Gonzo in Ukraine – part seven: an epilogue for now

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I was back at the airport. I don’t like those places at the best of times, too sterile, too organised; give me a train station or a harbour any day for a real sense of adventure. The state I was in didn’t make things any better. I needed help and I needed it fast, knowing full well that the kind of help I was after might quite possibly make things worse. It might mean that I’d be turned away at the boarding gate but I had to chance it. Needs must and all that.

The last seven days had taken quite a toll on me, both physically and mentally. I staggered my way to the nearest bar, mumbled my order and found a booth where I could try and do some rational thinking. With a couple of hours to kill, I knew I was in no rush and started by looking at the pictures I’d taken with my phone, thinking they might be a more reliable source than my fuzzy memory. I was right. Each day started by a rather reasonable series of snaps, the same you would expect from an amateur journalist making a documentary in a foreign city: landmarks, the participants, the crew, etc… Nothing wrong there but these were gradually replaced by ever confusing scenes of depravity: bars, drinks, unrecognisable faces and other body parts. It’s fair to say the week had been rather intense but seeing the pictures jogged my memory and with the help of the notes I’d taken, I started to piece together the story of my stay in Ukraine.

If you go anywhere with the intent of making a film, you obviously want to have interesting people take part. You want to avoid the mundane and you seek out the unusual, the inspiring, the soundbite and the moment, whatever you think will captivate your audience. Once again, we didn’t have a specific subject or any kind of agenda when we landed. This was to be an on-the-road sort of affair and we’d decided, a little optimistically, that we’d let the story come to us. And it did, in a big way.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected but Vlada had been a surprise and one that set the tone for what was to come. Each interview lead us to the next and every time I was astounded by the shear talent and dedication of the people we met. Ubik, Sasha, Volodymyr and Yuri, all had a different story but all shared a common dream: to make a good life for themselves and to pursue excellence in whatever field or fields, they had chosen. They were “renaissance men”, curious about all things and bold in their ambition. At the risk of sounding cliché, they were an inspiration. It was them rather than the simple fact of going to Ukraine or making a film, that made me start this blog. I was the writer who rarely wrote and now I just can’t stop. I owe them an unpayable debt.

Looking back at the experience however, I still have this niggling sense that I never got to see the “real” Ukraine. Without being too judgmental, it’s probably safe to assume that the people we’d met were not part of the struggling classes. Their level of education, their jobs, their connections and life-styles, all screamed middle-class. Compounded with the fact that just as London is not England, Kiev certainly isn’t Ukraine, it becomes easy to dismiss the whole thing as a pretentious or even paternalistic poverty safari in a former Soviet republic or as a naive picture of a reality that just isn’t and in a way, that’s probably true. One could quite easily reduce our film to a bunch of hipsters talking about how better things are since the Maidan protests and how awesome it is to be creative and young in 2016 in Kiev. In that sense, what’s the point of our film? What are we trying to say? Why make it at all?

I guess I gave the answer in my first post. Not only did I confront my own prejudices but as events unravelled, it became clearer and clearer that the people we were interviewing were offering a picture of Ukraine that is rarely seen. Again, you could dismiss this with a cynical “oh look, there are artists in Ukraine too” but then again, why not? I feel more and more that we are living in a shitty part of the multiverse, one where Brexit happened, where Trump gets elected and where World War 3 is triggered when Putin, smelling weakness in the West, decides to take back what he thinks is rightfully his.

So why not document the birth of a creative movement in a part of the world that’s most often associated with violence and misery, before it gets wiped out. It could all go away tomorrow. As naive as it may sound and I should know, for I am a cynic after all, it’s not as if the world has a surplus of hope and in many ways that’s what they were offering, a humble, young and innocent picture of hope. They were all aware of how fragile the status quo is, yet they behaved as if certain that tomorrow would be better than today. 

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To hell with it. There and then, I knew I had my story. By some miracle, I went through the security check and since the first one hadn’t helped, I went to another bar for another drink. I have no recollection of the flight or the short tube ride that got me home but I woke up in my own bed the next morning, determined to write the series you are now reading and endeavour to find new stories to tell, wherever they may be. Our film is far from finished but it will get made and that means that we’ll probably have to return to Ukraine to complete it. I shall look forward to seeing my new friends.

Until then, ta-ta.

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