Odessa…a reason to return to Ukraine

poster - superukraineWhen I left Ukraine in April, I found it hard to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues so I made it easier for myself by stating that I wasn’t actually saying goodbye [forever?] because I would be coming back.

And now I’m packing a suitcase and checking the weather forecast. [I know it’s only the British who feel the need to pack clothes for every season when we go on holiday, but that’s because the average holiday week in July in the UK can contain wind, torrential rain, sunburn, relentless drizzle and fog, often in the space of a single day].

I’ll be visiting the Odessa International Film Festival this weekend, after stopping over in Kyiv to see friends, and to see what the capital city looks like in summer, rather than winter.

Stephen Frears will be in Odessa as one of the featured film makers at the 2014 Film Festival; and Hitchcock’s Blackmail will also form part of the Opening weekend, screened to an audience of thousands sitting on the Potemkin Steps. This year’s Film Festival is taking place, despite huge obstacles and with few resources, thanks to the dedication and hard work of people like Producer, Julia Sinkevych, and her team – she writes ” It is challenging this year, and probably the most difficult project in my career and in careers of my colleagues due to the situation in Ukraine”.

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Poster comment after Russia annexed Crimea, displayed in Kyiv (April 2014)

Ukraine is still in the news here in Britain but weekly, not daily. And the situation is still tense, especially in the eastern regions: a month ago, Izolyatsia – a vibrant platform for contemporary culture in Donetsk [see previous posts] was taken over by pro-Russian separatists; and my friend Olga wrote, after another murder in the centre of Donetsk ” It’s awful, and the most terrible thing is that we are kind of getting used to gun shootings and deaths of ordinary people.”

But she ended her email “Anyway, life is going on and kids are going on dancing, singing and doing a lot of interesting things. Besides, it is our common history which should be kept through generations.”

People’s resilience in the face of conflict is remarkable; and Olga’s positive statement, and the determination of the Odessa Film Festival team to go ahead with this year’s festival, is testament to that.

On a more mundane note, I’m looking forward to sitting on those Potemkin Steps (made famous thanks to Eisenstein’s 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin)  by the shores of the Black Sea, in Ukraine’s third largest city, which was officially founded by Catherine The Great in 1794. By 1824, Pushkin was writing of Odessa that “its air was full of all Europe”, in reference to its extremely diverse population.

I’m also looking forward to taking a battered yellow marshrutka around town, eating a bowl of borscht, getting a receipt in a little box, seeing Napolean cake on every menu, and seeing friends and colleagues at the British Council in Kyiv, and in Odessa…

Advertisements

Shining Light into Darkness

photo of two people

Sophie and Mike volunteered to make the Star and the Moon which led the procession

In 1982 artists from the UK’s leading celebratory arts company, Welfare State International, went to Japan, in a visit supported by the British Council. Inspired by the lanterns of willow and tissue made by Japanese artists, they brought back the idea, began experimenting with ways of applying a simple technique to ambitious poetic visions, and shared their knowledge widely. Hundreds of thousands of people around the UK have made lanterns and carried them in processions since; and Walk the Plank’s contribution to the XVII Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Manchester (2002) – borne directly out of WSI’s legacy in so many ways – gave lanterns a new global TV profile.

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.           Dr Martin Luther King

 Aware that 2014 is the eightieth anniversary of the British Council’s work in 110 countries around the world, and wanting to mark the end of my time in Ukraine, a lantern procession seemed the right thing to do.

My faith in the appetite of Young Learners to participate in making and carrying their own lanterns was proven when one hundred of them signed up to take part in workshops led by artist Helen Davies (Walk the Plank).

With the support of their English teachers and staff at every level, we unleashed a riot of glue, tissue paper and masking tape in the main Customer Service area of the British Council’s Kyiv office. This visibility was key to the success of the project – and the willingness of the British Council’s team to accommodate the artist’s needs, and the hubbub of 20 youths getting stuck in every evening, was admirable.

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Staff brought their own children to make lanterns on a Sunday afternoon, Helen took her lantern-making kit to satellite teaching locations in Kyiv’s suburbs, and by the end of the workshop programme, more than 100 lanterns were hanging from every ceiling of the office (as storage space is limited).

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Musicians from Ukrainian street band Toporkestra joined the procession, which was led up the hill of Andriivsky Uzviz by the dancing star and moon, to the park where our young people broke into an exuberant conga before the giant birthday cake was cut, and valiantly distributed to [almost] everyone who took part.

I hope that the images of those teenagers – their faces alight with smiles – offer an alternative and more optimistic picture of Ukraine than we are currently seeing on the news, as the fragile grasp of the new government slips under the pressure of (pro-)Russian provocation. A friend, when asked by a colleague from the British Council in Russia, described her feelings thus: “…. since you asked about how I am feeling about the situation in general – well, to be honest, we all feel very traumatised. The general feeling is being concerned and threatened by a possible invasion from another country that has amassed a considerable army on our borders. Also to have a chunk of our country suddenly taken away when we were at our weakest. This is all very hard to live with, but we are trying. Dum spiro spero.”

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv...

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv…

Under pressure, and with resilience, the British Council Ukraine’s staff – who I now feel I can also call my friends – continue to do an amazing job of trying to build trust, and create the conditions for better co-operation between countries… by working with artists, those involved in education, and those who want to learn English.

We all try to do what we can. I hope that writing about my time in Ukraine over the past six months has offered some insights that have been valuable. There’s much that I haven’t yet covered, so I may continue to add stuff, but this post is written from the UK as I have handed back the keys to my ant-friendly flat in Kyiv, used up all my blue metro tokens, and waved goodbye to Ukraine for the timebeing. I will be back soon.

Error 404 – Democracy not found

pic of sign

Sign (held up  for at least 2 hours) as part of Sunday’s street demonstrations

I was going to write about the Drama UA festival in Lviv and the role of the theatre critic, but events in Ukraine have rather overtaken me. So I’ll begin with the demonstrations: a theatre of democracy? Ten days ago, protests started in many cities when Ukraine’s President made it clear that the Association Agreement with the EU wasn’t going to be signed. 100,000 people marched in the streets of the capital on Sunday 24 Nov, and protests have been maintained in the main squares – EuroMaidan and Maidan Nezelezhnosti (Independence Square) – ever since, with appeals for non-violent direct action from opposition parties and assorted political groups. Do watch this video:

video from euromaidan protest, thanks to Biggggidea.com

The violent break up of the peaceful sit-in protest on Saturday (30th Nov) with people forcibly removed by police, and a number of casualties, led to the government making it illegal to gather in the squares. And that was the touch paper for people to come out last Sunday (Dec 1st)  in their hundreds of thousands.

Crowds gather in the park

Jan Bradley & Liz Pugh stand with the people of Ukraine, in their hundreds of thousands

Jan & Liz stand in support of the people of Ukraine, who came out on the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

My friend Jan was visiting for the weekend and we had walked to Maidan on Friday to see for ourselves what was happening. When we set out for the day on Sunday, we knew there was going to be a demonstration, and when the first 2 underground trains that came by were so packed there was absolutely no way we could get on, we realised that it was going to be big. I’ve never seen such crowds – and I’ve seen Man Utd’s Old Trafford ground which holds 78,000 emptying as I live nearby. In the course of 2 hours, I’d say at least 6 football matches of people flowed past us – with singing, chanting and flags.  And people of all ages were there…children, young people, adults and senior citizens. Below is a scene from within the City Hall, occupied by the protestors  – for more photos from this journalist check  photographs of Ukraine’s protests

Behind this willingness to stand up and be counted is a desperate desire to be part of a democratic country that is not controlled behind the scenes by Russia/Putin, or riven by corruption. Europe represents both different values, and (relative) economic prosperity – and the free market and mass consumerism as we have it in Western Europe holds huge appeal here: Ukraine – be careful what you wish for.

And the crowds flowed past, on and on and on

And the crowds flowed past, on and on and on

Ukraine needs investment and its chances of attracting foreign investment are higher if it’s seen to be on a path to combating corruption. It needs to strengthen its regional development, as the gap between the capital city and the rest of the country is huge; it needs to grow its technical, agricultural and creative capacity; and hold onto its talent – at the moment too many of the bright, educated young people that I speak to at the British Council want to leave rather than stay to play an active part of their country’s future.

There’s little independent media here, so the role of social media, the Kyiv Post (written in English) and other internet reporting, along with foreign press like the Guardian with correspondents on the ground here, has been crucial. I’m sure you’ve all been following the reports on BBC, and for anyone on Twitter #euromaidan or #Kyiv or #Ukraine have been the hashtags du jour. Do read this on the use of social media if you’re interested.

Vyshyvanky - traditional embroidered shirts - on sale in Lviv's market

Vyshyvanky – traditional embroidered shirts – on sale in Lviv’s market

Drama UA Festival.    I met some energetic and exciting theatre makers, artists and dramaturgs at the Drama UA Festival in Lviv, which offers a workshop programme and debate alongside new performances.

Drama UA posters

Drama UA Festival invites theatremakers to Lviv

The East European Performing Arts Platform were meeting there, which ensured representatives from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania could join colleagues from Ukraine in discussing how to ensure theatre remains urgent, vital, relevant, and valued.

It was especially interesting for me to hear the voice of central and eastern European cultural commentators; and to listen to debate around the crisis in theatre criticism, which has been part of the formal academic training in theatre here, and which is still taught in 3 universities… the decline of the written word in print, the rejection of the ‘expert’ voice in favour of immediate personal comment on social media, and saturation levels of entertainment where articles around celebrity lifestyle have replaced the academically informed theorist’s commentary, described interestingly as “acting as a controller” to maintain “the purity of theatre”. This made me realise that in the UK little remains of the tradition of theatre criticism a la Kenneth Tynan, and less and less space is given to reviews in papers. Now there is far more written about cultural policy than about the art itself. Perhaps the traditional theatre critic has been replaced in the UK by those who write about the value of theatre …not its cost, nor even its meaning, but its value to us, the audience or the consumer? So I asked a UK writer, Richard Hector Jones, to comment:

“The modern critic needs to grasp socio-political context: they write about not what the art means, but what it means to us. The critic needs to use the art to discuss the now.  Given that anyone can technically be a critic, insight becomes the commodity, not opinion…or someone pontificating on whether something is stamped ‘good’ or ”bad’.  Richard HJ, Creative Concern, Manchester, UK.

Theatre Director Jan Willem van den Bosch in "The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant"

Theatre Director Jan Willem van den Bosch led a Master Class, part of the British Council’s Behind the Scenes

UK theatre director Jan Willem van den Bosch’s Master Class was supported by the British Council, as part of its Behind the Scenes intitiative; and after a discussion between us over dinner in one of Lviv’s amazing restaurants – we had to knock on a door at the top of some rickety stairs and convince an old man to let us into candlelit rooms where piano & violin were playing; and the exorbitant prices on the bill were not the price you paid, you had to haggle– Jan invited me to talk to his group the next day.

So I ended up speaking about the role of the Producer, and the need for creativity to extend beyond the rehearsal space and into all aspects of making work, which prompted an interesting discussion with the drama students & professional theatre directors/choreographers/artists in his group.

Master Class at DramaUA Festival

Ukraine’s independent theatre professionals discuss contemporary performance

Being in another country reminds me of the importance of being clear in the vocabulary we use when talking about the Arts.

Eastern European Performing Arts Platform  members meet Lviv City Council Culture team

EEPAP members meet Lviv City Council’s Culture team at City Hall

When we work in another language – and most people at the Eastern European Platform meeting had to use English as their common language, though there were no native speakers – we have to check the assumptions behind the jargon.

And I think this checking of exactly what we mean is good practice for all of us – an understanding of the role of a Producer, for example, can vary hugely from person to person. I noticed that many people referred to the dramaturg as having responsibilities beyond that of a bridge between writer and director and audience in terms of work with text. In eastern Europe, so I’m told, the dramaturg might also come up with the idea/concept behind the performance, raise the money and find the partners, and then work with the team throughout…something which I would see as the work of a Producer.  It’s worth checking our mutual understanding of the vocabulary when we begin to use arts jargon, as well as when we collaborate across borders, across languages, and across other potential cultural divides.

At the Family Boim Chapel, built in 1609

At the Family Boim Chapel, built in 1609, for a Hungarian merchant in Lviv

Between East and West?

P1000575Last week, I attended the Institute of Strategic Studies national convention on the EU in Ukraine – experts & delegates from EU members gave evidence to Ministers & MP’s on the value of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union.

The debate was impassioned, and made me feel that I am in the privileged position of witnessing history being made: Ukraine means ‘land on the edge’ and now is a time of great uncertainty as we wait to see if Ukraine will sign in Vilnius.

Ukrainian colleagues and the business community feel strongly that Europe offers the best fit in terms of political aspirations for an emerging democratic state – freedom (of thought/speech/action) really matters when you can remember how it was to live in the time before “freedom”. And association with the EU would certainly accelerate much needed reforms as well as giving access to European markets.

We're keeping an eye on you

We’re keeping an eye on you

But Putin’s Russia is not giving up the former states of the USSR easily: deals on gas & loans to help Ukraine’s struggling economy are the carrot; and the stick? Threats of trade embargos if Ukraine doesn’t join the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Meanwhile the European Union is understandably wary of having another failing economy coming to its party… where Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland et al are propped up in a corner, Britain’s outside in the garden shouting at the neighbours, and the only guest still left on the dance floor is Germany.  Europe has made judicial reform a key condition for the signing in Vilnius, and requests to Ukraine to clean up its act go beyond the release from detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the current President’s biggest political rival.

Ukraine languishes at 112th in a league table which measures ‘Ease of doing Business’, with a gnarly tax and legislative framework, and endemic corruption. So although most people are trying to earn an honest living, they are often thwarted by their leadership and the system. Education might offer an escape – around a quarter of places at universities are available for free to bright but poor students, but there’s huge competition, and bribery can still be part of the process of securing the place.

pic of woman

Buying butter & cheese from my favourite “dairymaid”

However, Ukraine has huge natural resources, one third of the “black earth” resource (the most fertile soil) of the globe is here, and its people – on my brief acquaintance – are educated, aspiring, and hard working.  Sitting on the fence between Russia and Europe might be an option, and President Yanukovych is clearly trying to work out which way to jump depending on which side will give him the best chance of staying in power.

But as I wrote this (21/11/2013) the ruling Party of the Regions voted against various key reforms/conditions so it’s now looking almost impossible for the Agreement to be signed.

Visa restrictions currently make it difficult for Ukrainians to travel to the UK or indeed anywhere in Europe, and the costs of spending time there make it prohibitive for many. Which may explain the popularity of cinema here – a chance to travel to new places for 35 UAH (less than £3)? Cinema has been at the fore over the past week as almost every film in the British Film Festival season has played to sell out audiences. I loved the National Theatre’s Frankenstein on film, made available again as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season;  I really enjoyed the BAFTA shorts, particularly Tumult; and our screening of The Selfish Giant, in partnership with UNICEF, was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the bleak landscape for vulnerable children in the UK, and Ukraine, as elsewhere. 

It occurred to me as I munched my breakfast herring, and spread weird jam on my dark brown bread that I might have ‘gone native’:

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

I can now count to nine in Ukrainian, say thank you & good night in Russian,ask for 100gms of butter,

and read the Cyrillic alphabet which makes getting around a bit easier – although some of the city centre underground has signs in both alphabets, there’s no consistency and signs disappear as you try and emerge at the correct exit without getting lost in the vast underground market areas that surround the central metro stations.

I’ve been going to some of the Young Learners lessons in my free time – giving young people who are learning English the opportunity to ask questions (like “Which architect do you most admire and why?”- so quite searching!) of a native speaker.

Our discussions about arts & culture in the UK and here have led me to think more about why culture matters – the arts are a great way of telling stories about who we are as people, and culture is perhaps the sum total of a nation’s stories. As a nation’s collective memories, it draws on our recipes and songs as well as our theatre, our landscape and traditions as well as our literature, our feast days and the rituals that we still have around birth, marriage, and death… all a shared and valuable part of national identity.

The young people whose parents are willing and able to pay for them to learn English at the British Council today are likely to include some of the business people, politicians and leaders of tomorrow, and clearly the British Council can play a part in encouraging them to value artists, arts and culture – both their own and that of others. In discussions about how British musicians & choreographers are brilliantly mixing up traditions: like clog dancing and hip hop, one student told me that the same has happened with Hopak – a kozak dance that is being reconfigured by young people in exciting ways – so I shall hunt down some clips to share with you.

This week Ukraine lost against France, after beating them 2-0 last week, and went out of the World Cup. And this week Hull became UK Capital of Culture 2017 – hurrah for Hull, which badly needs a boost: youth unemployment is at 40% in the city, so let’s hope that  the next 4 years offer the same boost to Hull as happened in Derry with its Capital of Culture investment.  And fingers crossed for better news for Ukraine in Vilnius, but our hopes are not high.

Harsh realities – on stage and screen

Take, Love, Run by Oksana Chavchenko.   A British theatre director recently worked with Kyiv’s Molodiy Theatre to stage a new play which gives a glimpse of life on the front line in the new Ukraine, where personal and national debts are mounting, and many people take desperate measures as they struggle to make ends meet.

pic of scene from play

‘Take Love Run’ directed by Caroline Steinbeis at the Molodiy Theatre, Kyiv

British Council Ukraine teamed up with London’s Royal Court to encourage new writing from emerging writers like Oksana Savchenko – with a staged reading, and a performance in London in English back in May.  After which Andriy Bilous, artistic director at the Molodiy, said “No Ukrainian director I know would stage this. It’s so dark that they wouldn’t be able to distance themselves enough to do it justice. How can a story about a young family in crisis make you laugh, and cringe, and still somehow inspire hope? It just does. We have to do it.”

The play opened in Kyiv in October, and as shows stay in a theatre’s repertoire for years here, I was able to see the play last week. I read the English translation and set off, not really expecting to enjoy it. But director Caroline Steinbeis had done a great job, making the most of very little by way of lighting & design, and the cast of 8 Ukrainian actors gave excellent performances. The show was sold out the night I went: packed with an audience, mostly in their 20’s/30’s, who were very appreciative, and rightly so. In one of the final scenes, the heroine – despite the awfulness of her situation – begins dancing, joyfully, with the removal man who is taking her furniture away…we share in an unlikely feeling that all is not lost.

[And if you want to get the same sense of joy that only dancing with abandon, no matter what, can provoke, try watching this

Dance Moves for Life, huh? …thanks Pablo!]

Molodist Film Festival prize winner with Natasha Vasylyuk of British Council

Molodist Film Festival prize winner Gabriel Gauchet with Natasha Vasylyuk , Deputy Director – British Council Ukraine

After the success of Gabriel Gauchet at the Molodist Film Festival,  the British Council’s New British Film Festival is about to open in six cities around Ukraine.  Gauchet, a graduate of the National Film School in London, won the top prize for his short film The Mass of Men. Originally French, he now lives & works in the UK, and British Council support enabled him to attend the prize giving to pick up his award in person.

The New British Film Festival is presented with ArtHouse Traffic who run the Odessa Film Festival, and the highlight for me will be Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant.  The film received 5 star reviews when it opened in London 3 weeks ago, and tells the story of two vulnerable children living in Bradford, who end up working for a scrap metal dealer.

British Council Ukraine are working in partnership with UNICEF to present special screenings of the film to mark International Children`s Day in Kyiv, Odessa and Donetsk; which enables UNICEF to raise the issue of the challenges faced by vulnerable children, and fuel crucial discussions amongst decision makers, journalists, business leaders, artists and the general public in an attempt to find solutions for the benefit of children in Ukraine, where nearly 100,000 children live or work on the streets; and 95,000 live in care institutions.

picture of golden globe

At the monastery, with one of the Ukrainian national symbols, kalyna, growing in the background

The promise of eternal life in the hereafter provides, for some, an escape from the harsh realities of life in the here and now.

This week I visited both St Volodymyr’s Cathedral – one of Kyiv’s newer (and best loved by locals) churches, built in the nineteenth century and covered in beautiful murals; and I took a wander around the outside of the Mykhailivskiy Zolotoverkhey Monastery.

picture of crosses

Crosses and domes for sale

Which led to the discovery of where you can buy those golden domes that sit on top of almost every church in this city.

Look, for just 11,500 UAH (about £850) one of those domes can be yours!

I also discovered a whole new park at the top of my street, so here’s a new view of my local church.

Chapel with Andriyivska Tserkva

Chapel with  the church, Andriyivska Tserkva, in the background

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

My weekend ended at a great gig from a talented singer/songwriter, Sophie Villy, of Georgian & Ukrainian heritage, at the Small Opera, a great venue. 

There  were around 300 people to see her; and, unlike in the UK, there were quite a few children there with their parents, which made for a really different atmosphere than you’d get at the same sort of gig in Manchester.

The Small Opera was built in 1902 and used to be the cultural centre for the tramworkers from the tram depot next door. It’s now in a state of disrepair that makes it atmospheric, and increasingly dangerous; and sadly, its future is uncertain as this article makes clear: Small Opera in decay. I was invited to the gig by Lera Chichibaya, presenter of The Selector in Ukraine, the British Council’s radio programme broadcast worldwide on local host radio stations, who will herself be playing at Wednesday’s Opening Party for the British Film Festival.  See you there, if you’re in Kyiv…

Molodist International Film Festival

 

Click on the instagram link above to see my first red carpet…and Maria was too shy to go up it! It’s the 43rd festival http://molodist.com/en and the Opening Ceremony took place at the Palace Ukraine – speeches and folk dance and traditional music were centre stage – which didn’t really reflect the festival’s focus on younger film makers, and international cinema’s appeal to a younger crowd.

However, an international Children’s Jury will be judging the Children’s film section; and tonight I’m going to see one of the films that’s part of the Sunny Bunny section of the festival focusing on LGBT films, a focus which is even more important now in countries in wider Europe, given Russia’s increasingly homophobic stance. And certainly a way of demonstrating that diversity is being celebrated here in Ukraine, where the work of festivals like Molodist is crucial in giving a platform to younger independent film-makers with new stories to tell.

The Opening film was Lech Walesa: Man of Hope by Polish director Andrzej Wajda; and it certainly read differently to me sitting watching it in a country whose own history and recent independence was linked to the break up of the USSR, in which the rise of Solidarity (the trade union formed by Walesa and others out of the Gdansk shipyard strikes in Poland) definitely played a part. Had I been watching in a cinema in the UK it would have been a good film about someone else’s history – of academic but not personal significance. Watching it here, the resonance for the Ukrainian audience was tangible, and the film in this context gave me some insight into how things worked differently during the Soviet era.