What should documentary cinema be like in times of war? Which role documentary filmmakers play, in their own view? How does documentary cinema create a chronicle of the Russian-Ukrainian war through the stories of participants and eyewitnesses? Yuliya Hontaruk and Dmytro Kozatskyi, documentary filmmakers and winners of this year's Golden Dzyga Award for the Best Short Documentary, discussed these and other questions during an online meeting with the audience.
18 October 2023

Yuliya and Dmytro worked together on several films from the “Fortress Mariupol” series. This series of short documentaries by Babylon'13 is based on the recordings of Yuliya Hontaruk's video calls with Ukrainian soldiers at the surrounded Azovstal in Mariupol. Among them was the then head of the Azov regiment's press service, Dmytro “Orest” Kozatskyi. His footage from the destroyed plant was turned into one of the films in the series, and Dmytro himself is the protagonist of the episode “Fortress Mariupol. Orest.”

The DOCU/CLUB network invited Yuliya Hontaruk and Dmytro Kozatskyi to an online screening of the film, followed by a discussion and Q&A session with the audience. Below, we offer you several citations from the conversation.

About production of the film

Yuliya Hontaruk: “I was familiar with the Azov regiment, because I've been filming the guys and girls since January 2015. As Mariupol was being surrounded, I didn't know how to help, and I realized that I could only talk to them from here, keep in touch. I thought I could call them in this hell and create portraits of the military. I decided to make Orest one of the protagonists. It was difficult to reach out to them: in this situation, “how are you?” sounds incredibly weird. One doesn't know what to ask, because people on the other side are in incredibly hard conditions. I was lucky because I knew many of them for a long time. I called them not as a journalist, but as a friend. I was interested in how they felt, what motivated them, and how their worldview was changing. It was important to reveal who exactly stands behind the Azovstal symbol. These people are indeed made of steel, and I wanted to tell about them. This is our history, and, through cinema, future generations will hear and see this story from the first person, from people like Dmytro.”

Photo: A still from the film “Fortress Mariupol. Orest”

Dmytro Kozatskyi: “If I could, I would certainly choose to avoid the circumstances that turn one into a character of such a film. But it was important for me to reveal what was happening in Mariupol. As children, we used to watch war chronicles, and they were something very distant from us, telling about events we had nothing to do with. Nowadays, during the war, we are all living inside these chronicles. For me, this film is an opportunity to remind us of the heroes of Mariupol and the prisoners of war. Yuliya made me a director. I just shoot and edit with my heart, the way I see it. Yuliya was involved into further development of the film, its production and musical soundtrack. She teaches me to structure my work, because I shoot everything I see quite chaotically, and she structures the footage, turning it into self-sufficient material.”

On documentary filmmaking in the time of war

Yuliya Hontaruk: “When Orest sent me the footage from Azovstal, I felt that he had an artistic approach to filming. Besides, I realized that this material has an extraordinary historical value. It is very important, and we have to leave this footage to our children. For me, documentary filmmaking nowadays is not about shooting a chronicle as evidence of Russia's crimes against our country. This is journalists’ job. A documentary filmmaker has to film what resonates with him- or herself. We live in a time when events prompt us to choose the topic. For me, the most valuable feature of documentary cinema, even in times of war, is the meaningful approach that mirrors society, capturing our time and ourselves. It is still a reflection, but it is closer to art.”


Photo: Dmytro Kozatskyi and Yuliya Hontaruk at the Kharkiv MeetDocs Film Festival. Kyiv, October 2022. Source: Yuliya Hontaruk’s Facevook page

Dmytro Kozatskyi: “The main task of our press service is to document the war crimes of the Russians and to highlight the courage of our brothers in arms who defended Mariupol and Azovstal. My mission is to show this through the creative prism and document war crimes.  It is important to remember everything we went through and tell about the incredible people among us. I think this is our main goal and task today, because we live in extraordinary times. In my opinion, a new culture of filmmaking is being created in Ukraine now – documenting the war through documentary films. It is very interesting for me to observe this process.”

About the heroes of the war and the heroes of the films

Dmytro Kozatskyi: “To be honest, I'm not a fan of heroization of everyone and everything. In fact, an incredible number of our military are very cool guys and girls who show their courage every day. They are doing their job because they chose the military path. And they often act beyond the limits of the possible. But the military is a cross-section of society. Some people in the army are afraid, others are not, displays of heroism depend on the unit. I have a very good example of the Azov regiment, where the guys did some incredible things. This passionate desire to do cool things for the unit, for Ukraine, for Ukrainians united them. These people are the core of every unit, they motivate and inspire, and others draw strength from their environment and their comrades.”


Photo from the archive of Yuliya Hontaruk

Yuliya Hontaruk: “Currently, I am focused on making new episodes of the series about the heroes who returned from captivity. It is important for me to preserve the memory of the feat they performed, telling the world about the life of a person who has returned from captivity. In fact, there are few films about this. We don't know how a person adapts and what happens to them. This is an important topic. Of course, we need to remind everyone that many people have remained in Russian captivity for more than a year and a half already. I am specifically talking about the defenders of Mariupol and Azovstal. It is crucial for me to make new episodes of ‘Fortress Mariupol’ and focus on this topic.”


A still from the film “The Last Day at Azovstal” by Dmytro Kozatskyi


What we can do for the soldiers who are still in captivity

Dmytro Kozatskyi: “There are several large organizations that support families and raise awareness of the issue of prisoners of war. I often cooperate with the Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders. It was created by the mothers, wives, girlfriends, and sisters of Azov soldiers and those who defended Azovstal. These are very cool girls who try very hard to keep this topic in focus and organize various events. Unfortunately, very few people attend them. Sometimes I think that dead heroes are beloved the most because everyone remembers them after they die. When a critical need arises to constantly speak publicly about prisoners of war, everyone has more important things to do. I want to remind everyone that public support is an important job. I ask everyone to follow these organizations and their events. It's not difficult – just support with your presence the women and girls who are still waiting for their loved ones from captivity.

Join the flash mobs on social media. Unfortunately, many people nowadays have friends and acquaintances who are in captivity. Write about them, support the posts by others, share them – it is also very easy to do. Publicity is crucial. And supporting publicity is also important.”

The development of the DOCU/CLUB Network is funded by the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Fondation de France.

The opinions, conclusions or recommendations are those of the authors and compilers of this publication and do not necessarily reflect the views of the governments or charitable organizations of respective countries. The authors and compilers are solely responsible for the content of this publication.

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