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Berlinale: Living in war-ravaged Ukraine

Laura Döing law
March 2, 2020

Between bombed-out houses and minefields, a family near Donetsk is trying to lead a normal life. "The Earth Is Blue as an Orange" reveals the daily struggles of life in a war zone in eastern Ukraine.

Myroslava Trofymchuk (front), Anna Gladka (middle), and Anastasiia Trofymchuk (right) with Ukrainian soldiers shooting their family film
Image: Iryna Tsilyk

For Myroslava, the war on her doorstep means emptiness: "All your friends are gone. The city is deserted. Everything that was loud and familiar before is also empty," she says in a calm voice to the camera. Her mother Ganna is sitting next to her as she speaks.

It was the single mother's decision to stay with her four children in Krasnohorivka, some 40 kilometers west of Donetsk, when fighting broke out between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in 2014.

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'Someone must stay'

"I took away their chance for a quiet life," Ganna begins, as she sits herself in the cone of light in front of the black wall with the camera running. "But we could not have left either. I couldn't have lived anywhere else if I had known that my parents were here, that my sister was here. Someone must stay to rebuild the city."

Vladyslav Trofymchuk during the shooting of "The Earth Is Blue as an Orange" in the Ukraine
Vladyslav's family makes a film about themselves — and Iryna Tsilyk makes a documentary about the familyImage: Iryna Tsilyk

These interviews from the documentary film "The Earth Is Blue as an Orange" were not filmed by Ukrainian director Iryna Tsilyk and her team. The recordings were made by the family themselves: Myroslava and her sister Anastasiia Trofymchuk visited the "Yellow Bus" camp, where filmmakers like Iryna Tsilyk give film workshops for young people on the war front in eastern Ukraine. Tsilyk was actually planning to shoot a documentary about the camp.

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"Then Myroslava and Nastya invited me and my team to their hometown, where we immediately fell in love with their little world. Then we decided to make a film about their family," Tsilyk told DW.

A film production with the whole family

The sisters were so motivated by the camp that they made their own film about their family. And so Tsilyk accompanied the family for over a year as they made a film about their life on the front line as a family production (Myroslava films, Nastya directs the shots, mother Ganna cuts, the little brothers Vladyslav and Stanislav are allowed to clap the clapperboard here and there).

Tsilyk and Viacheslav Tsvietkov have captured images that show that the everyday life of the family is by no means grey. At Christmas, the family decorates a wildly glowing tree; there is a lot of laughter, eating and drinking tea together, as well as playing music with saxophone, accordion, piano and ukulele. The family could have started a band as well. "

"Ganna fights every day for this normality," is how Tsilyk describes the matriarch's life.

When explosions can be heard from a distance, the family members don't even notice as they lie together in front of the television and watch black and white films.

"It's pretty funny and somehow surreal for people who see a fresh perspective: even small children know from the sounds when shelling is dangerous and when it is not," said Tsilyk. "And if you keep coming there yourself, you notice that you also get used to it."

The juxtaposition of security and danger, of everyday life and war — these are precisely the moments that Tsilyk is looking for.

A film with surreal poetry

When Myroslava graduates from school (and after that starts studying film), she poses with a certificate in front of the bombed school and a sea of red poppy blossoms swaying gently in the wind — in reality a minefield that must not be entered.

The images, some of which are reminiscent of a still life painting, are a reminder that is not only a filmmaker but also writes poetry and prose — with which she has already made a name for herself beyond Ukraine.

The family reenacts how they sought shelter in the basement during the 2014 bombing
The family reenacts how they sought shelter in the basement during the 2014 bombingImage: Viacheslav Tsvietkov/Albatros Communicos, Moonmakers

Her first feature film, "The Earth Is Blue as an Orange" won Tsilyk Best Documentary Direction in the World Cinema category at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

At the Berlin International Film Festival, where the film celebrated its European premiere, Tsilyk is accompanied by Myroslava and Nastya.

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"Film production has actually helped us to relax and talk, so to speak," said 16-year-old Nastya, who, like her sister, wants to work in film in the future. "When you articulate your problems, they fade into the background a bit, and so, through our favorite pastime, filmmaking, we have healed our soul."

War as 'collective trauma'

For Tsilyk, however, the film is not only a response to family trauma. 

"I am sure that I am also traumatized. And not only me — war is a great collective trauma," she says. "Everything I've done in the past six years was somehow connected to the war."

According to UN estimates, 13,000 people have died so far in the fighting in eastern Ukraine that continues.

Indeed Tsilyk's husband, the writer Artem Chekh, had to serve as a soldier in the Ukrainian army: "It was a truly formative experience for our family, for our son," says the director. "You are a woman of the 21st century, waiting for your husband to come back from war. This is something that will change your life completely."