SEE UKRAINE in Spain: cinema, art, and a little bit siestas

13 September 2017

In the first days of September, the festival SEE UKRAINE: DOCUDAYS UA ON TOUR arrived to Spain. The project coordinator Olga Birzul is telling in her blog about the season opening at Cineteca with Ukrainian films, the most fashionable cultural centers of Madrid, the siestas and the engines of documentary filmmaking.


Thursday, August 31st


I’m spending the last day of summer on the road, flying to Spain with a brief stop in Germany. My trip coincides with German railway repair works, so I am using all the commutes available to reach the Berlin airport. While my foreign companions are complaining about the inconveniences in their orderly ways of life, I am enjoying an unplanned excursion around the German countryside. Looking in awe through the bus window, through which, as if in the best of my dreams, I can see the facades of neat houses, the well-kept bus stops, the smooth roads, and the silhouettes of tattooed, pierced people, who are walking around with their blonde-curled babies on this sunny day. No cue that the autumn begins tomorrow.



I have spent the previous two days at the Viadrina European University at Frankfurt-am-Oder. The Viadrinicum Summer School takes place here for a few years now. The school is aimed on the dialogue between the countries of the Eastern partnership. This year, the focus is on Ukraine. Together with the organizers, we are making a collection of contemporary Ukrainian documentaries. We choose the movies about the ambiguous decommunization process (“The Fall of Lenin” and “Alive and Undefeated”) and about the urgent issue of internal migration (“Home”). The choice is exceptionally hard. For the last two years, Docudays UA is organizing the National Competition, which not only reflects the realities of the country, but also demonstrates the filmmakers’ reflection on the surrounding reality that is hardly confinable to one-hour session.



My heart is quivering during the screening. Like any good mother, I want everyone to see not only the shortcomings, but also the victories of my “child”. The audience at Viadrinicum is as intelligent and responsive as always. This year’s laboratory topic is “Borderland Experiences: Conflict, Dialogue, and the Arts”. After a couple of speeches and discussions, I am ready to buy a new notebook for all these lectures of the political scientists, historians and philosophers. Instead, I grab a double coffee and travel on. I have to travel on.



On the road I am constantly thinking about Don Quixote, the traveling knight from Lamancha, whose solemn image was haunting me during the preparation of See Ukraine in Madrid. To tell the truth, Spain has been resisting our cultural visit for quite a while. Our small team was frequently encountering unexpected windmills. But the process of their recognition had had unforgettable results.



Friday, September 1st


Good morning, Madrid! In the morning, we are visiting the festival location with the Ukrainian delegation and fall in love with Matadero Madrid from the first sight. I am always joking about blind dates. During the two-month preparation process me and my colleague Natalka Shostak have only seen the cinema house on the Internet. The cinema has been communicating with us through its program coordinator Jara, who has turned the See Ukraine preparation process into a small celebration. This attentive, joyful woman is a proficient English speaker, incredibly knowledgeable in the current Ukrainian situation. She has found for us the best slots and helped us with the Spanish posters and press releases, as well as with technical equipment. But we haven’t met Jara yet, and we are worrying whether anyone will come at all. The first days of autumn are incredibly hot in Spain. Many people are on vacations.



We still have a couple of hours before the evening premiere of See Ukraine. We remember that today is the Day of Knowledge in Ukraine. Where can we find new knowledge about Spain? In the museums, of course. Siesta begins in the city at noon, and one cannot survive this heat but in the shade. We go to the Prado Museum and listen to filmmaker Roman Bondarchuk’s confession that he once pondered on a career in visual arts.



In the evening Matadero Madrid changes completely. This complex turns into a crowded, lively space, where numerous events are taking place simultaneously. See Ukraine is opening the season at the local Cineteca cinema, which, by the way, features only movie classics, documentaries, and author’s movies. Even though it’s the opening day, the audience is almost full with people, most of whom are Spanish speakers. “What a success”, says Jara. “Usually we have no more than one-third of the audience. Just like in your country, we feel strong competition from the American blockbusters”. I am a bit jealous. If we had such an up-to-date and convenient facility, we would have no trouble competing with blockbusters.



The people applaud after the movie. The discussion with Roman takes almost 40 minutes. The viewers are asking sensible questions, marking out the filmmaker’s sense of humor and clarifying some historical and political circumstances of the creation of “Ukrainian Sheriffs”. I am waiting for my favorite question about the “non-heroicity” of the sheriffs, but it never comes. The Spaniards, cultivated by Cervantes, Velazquez, Almodovar and 40 years of Franco authoritarian regime, understand everything without long explanations.



We pass to another premise, which is also crowded. The first day of the festival is closing with black and white mute movie “Eleventh”, which was provided to the See Ukraine festival by Dovzhenko Center. The screening is accompanied by the piano performance by Sofia Turta, and the composer Anton Baybakov created an original soundtrack for the movie.



It’s already late, but the audience is keeping Anton for a long time. The viewers are familiar with Dziga Vertov and with the propaganda machine that used the cinema as an agitation tool. The audience thanks, Anton and Sofia for the music. “There is no human in this film”, the composer says. “But I wanted you to see him”. Seems that the audience understood his message. Invigorated with the audience’s sincere reaction on the performance, we are wandering the streets of Madrid. Tired but happy.



Saturday, September 2nd


At night, I suddenly learn about tomorrow’s closure of the epochal exhibition dedicated to the 80th anniversary of Picasso’s “Guernica”. This piece has been the most successful cultural diplomacy project at its time. After the sensational presentation at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1938, Picasso was invited to bring “Guernica” to the Scandinavian countries, the USA and the United Kingdom. He went there and collected money for Spaniards, exhausted with the civic war. The exposition, which is telling the detailed story about the tragedy of Basque city of Guernica, Pablo’s personal nightmares and evolution of the artist’s imagery, completely absorbs me. This iconic Spanish artwork is an outspoken metaphor of our contemporary situation.



The members of the Diaspora are finally attending “The Living Fire” in the evening. There are Ukrainian speakers in the audience. The most interesting thing during the discussion with the movie’s director, Ostap Kostyuk, is following the reactions of different viewers. The Ukrainians are admiring the traditions, while the foreigners are complimenting the form of the movie and sincerely wondering why one of the main characters spends all his time at the mountain valleys with the grown up shepherds instead of attending school. After the closure of the cinema theater, the discussions with Ostap continue outside. “Traditions and memories about the culture of our ancestors are uniting us here”, one of the viewers explains. Most Ukrainian migrants came to Spain from the Western Ukraine. The viewers are asking Ostap about the common friends, telling him about mushroom picking in the Spanish mountains, complaining about the taste of the local cheese. There is no end to this long evening, and there is no end to the meeting of long-time friends who unexpectedly ran across each other in the midst of a huge bustling city.



Sunday, September 3d


In the morning, our new friends are waiting outside the hotel. Ostap receives a gift that hardly fits the size of his suitcase. All of us are invited to leave our feedback about Spain in the Ukrainian diaspora chronicle. We say goodbye to Ostap and, together with director Sergiy Bukovsky, are hurrying to the museum triangle. The siesta is about to catch up, and we have to hide in the cooling premises of the galleries of Madrid.



By the way, Spanish museums are incredibly hospitable. The admission is free almost everywhere, even at Prado and the Queen Sophia Arts Center, every day from 6 PM (from 3 PM on Sundays). Unemployed people with a special ticket for temporarily unemployed persons can visit all the museums free. The state encourages them to spend spare time on self-education.



Every floor at one of the most popular cultural centers of Madrid, the Palaciode Cibeles, which features numerous expositions, offers special relaxation zones with free wi-fi and fresh press. This museum, which was previously the city’s main post office, is free for all visitors.



Most of the expositions are dedicated to the LGBT communities, the integration of immigrants into the city life, and the social projects. If only Ukrainian far right groups would see this center, they would have a collective heart attack. The center is financed by the state and located at one of the city’s central squares. It’s time to return to Matadero Madrid – the art space that is one more successful example of revitalization. These facilities were once meant for the corrida bulls, who afterward passed into the hands of food industry representatives. After the corrida prohibition in Spain, this complex became ownerless. Nowadays it is among the most fashionable cultural centers in the capital. Each ticket costs like a cup of coffee. The center is supported by the city budget.



We are closing See Ukraine in the evening with Sergiy Bukovsky’s “The Leading Role”. This gentle and personal movie about the filmmaker’s relationships with his mother, actress Nina Antonova, is putting a delicate period in our brief but fruitful cultural dialogue with the Spanish audience. Sergiy elegantly explains why he created this family diary instead of one more epic about the events of the national significance. According to Albert Camus, the historical responsibility is convenient because it removes the responsibility to the people. Personal stories are the driving force of documentary filmmaking. Luckily, the local audience needs no further explanations.


Monday, September 4th


Today we are returning home. I don’t know whether we’ll have another opportunity to visit Spain with See Ukraine. However, looks like we have come to terms with Don Quixote: no matter how sad his image may be, it was Cervantes who have taught the humans to look optimistically at the eternal contradiction between knightly ideals and reality. I am taking with me some Spanish documentaries. The dialogue between countries should be permanent.


SEE UKRAINE: DOCUDAYS UA ON TOUR is supported by the Open Society Foundation and the International Renaissance Foundation.


Text and photos: Olga Birzul

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