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KIEV — Ukraine’s winter “revolution” — which has turned the center of Kiev into a barricaded encampment of at times hundreds of thousands of anti-government protestors — has become a global media event.
Scenes reminiscent of a wintry, 21st-century Les Miserables — where barricades of iron park benches, wooden pallets and truck tires packed together with ice and topped with barbed wire ring a tent city wreathed in the smoke of scores of oil drum braziers and steaming soup kitchens — are providing networks and newspapers worldwide with reams of captivating images.
Hollywood star George Clooney, associated with a Ukrainian opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, last week recorded a message of support for the demonstrators. (Vitaly’s younger brother Wladimir Klitschko, a world heavyweight boxing champion, is engaged to Hayden Panetierre, the star of ABC network drama Nashville.)
Politicians and senior Western officials are scrambling to get on the bandwagon to add their voices to the sound bites that are modern media currency.
On Sunday U.S. Senator John McCain, a decorated Vietnam war veteran and influential Republican foreign policy voice, was onstage in Kiev’s Maidan Square (Independence Square) drawing rapturous roars of approval from a crowd of more than 200,000 people as he told them their destiny lay in Europe.
“We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny, freely and independently,” McCain said, his images and comments broadcast to the masses from a gigantic video screen set up behind the stage.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, added: “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Europe.”
Last week it was the turn of European Union foreign relations chief and British Labor Party politician Catherine Ashton to mingle with protestors, now in their fourth week of an angry standoff with Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, over a government decision on Nov. 21 to pull back from signing a trade and political deal with the E.U.
His failure to shift Ukraine closer to Europe — and effectively loosen ties with Russia, which supplies cheap gas and financial credits to keep its troubled economy afloat — sparked fury at a government perceived as corrupt, sleazy and out of touch with ordinary people.
Demonstrations by pro-European Ukrainians who want their country to take a more democratic path and aspire to eventually join the E.U., at first relatively small, swiftly became a mass movement after clashes with Berkut riot police and the symbolic toppling of a statue of Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin.
The power of the images and the force of the arguments reveal deep schisms in Ukraine, which is historically divided between an eastern Russian-speaking industrial region — the heartland of President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions — and a western, largely Ukrainian-speaking rural area that is more European-leaning, as it has at different times been part of Poland, Lithuania and the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The international attention and sense of historic momentum has galvanized filmmakers here to document the events, which locals have taken to calling the “Euromaidan.”
Volodymyr Tykhyi, a 43-year-old documentary and feature film director, is one of around 40 film professionals involved in Babylon ’13, a video project that has posted more than 25 short films on YouTube since it was initiated Nov. 30, the night when the first large-scale, and brutal, police action against the protests occurred.
Tykhyi told The Hollywood Reporter that filmmakers felt they had a crucial role to play, not only in recording the events but also in bringing to the world an intimate, informed insight into the true nature of the protests.
“The films are proving very popular with people who feel they can keep up with events and understand more clearly why people are protesting on the Maidan,” he said.
The short film titles include Shame, a series of close-up images of the faces of young riot police officers seen through the visors of their helmets, Compassion, Hopes, and Still Ahead, a revealing short interview with a young Russian man from St. Petersburg who talks about how pro-democracy protests at home have been stifled and why Ukrainians should fight for what is still ahead of them — the chance for a better, more democratic future. Collectively, the films have attracted more than 118,000 views, with 1,700 followers on YouTube and nearly 5,000 on a Babylon ’13 Facebook page.
The project, based at Kiev’s Dom Kino (House of Cinema), draws its name both from the theater’s bar and a classic Ukrainian Soviet-era 1970s film, Babylon 20, which was set during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
With state film funding currently suspended in Ukraine — the mass protests are disrupting normal governance, and the national film fund budget that supports movie projects has not been agreed on for 2014 — aiding the protests with the power of professionally shot images and social media was the natural thing to do, Tikhkyi said.
“We just understood that the best thing we could do in this situation was to make films — not simply film, but actually do something alternative to both document and support these protests.”
And in an ominous reference to neighboring Belarus, a Russian client state headed by authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been described as “Europe’s last dictator,” Tikhkyi added: “Now it is a situation of life or death. People are saying that if we do not win, we shall all end up with a future like Belarus.”
As Ukraine’s president prepares to fly to Moscow for a key meeting on Tuesday, when Russian president Vladimir Putin is expected to offer trade and financial inducements for Ukraine to abandon its European path and join the Kremlin’s preferred geopolitical strategy — a Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus — Kiev’s EuroMaidan thousands are today on pins and needles.
Standing guard outside the protest camp’s headquarters in a heavily barricaded Soviet-era trades union building on Maidan Square, Sergei Dhzus, a 51-year-old retired sailor from Zhitomir, warned: “There is only one way out, and that is the resignation of Yanukovych and new elections.”
See Babylon ’13’s short film Shame below.
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