Serhiy Mykhalchuk, soldier of Armed Forces of Ukraine, cinematographer
We are not yet ready to make a real movie about Bucha
24.08.2023 13:27

Serhiy Mykhalchuk is a serviceman of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ukrainian cinematographer, Honored Artist of Ukraine. His creative achievements include more than a few dozen feature films, as well as documentaries, TV films, music videos and commercials.

The cinematographer has participated in competitions at international film festivals and was awarded the "Silver Bear" at the Berlin Film Festival for his outstanding contribution to art, in particular for "Under Electric Clouds", and the "Golden Dziga" for "Best Director of Photography" for "The Wild Field".

In the first days of the full-scale invasion, he joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to fight alongside his compatriots against the Russian enemy.

In an interview for Ours at the Front with Oksana Klymonchuk, one of Ukraine's best filmmakers told us how he became a soldier in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, about the most expensive film in the history of Ukrainian cinema, what heroes he saw in the war, and why we are not yet ready to make films about the Great War.

- Mr. Sergiy, soon, on Independence Day, the movie "Dovbush", which you have been working on, will be released... Why did you decide to turn to this character?

- In general, we love epic films, and so it seems to me that the choice of a character like "Dovbush" was absolutely obvious, because this figure of Ukrainian history is mentioned in legends, but there hasn't been any documentary evidence of this, especially in cinema.

There was once a Soviet-era film called "Dovbush", but it was quite patriotic in terms of nationality, and as everyone in our country made historical films, in fact, retold historical events in Soviet cinema, it was strange how "Dovbush" did not have a party ticket...

That's why we considered it our duty to make a real historical film, as it is now fashionable to say, a true historical film, that is, to make sure that everything was authentic, that the locations were fairly authentic, that the costumes were authentic, that the characters were not inaccurate, as was sometimes the case in our historical cinema, but that they really spoke a completely normal language, even if it was a Hutsul dialect. But you believe that this is a true story. The Poles and the nobility also speak their native language, the actors are Poles, all the costumes and weapons are made entirely from historical models. We actually recreated the whole world that existed before us, which was lost.

- Was this movie made with public funds?

- Yes, it was made with public funds, because the film is considered the most expensive in the history of Ukrainian cinema. There were not enough state funds for such a scale, so we also raised funds from various private sources, and the Canadian side joined us at the final stage, which is actually an explanation for why the film was not released in the year when we started making it, because the scale was too big.

- I saw the teaser, it looks, let's say, rich.

- Everything there is honest. Where you need a lot, it looks rich. Where it needs to be poor, it looks poor, but you can see that it was made for a lot of money.

- Could you have made "Dovbush" without state support?

- You know, there is a legal thing going on. Investors need state support, because it's tied more to, let's say... all this production investment is tied in such a way that you have a national distribution, you need the state to be involved. So, of course, in addition to that, if the state is involved, it is a prestige for foreign investors, and it is a guaranteed hit, something that, in theory, the state should promote this picture. This is not always the case, and it is not always successful, but at least it is legally how it should work.

- From time to time, there is a discussion in society about whether we need cinema now, when there is a war, or whether we don't need cinema, what kind of cinema we need... I mean, is this something fundamental, what are we doing, what direction are we moving in? Or do we spend all our money on the front?

- I think it is impossible to move in all directions at the same time. Especially if your country is bleeding, if many people are suffering. Many people say that we need some kind of series to cheer up the soldiers, especially those who stayed in the rear... Maybe I'll be cruel, but I think we need cinema now, but first of all documentaries. And it is immoral to spend money on entertainment programs when the state cannot fully provide our soldiers with weapons and some equipment.

You can't pay for everything at the expense of human resources...

I've always liked heroic movies, but I see this heroic movie as a documentary, I see the price it costs... Some people are dying, and these are the best people I've met in my life in this year and a half, and others will play a comedy series, even if it's a patriotic feature film, I won't pick on a comedy series - it's immoral in my opinion. If you want to do it, do it for private money, if you want to do it well, persuade a private entrepreneur to invest in those drones!

If we don't do this now, we will continue to shoot Russian TV series on our territory after some time, when our infrastructure is put in order. We can't be distracted by any bullshit now, we really need to protect the country.

- By the way, the enemy is not sleeping on this, they are also filming about Bucha. We already know that this is a propaganda film, but it is a fiction film that touches the emotions, and it is not intended for its internal consumer, but for the external one, for the Western world.

- Yes. And there will be people who will push for Netflix to show it or some other resources. They already have a film called Mariupol, some other films... They have organized themselves quite quickly and are doing this, and it needs to be done, but it's just, you know, to make a quality propaganda film now, well, okay, we can spend a few million dollars there, but it's not a given that it will be good.

To make one good film, you need to make ten indirect films, of which one will hit the target.

It's like a machine gun. Not every bullet reaches the target, but it's necessary, like water sharpening a stone, we have to do it, otherwise we will just run out of steam. First of all, I now see that many people are running out of steam morally, and the fall is emotional.

In the military, it's like this... You go with your comrades to storm a village, and it's only one village, and it's a small village. It's very difficult to adjust psychologically to why you have to die on these stones in some steppe or in the forest, it doesn't matter. And when you go once, the second time, a fellow soldier dies, gets hit by a mine... And when you hear on the news: our cats, we are keeping the initiative, we are keeping it, that is, we are constantly giving them nightmares, they are constantly killing us.

- But at what cost?

- At what cost... And all these guys, Sasha, Vasyl, who are really legendary people, are being killed and maimed in front of our eyes.

And when you see that there is nothing left of the village where you are supposed to go... we are all happy that we liberated several villages there, even a dozen, as an eyewitness I can say that there is almost nothing left. I call them like a museum of minerals, i.e. covered stones, covered bricks. It will be very difficult to ever bring them back to life, even in a normal economy, and the most dangerous thing is that we must not give up...

- Mr. Serhiy, you said that some of your film colleagues left the country, but you have been here in the Armed Forces of Ukraine since the very first days...

- I have been at war since February 25, because I took my family out on February 24. On the 25th, I was already returning to Kyiv, although I didn't join the Armed Forces of Ukraine right away, I was volunteering, taking pictures as a photographer in the war, as close to the front line as possible. This lasted until the end of March, and in March I volunteered for the army with my friends. We all came from the cinema, so we were called the "cinema group".

We were also soldiers, but at the same time, you know, as every soldier has some other plus specialty, we filmed everything that our units were doing.

- I hope that we will see your work someday, what you filmed there.

- The stuff from the army? I doubt it, to be honest. Knowing how our structures are organized, I have some doubts, but anything is possible. You know, I have another thing, maybe because of which I had a little bit of burnout, I think we need to show here and now, and whatever it is.

We are soldiers, but we have to respond to their propaganda. I don't like the word "propagandists" very much, but we have to be a kind of counter-propaganda, to show the truth. And this is the main mission I have set myself in this war.

It's clear that no one in the army gave me such a profound mission, we each set it for ourselves. What you think you should do, especially if you are a volunteer soldier after 50 and have been at war for a year and a half, you set yourself some moral priorities.

Because with my astigmatism, my eyesight, I will be able to kill more opponents - well, that's the way it is. And in fact, in all these hostilities, I did not succeed in achieving great success in the individual standings, to be honest. I participated in groups that did it well, and I was useful there...

With my friends, we were the unity and power of this action, that is, if a unit goes on a serious mission, the bullet does not choose what you do, whether you are a commander or just a soldier, and you have a camera hanging on your side, and whether you are an engineer or a medic.

Snipers are really disliked, both by us and by them. If they see a sniper in the group, they try to eliminate him first.

- I would like to ask you, with what kind of cameraman's eye do you see our Ukrainian soldiers, what is he like for you?

- You see, now I don't look with a cameraman's eye, but rather with a photographer's eye.

I'm against heroization, because heroization represents when you want to present an ordinary person as a hero. I've actually seen so many heroes, just everyday heroes, a person as they are, regardless of their gender, their posture, their age. I mean, I have never seen so many heroes in my life. I think that in the history of cinema and literature, our soldiers will be one of the key heroes of mythologization, not only in Ukraine but also in the world.

- Tell us a story about the heroes you have in mind.

- Those who were around me, and I sincerely hope that I will be among these heroes in the future, at least I would like to be.

Of course, the greatest heroes in our minds are those who have passed away. But, you know, we tend to call people heroes, creators, great or even outstanding when they die. So I would like to do this while these people are alive, my friends are alive, so I'm actually doing this because I want to convey this and I want to film them now and say that they are heroes while they are still alive. And, unfortunately, many of those whom I filmed during this war are no longer with us, and they are now in the category of those epic heroes who have already passed away.

I can tell you about the mortar men who impressed me. In Bakhmut, we spent several days with mortar launchers, and then we visited Kalinowski's regiment, which is Belarusian. These are the guys who impressed me, young guys. They were all so young and young, but they all had beards. There was a commander of a mortar team, and I called him: "Father, father," and he turned out to be a year younger than my daughter. Twenty-six years old.

It was Bakhmut, winter, the period of the old New Year. At that time, it was terribly cold, incredibly cold, there was no way to hide from this cold, it just penetrated to the bones, in fact, we could only keep warm with our bodies, with the body of a comrade, by simply leaning down. Mostly, we fired several mines at our opponents, enemies, and immediately ran to the basement.

The basement was very cold and damp, but it was good that it was there. Because what is the war of artillery and mortar crews, especially the 120th? The fact that for every answer there is a counter-answer, so it's a kind of duel. You try to kill them faster, they try to kill you faster. They throw mines at you, and so it goes on until some logical option is reached...

And these guys were so young, they were all volunteers, they were all sick with coronavirus, they were all in a damp basement, every time, every time we went to Bakhmut, we were there quite a few times. And every time you are in these basements, this fine concrete dust settles on your lungs, and I was constantly coming back from there actually sick.

Plus, you come from Bakhmut, where there is only one reality, and here you have people in a cafe, some trendy hipsters who could really help those guys, and they are doing things you don't understand, and even more, they are mostly sure they are right. Or you hear that someone successfully hid from the military commissar, and, like, Vasya was caught, how poor Vasya is. How to help him, who to contact to get him out? And you don't understand this, how two realities are combined in one country.

And when some people are fighting and dying and ideologically trying to stand to the end, while others are trying to avoid it as much as possible. And, you know, the work of this mortar team, I was among them, I filmed them, I saw these guys, actually coughing up blood, with a fever, because the 120mm mine is quite heavy, how they load these boxes, how they methodically shoot, and when you don't sleep there for more than a day and every 20-30 minutes you crawl out of this basement, and the cold is unbelievable, I've only been so cold in polar expeditions, and now, staggering, unclipping the mortar every time, launching mines, going back into this basement, these guys impressed me tremendously.

Similarly, in Bakhmut, I was impressed by the guys of Kalinowski's regiment, to whom we were, in a way, seconded for a certain period. Kalinowski's regiment are Belarusian volunteers fighting on our territory. They have no status, no citizenship, no residence permit.

Most of them, yes, came to fight for justice, against our common enemy, they really believe so.

And these guys are fighting on our territory, oddly enough, for their freedom and ours. Believe me, the way Belarusians fought, Belarusians will someday make legends about it. In the future, God willing, I would join this legend as a cameraman.

- And what kind of movie would you make out of everything you've seen?

- I don't know. Nowadays, after a year and a half of being in this war, I don't even have any thoughts about movies at the moment.

Honestly, if, God willing, I return to the profession, I will not make films about the war. For some time, for sure. It's very difficult. Think of Yugoslavia... A person going through a trauma, a society going through a trauma... our patriotic ideas can be transformed by art into an incomprehensible Frankenstein, just like it happened with Russian cinema and the Russian victory parade. This is a very dangerous thing.

When you see what's happening at the front and read about it in the news, you have a split personality. These are two different realities. And films, especially filmmakers, are ideological, moderately ideological, and there are people who are interested in the material things that cinema brings. About Bucha... I believe that we cannot make such films now, because, firstly, they will not be adequate in terms of information presentation, and secondly, we have not won this war yet.

When we win it, when we systematize it in our imagination and understand what happened to us, then we can do it. Now we are like a marathon runner who is running the course. Can he make an adequate assessment?  No, he has adrenaline, he is running, he has no breath, he has a stabbing in his side somewhere, his leg hurts, and it is generally quite difficult for him. So we can't assess it adequately. We need to look at it after some time, adequately. Although, unfortunately, no one is safe from inadequate views, not only from Russian filmmakers, but also from ours.

- You say that we shouldn't shoot anything like this now, but we have to respond to Russian propaganda somehow.

- We won't be able to respond now. Definitely not in this way. We need to respond in asymmetrical ways. You see, Russia has a huge resource, and it's nothing for them to make two dozen films now, even if eighteen of them fail, two of them will reach their goal. This is the same as the number of tanks they had and we had at the beginning of the war. That is, trying to compete with them in this will be our mistake and defeat. We do not have the resources for this.

Yes, we have people who would be happy to do this, and, frankly, I sincerely want them to do well in their creative and other social lives, but I think that now we need to channel this into real weapons. Otherwise, we will simply lose. We need to respond in other ways, ways that do not drag on the budget, that do not drain the army's budgetary blood, and only on important infrastructure in peaceful towns and villages.

- We talked about this psychological and moral strength and where to get it. Where do you personally get it from? You get up in the morning...

- Well, it's like "Groundhog Day," there was a movie. You know, while I'm still trying with inner meditation, willpower, but it's also difficult, but I realize that now there are people who have it much harder than I do. This does not comfort me, on the contrary, I want to help these people. I believe that I simply have no right to complain about my life, I am alive and healthy, despite the fact that I have been in our situation with the whole country for a long time and I am actively trying to participate, so I have nothing to complain about.

- The Russians. Do you hate them?

- I think hating is a very simple and understandable feeling. I don't have a clear opinion formed at the moment.

I can't call it hatred, it's an expressed dislike, that's for sure. Hate is also a feeling that weakens you, in my opinion.

You see, war is such a rather abstract thing... I mostly see them when we are shelled with something heavy or less heavy or on the monitor.

When we were at the observation point, I heard them. We were very close, I could hear them swearing, I could hear them reparking their vehicles, I could hear their conversations perfectly. You sit with a friend in the bushes and just hold your assault rifle, sometimes you look at each other, react to some phrases, but the feeling is not very good, because you feel with all your being that this is the enemy, that you are a hair's breadth away from them.

But for the most part, I communicated with them as if they were prisoners, and then I have no hatred. The last time I saw them, there were two of them, one of them was wounded, and our guys, whose comrade was killed, to be honest, I prayed that there would be absolutely no human reaction, that our guys would not kill them, no one saw them, no convention, nothing, that is, we ourselves, the enemy around us, that is, to kill, to kill these two - as simple as possible. And so I prayed that they would not kill them. This is no longer hatred, you have to be above it.

- And did God hear your prayers?

- He did, and they were not killed. Moreover, my comrades behaved nobly with them...

No one laid a finger on them, no one hit them, even though their comrade was killed. You see, this is, after all, an epic, a story about nobility. We can hate them when they are opposite you, but when they are already fully involved and cannot fight back, it's like stabbing them in the back, you can't do that.

And yes, I talked, I filmed, I was sent from service to a prisoner of war camp, I was in uniform, everyone else was out of uniform, and they were like flies to honey, wearing the same uniform. I have had it since the beginning of the war...

And they see that I am a Ukrainian soldier, so they don't care about civilians at all. And they were really interested in talking to me. Everyone is absolutely polite, even if they have never been polite in their lives...

And it's a very strange feeling. You know, it's very difficult to hate when this creature is already humiliated and under your control, actually depends on your attitude. And here you cannot cross this barrier anymore.

- Well, if you have some humanity and so on. You say you've heard these conversations, but are these conversations ethically different from those of our military?

- They are different, absolutely different. I was also struck by one thing when I was there, in a prisoner of war camp... Ours...  I don't know how it is, but perhaps ideologically God has arranged it this way, ours look noble in captivity. The Russians, most of them, look like prisoners, I can't understand whether it's mental, because there was a big Gulag there, and they start smoking cigarettes like prisoners, and some things like that, so I had the impression that they were prisoners.

- Perhaps they are mentally prisoners in their lives.

- Maybe they are. You know, the general society, it begins to adopt the paradigm that is convenient for them, and these prisoners, even if there are several of them, they impose it all on the rest of the collective, and they all become like prisoners. And this impressed me very much.

I've been in prisons before, and it wasn't, say, news to me, as a cameraman, I've been in similar institutions. And here I had the impression that these were not military men, but just like prisoners. Take away the assault rifle, take away the uniform, take away the ability to kill - and they immediately become a creature asking for help. Even those who behaved proudly and felt like professional soldiers.

Strangely enough, I did not feel aggression towards me, they were curious... They said something, and I said: "Oh, we were in Izyum..." I see, but we are on different sides. It's a very funny thing when you realize that yes, you were in Izyum, but we're not friends. And this guy is actually where it was coming from. And it's a rather strange feeling, and you don't know what to say to him in response, I don't know what to say at all in this case. I mean, you were on different sides.

- I know that you have been to Antarctica five times. I have never seen a person who has been to Antarctica. Tell me, what did you do there?

- Actually, I got to Antarctica because I participated in another polar expedition, an air expedition to the North Pole in 2000.

Since it was 2000, it was an expedition of the Ukrainian and Russian military. In fact, many people wanted it to become a single unit... I went to Antarctica in a seasonal detachment of the tenth expedition to Vernadsky Station. What did I do there? You know, I was generally lucky in life, practically engaged in very similar activities as in the war. That is, since I have been shooting independently all my life, and I have been shooting both as a cameraman and a photographer, I was taken to Antarctica as a cameraman, photographer and polar explorer in one bottle.

In the war, it's the same situation, I fulfill the mission of a soldier, a photographer and a cameraman as well. My whole life has been connected with this.

And, in addition to shooting, at first I helped our nuclear physicists, then ornithologists. Mostly, my tasks were not difficult enough: I drove and held penguins...

There is a Peterman base there, where there is a colony of five thousand penguins. I called them five thousand men because they look like little people in tailcoats. I would carefully approach with a net, choose a victim and try to catch it, then hold it, and two researchers would pluck its feathers off of it, just like a chicken.

It was a mystery to me, too, why they would do this, but they said, well, we need to know the statistics of how their coat molts. I thought, okay, so I have to do it. Actually, there was a good company of ornithologists and penguins, and I liked it, except for the smell.

- Do they smell bad?

- Unfortunately, they look very nice in photos that don't convey the smell. It's like a chicken coop. They've been there for several thousand years, so it smells like it should.

- You said that you were freezing in Bakhmut like at the North Pole...

- There was a military expedition about our army, let's say, of the pre-war model. There were very positive people there, and I was on the crew of the AN-28 twin-engine airplane, which I piloted. At that time, he was our best pilot of the Antonov Design Bureau. He was the pilot who tested the airplanes and, in fact, we flew this airplane for the first time in history, a twin-engine airplane, to the North Pole and flew it from Kyiv. It's a small airplane, but it has two engines. These airplanes are almost unplanned, they have no planning. And before that, only the AN-2 airplane, which is basically a single-engine glider, had landed.

- What was the temperature there then?

- I don't know, we had a thermometer on board, but it broke. But this plane is not airtight, so you ride in it like in some taxi in Cairo, the wind is whistling inside, and the pressure is not normalized in relation to what is outside. That's why, during the final flights, when we were flying at high altitude, almost everyone was passing out, there was a lack of oxygen.

- It's a very interesting story.

- It's available on the Internet, but there's not much information about it, because it was a pre-internet period, so there's only as much information as about Ataman Sirko, that is, that our military were there, and everything is about the same as about our expedition.

Oksana Klymonchuk, StratCom of the Armed Forces of Ukraine - Ukrinform

All photos provided by Serhiy Mykhalchuk

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