instantly grabbed you. It was a slow burner and over time changed shape, form and tempo. It was immersive, evocative and definitely cinematic. I was having visions of great films by Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone; majestic scenes of darkness and energy, a glimpse of something huge and incomprehensible. Sadly, we couldn’t stay for the whole performance as we’d invited some people to our flat that evening but as a parting gift, Yuri offered to provide the soundtrack for our film. We couldn’t have hoped for anything better and would forever be immensely grateful.

We were running late and rushed back to the flat, our hearts and minds brimming with joy and inspiration. We had five interviews in the can, along with hours of stock shots and breathtaking  cityscapes. Nothing had been scripted, nor did we have an agenda before we’d got to Ukraine, yet common themes had appeared of themselves, unsolicited. We’d been winging it, making our film as we went along, getting on the wave and letting it take us wherever it would and we’d been rewarded. As we drove past the colossal statue of the Motherland, we all knew we’d made something good. The gods were smiling upon us, albeit from above the creasy, cold rain.

Thankfully no one was waiting for us at our door, tardiness being fashionable in Ukraine too. I had a quick shower and did my best to make myself presentable. When I finally came out, Yuliya and Private Sasha were in the living room, dressed to the nines. Someone put on some music, drinks were poured and before long, we had a party going. Victory appeared soon after, followed by Vanlentyna, an actress we’d approached weeks earlier when we were still considering making our film a drama rather than a documentary. She’d studied in the US where she’d picked up a slight twang and the college-girl attitude which usually makes for a lively party guest.

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The drinks kept flowing and I eventually produced a bottle of Ukrainian vodka I’d acquired earlier. Now, it’s natural to offer some kind of mild protest when at some point in the evening, someone decides to deploy the heavy artillery. You never want to come across as too eager for the sauce in most social settings. But this time, though all dutifully cheered and emptied their glasses, the protest was a little more vocal than what I was used to and I couldn’t be help but notice the sideway glances the girls were giving each other afterwards. I was to learn moments later that this kind of drinking is frowned upon in Ukraine, particularly if women are involved. I remember finding it cute and thinking that it must be a reaction to the legendary reputation the country had enjoyed or endured, in relation to alcohol. I made a mental note of it and decided to put the bottle away.

Not that it mattered much at this point. We were all dancing, chatting and falling into each other’s arms by then. Hours disappeared and by about 4am, it was decided that we’d all go back to Yuri for a chill-out session. Three taxis were commandeered and got our merry lot there in record time. Yuri had been expecting us and treated us to a great recital which Kuba joined at the bass-guitar. Sprawled across a very large and very tall cushion, listening to the hypnotic music and eavesdropping on conversations, I remembered all the great moments I’d experienced over the last few days and as I was trying to piece together the account you are now reading, another breach in space-time opened.

I woke up in our flat, feeling and looking like death warmed-up. Heavy doses of caffeine and nicotine in quick succession got me to a passably functional level and my bags packed, I sneaked out of our  sleeping home, for the last time.

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