Guerrilla Filmmakers Help Shape Media Response to Ukrainian Crisis

Ukraine Crisis bicycle cinema H
Stuart Farmer

Local directors are shooting, tweeting and streaming the revolutionary events as they unfold.

KIEV, Ukraine – Asked a series of challenging political questions, a middle-aged party boss from the region of Ukraine loyal to embattled President Viktor Yanukovych got personal Thursday, during an interview with Internet channel "Many journalists are gay, aren't they?," he proclaimed the reporter sitting across from him. 

This incendiary episode, which soon became a viral sensation among the protestors occupying Kiev's Maidan Square, is part of a wave of quickly produced and Internet-streamed guerrilla media that is increasingly defining the local and international view of Ukraine's deadly political crisis. 

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At least three anti-government activists have died in clashes with police this month. The Ukrainian police have said they don't use the kind of ammunition that was found to have killed the protestors, but that hasn't stopped the spread of speculation and outrage on social media sites here -- such as a widely shared photo of an alleged Russian sniper said to be the killer of one of the demonstrators.

As Ukraine's crisis enters its third month since President Yanukovych's abrupt decision to walk away from a deal for closer trade and political links with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, social media activists and local filmmakers are playing a key role in alerting the world to the country's plight.

Igor Savychenko, head of the country's Motion Picture Association and one of several producers involved in Babylon 13, a project documenting what some are now calling a "revolution," says there are plans to make several feature-length films from more than 300 hours of footage already shot.

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"If we think of the events in Ukraine in terms of a classic feature film script, we are around two-thirds of the way into the second act," he says.

"The first act started in November; the second began with the imposition of harsh laws on Jan. 16, which sparked a new, violent phase in the protests; and we are not yet at the third act -- the resolution."

With more than 60 short video clips already uploaded to the project's website -- short films shot by a collective of established local filmmakers and debut directors -- those involved are hoping that the third act brings new elections and broad constitutional reform.

"People are saying there must be a new government... There must be some kind of referendum agreed by the majority in the country," Savychenko adds.

Concessions offered Jan. 28, when the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned en-masse, don't cut the mustard with those manning the barricades.

'Yanukovych must go…. new elections…. nothing less," is the unchanging mantra of those on the streets, many of whom have become radicalized since the activists' deaths and a video emerged of a 17-year-old student named Mikhailo Nikoguz, who was seized by police, stripped naked and beaten in a snowy forest.

Olga Onuch, a research fellow at Oxford University's Nuffield College in Britain, who has been researching the impact of social media on the events in Ukraine, says that wide availability of technology is helping spread news about the protests across Ukraine and the world.

"It gives the viewer a feeling of being a participant observer and allows them access to the protest zones 24/7," she told news agency Reuters.

Terrestrial broadcast television has also been having a field day: major U.S., Canadian, British and European stations have top teams in Kiev to fill news slots for audiences hungry for information at home. Many countries, including Britain and Canada, have substantial Ukrainian diasporas.

One particularly impressive, albeit extremely risky piece of news reportage, by Polish television reporter Bartlomiej Maslankiewicz, for Telewizja Republika, shows in shocking detail the events of Jan. 22, when scores of protestors were beaten by police and two were shot dead.

In the seven-minute clip, Maslankiewicz is repeatedly begged by a Ukrainian demonstrator to put on a helmet to protect himself from "getting a bullet in the head." The fearless reporter accepts a flimsy gas mask and, apparently impervious to danger, continues to put himself between police and cobblestone-throwing demonstrators. At one point he can be seen, and heard, confronting a riot policeman and demanding why the officer is attacking fellow Ukrainians.

Government authorities in Ukraine are well aware of the power of film to affect events: when American Stuart Farmer, a co-executive producer on Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square, about the uprising in Egypt, screened the film in Kiev's barricaded protest camp, Ukrainian viewers were moved to tears.

Thousands of free copies of a Ukrainian dubbed and subtitled version of the film have been downloaded every day since its Jan. 17 open-air screening, Farmer said.

"We came with The Square because it’s the right story for Ukraine now," Farmer told The Hollywood Reporter.

The producer has set up a "cinema on chains" system for ad hoc screenings, which uses a pedaled bicycle to power the film projector. The low-tech system also allows activists to screen the film on the street, against a building, and to pack up and move swiftly if they receive unwelcome attention from the police or security forces.

The reaction from security forces and their hired hands was indeed swift, according to Farmer. A minivan carrying projection equipment was mysteriously set on fire and Farmer's associates were threatened by pro-government thugs known as "Tituskhy," who told the producer "to leave the country before things turn really ugly."

One of two local assistants was arrested and held in a police cell pending unspecified charges, while another fled the country.

In a crisis where one protestor was seized from a hospital and bound and beaten, before being dumped in a forest where he was later found dead, their caution seems justified.