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Iryna Tsilyk: Losing intellectuals on front lines is disastrous for Ukrainian culture

by CIUS September 29, 2023 2:36 AM 4 min read
On the 564th day since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainian activists from the Ukrainian National Youth Federation, along with their supporters, staged the 'Unity Is Our Superpower' rally on Sept. 10, 2023, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Editor's Note: The Kyiv Independent is exclusively re-publishing an interview with Iryna Tsilyk prepared by Forum for Ukrainian Studies, a research publication for experts, practitioners, and academics to discuss, explore, reflect upon, develop, and transform international understanding of contemporary affairs in Ukraine. This platform is run by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) of the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada).

Iryna Tsilyk is Ukrainian filmmaker and writer. She is the director of the award-winning documentary film The Earth Is Blue As an Orange.

CIUS: After Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in 2014 you made The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, a documentary film about the life of a family in Donetsk oblast—and also your husband served in Ukraine’s army. How did these experiences affect or help you once the full-scale invasion happened?

Iryna Tsilyk: My husband served in the army for the first time in 2015–16, and then he rejoined the army again when Russia’s escalated invasion began. As for my experience, I have always tried to be involved in different activities in the cultural field over the years of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the first years of the war, I used various opportunities to go to Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, including taking part in literary readings. I made documentary films, and I also participated in events and classes for children living in the front-line zone. It was crucial for me to go there, to see everything with my own eyes—to meet people, talk to them, listen to their testimonies, and actually feel what is happening there—because, you know, in the first years of the war Ukraine was also divided into these parallel realities.

The east of Ukraine was under attack, there was a real war, and meanwhile my Kyiv—I’m from Kyiv—was completely peaceful, and many people in other Ukrainian cities also weren’t aware of what it meant to live in a war zone. That is almost the same as what foreigners feel now towards Ukraine. They have deep empathy, but at the same time they can’t imagine what it means to live in the reality of war. So when the full-scale invasion started, many things changed for all of us—for the whole of Ukraine, because suddenly we discovered that the “red zone” was everywhere. And of course, some regions feel much safer compared to southern and eastern Ukraine, but still there is no completely safe city or region in Ukraine.

My experience of being a filmmaker—a person who somehow reflects on everything around me—was useful. But at the same time I suddenly felt numb and speechless, because I had actually comprehended that being just an observer, I had completely another perspective. When you are in the middle of this reality, you suddenly lose all the possible tools you had before to express somehow what is happening and what it means for all of us. So, I somehow stopped filmmaking and used other artistic ways to reflect reality. For example, when time had passed, I started to write many essays and that kind of thing. Poetry is also a very special and powerful tool to reflect our bizzare state of being today. I feel that only now have I come back to myself and through filmmaking am trying again to find the proper way to talk about everything happening to us.

CIUS: How did the war affect the work of film directors, writers, and people who work in the field of cultural production? Does what is going on now differ entirely from before the full-scale invasion? You described that you, for instance, had to put some of your work on hold.

Tsilyk: The situation changed completely — but most of all in its scale. In the first years of the war, many people from my bubble were already involved in different kinds of activities helping the front, and my husband and some of my friends joined the army back then. But since February 2022 the circle seems to have widened. Almost everyone I know is somehow affected by this war. Most people around me are fighting or waiting for their spouses who are fighting. Some of my female friends have become widows already. One of my friends, who used to be a film editor before the war, joined the army and then was killed at the front line.

Last May, my husband was in a situation where he survived by a miracle. He and his unit were trapped in positions at Bakhmut, and they were under constant fire for five days. He already believed that he wouldn’t survive, but he did. So I’m trying to say that I am an artist, filmmaker, and writer, and most people I know are artists too. So now, many of them have to take up arms and change their lives completely, which is a colossal tragedy. We live in times of so many tragedies, and no one is born to fight. I don’t mean that artists are in a better class—that’s not what I want to say. But the problem is that we are losing so many intellectuals, philosophers, writers, bright minds! You probably know some of these tragic stories—of how, for example, the Russian military killed the Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vakulenko. His body was found in a mass grave. Another writer, intellectual, and volunteer—Viktoriia Amelina—was just a customer at a cafe when a Russian missile hit it and killed her. And so many have already been killed at the front. So what I’m trying to say is that it’s so painful that most of these people—young people, cool, strong personalities—are not only losing their chance to build a house, to raise a child, but they’re also losing all these chances to create some new senses and narratives. It means that losing intellectuals on the front lines is a disaster for modern Ukrainian culture.

And also there is another problem. Although many are still alive, they can’t be active in their field when they’re on the battlefield. I mean, all these filmmakers and writers can’t make new films or write books, and that is why we also feel that we’re somehow losing the chance to talk for ourselves, with our Ukrainian voices. At the same time, all these Russian intellectuals who fled to European countries have found some support and new opportunities. They’re using all these new chances to talk loudly about themselves, their problems, and their pains, almost without focusing on the necessity to de-imperialize Russia; this is problematic from many angles and for many reasons.

Read the full interview here.

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