The producer of ”Flee“ is among those leading efforts to move Ukrainians away from the front lines
Film and TV production in Ukraine — which has been a growing hub for European shoots in recent years — has ground to a halt as Vladimir Putin’s Russian army has launched an invasion that has killed scores of people and seized control of substantial sections of the country.
“It’s not a situation where one can think of filming something,” Darya Bassel, a Ukrainian film producer and a programmer with the country’s largest documentary film festival, told TheWrap. “It’s not even like it was in the Ukrainian revolution in 2013. It’s much much worse. People are terrified, and they’re just trying to be safe.”
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One film executive with an understanding of the international markets explained to TheWrap that Ukraine has managed to draw many European and specifically French-language films to shoot in the region thanks in part to an attractive tax credit. While it’s too early to tell, the executive suspects that the invasion could very easily have ripple effects beyond Ukraine and into other Eastern European film hubs.
Jean-Charles Levy, a French producer who has produced a number of films and series in Ukraine with a company called Apple Tree Vision, said that as rumblings grew about a possible Russian attack two weeks ago, his team suspended work on a Ukraine-based project for several months and encouraged everyone who could to get out of the region. Levy intends to keep paying salaries to those involved while everything remains on hold.
But Levy has remained in conversations with those who have already fled the city, some of whom have managed to leave the country or head inland toward the Polish border. Those who are stuck inside, he said, are “scared” for what might happen next.
“The reality is either you evacuated last week or a few days ago,” Levy said. “There was so much traffic, everyone knew there wouldn’t be enough gas to go away, and these people stayed in Kyiv,” he said, adding that those with no way to evacuate feel safer to stay in their houses and other shelters.
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, filmmakers throughout Europe have sprung into action to try to assist Ukrainians both inside and outside the industry. Monica Hellstrøm, the Oscar-nominated producer of “Flee,” and Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont coordinated with and sent funds to a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that helped evacuate the Ukrainian subjects of some of their recent films.
Lereng Wilmont and Hellstrøm worked closely with their assistant director Azad Safarov and line producer Lena Rozvadovska to help the subjects of Lereng Wilmont’s films “The Distant Barking of Dogs” and “A House Made of Splinters,” which most recently won the directing prize for an international documentary at last month’s Sundance Film Festival.
“The Distant Barking of Dogs,” which released in 2017, followed a 10-year-old boy named Oleg and his grandmother, who lived on the front lines of the war in the small village of Hnutove that was under heavy bombardment. As of Friday, Hellstrøm and Lereng Wilmont were in touch with Oleg and his family as they’ve now moved further West toward the Polish border, though, for security reasons their exact location was not disclosed. But the evacuation, which has been discussed the last few days before the invasion officially started, was an especially difficult choice for Oleg’s grandmother, who has spent her entire life in Hnutove.
“All of us are quite surprised that he decided to invade the whole country,” Lereng Wilmont said of Putin. “There was some speculation that he would take a smaller part of Ukraine but definitely not the whole country. I think it surprised almost everyone I know. Nobody expected him to go all out.”
“It’s very early days, it happened early morning, and it’s turned everything upside down,” Hellstrøm added. “There’s confusion, people are trying to get out, there are traffic jams, people can’t move, they can’t get money out, they can’t get petrol. I think everything is up in the air and people are trying to figure out what’s going to happen.”
A similar burden was felt by the children in this year’s “A House Made of Splinters,” who live in a special state-run orphanage near the front lines and were still in the house featured in the film up until a few days ago when they were evacuated to another undisclosed location. Rozvadovska, through her NGO Voices of Children, helps children at the frontline and also children coming from vulnerable families.
Others within the entertainment industry have also reached out to those in need in Ukraine. The European Film Academy pledged its support to find practical ways to aid its 60-plus Ukrainian members. Sean Penn was reported to be on the ground in Kyiv and attended a conference with the Ukrainian president while filming a documentary on the crisis.
And “Dancing With the Stars” alum Maksim Chmerkovskiy mentioned in a video social media post that he was imminently heading into a bomb shelter in Ukraine and was grappling with his need to be with his family overseas while also not leaving behind people on the front lines who can’t escape.
But Evgeny Afineevsky, the director of the acclaimed documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” that profiled the 2013-14 Ukrainian revolution, believes in the power of the Ukrainian people when they’re united and “determined against an enemy.”
“Young and old, rich and poor, everyone is really united in the Ukrainian army fighting against the Russians,” Afineevsky said. “The most difficult moments are still ahead of them. I hear more and more attacks happening.”
Afineevsky has been speaking with many filmmaker colleagues on the ground in Ukraine, who are in the midst of the chaos and are trying to figure out how to survive. But he’s also been speaking with friends in Russia, who are just as alarmed at the step Putin has taken on the world stage. He’s been among the more vocal filmmakers posting online about standing with Ukraine, and he believes firmly that with enough pressure, protesting and sharing, it can create the resistance needed around the world.
“Russia is afraid that if independent sources try to show the exact situation in Ukraine, the Russian people will learn the truth,” he said. “Russia is trying really hard to control the media in order to make Russian people dumb and mislead them. It means the European filmmakers, the European media and us in Hollywood need to find ways to bring awareness about Ukraine from our social channels, from any possible media outlets.”
“What I’ve been asked by a lot of friends is just protest as much as possible and show support on social media condemning the actions and trying to reason with what’s going on or at least voicing out that this is so wrong,” Lereng Wilmont added.