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…

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Visiting Donetsk

I left Kyiv for the first time this week.

Sadly, most of the journey was in darkness, now the clocks have gone back...

Sadly, most of the journey was in darkness, now the clocks have gone back…

A 7 hour express train ride across flat farmlands to the Donbas, the industrial region of eastern Ukraine, where factories and mines – or rather terricones (slag heaps) as the visible evidence of the mining & mineral extraction below – dominate the landscape.

In the heart of the Donbas is Donetsk, a city of more than 1 million people founded by a Welshman, John Hughes from Merthyr Tydfil, who set up an iron works and coal mines there in 1869… the city was known as Hughesovska or Yuzovka until 1961.Ukraine’s mines remain dangerous places to work, and fatal accidents underground are not uncommon – safety standards are not high and equipment is outdated. Check out Hughesovka if you want to read more of the story of John Hughes.

Liverpool is big in Donetsk

Liverpool is big in Donetsk

For an industrial city that flaunts its wealth with a main street full of luxury shops, there’s a surprising lack of cultural venues…one municipal “art museum”, an Opera House that employs a full time company of more than 500 people (and presents just 9 performances a month!), and some strange references to Liverpool.

for fans of alive music...

for fans of alive music…

And yet, at the site of a former factory which produced insulation materials for the whole of the Soviet Union, there’s an amazingly exciting contemporary arts project, IZOLYATSIA Platform for Cultural Initiatives.

Director Paco de Blas shares his enthusiasm for the abandoned spaces now used for exhibitions

Director Paco de Blas shares his enthusiasm for the abandoned spaces now used for exhibitions

The new Director, Paco De Blas, and Communications manager Olga Yefimova both kindly gave up a morning to show me around the site – where exhibitions populate dilapidated buildings, and artworks created through ambitious residency programmes and collaborations with world class artists are visible/audible.

I particularly liked Leandro Erlich’s Invisible Train – an audio piece that creates the sensation, through sound, of a train rushing past on the overhead pipes that crisscross the site.

Izolyatsia

Huddled in rooms around the factory were groups of artists at work, and IZOLYATSIA is home to IZOLAB, Ukraine’s first FABLAB a small scale digital fabrication workshop with open access to high end equipment like 3D printing, and an environment dedicated to experiment, play and research.

Project manager Konstantin Leonenko showed me a prototype pasta robot, and I discovered there’s a whole world of pasta architecture out there – where engineers & architects are using pasta to design and research new constructions! Check out this spaghetti bridge structure which weighed 98gms, and supported a load of 466kg before it collapsed  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORhjC-TslA4

pic of giant samovar

Giant samovar at the site of the Art Fair

Thanks to Paco de Blas, Olga Yefimova and everyone at IZOLYATSIA for making one Creative Consultant for the British Council feel so welcome.

A deer made by one of the former employees stands watch over the site at the top of the slag heap that dominates the landscape

A deer made by one of the former employees stands watch over the site at the top of the slag heap that dominates the landscape