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Growing up under the approaching storm clouds of war

UKRAINE / The lives of ordinary teenagers in Ukraine's Donbas region as they navigate adolescence, dreams, and the devastating impact of conflict on their futures.

See Also: Coming of age in times of war

Lera, Liza, Ruslan, Andriy and Illia are ordinary teenagers.

They live in small villages and towns in a largely rural area where only the slagheaps and grubby industrial buildings of coalmines disturb the bucolic calm.

Their lives are like those of teenagers anywhere – homework and housework, discos and parties, disputes with parents and individual passions: one dreams of being an engineer, another an actor, a photographer, a designer, a rapper.

The only difference between their lives and those of any teenager in Europe is that they live in Ukraine’s Donbas region. It is 2019, and a low-level war with Russian-backed separatists has been rumbling on for five years. Oh, and they live within earshot of the mortars, artillery and small arms fire of the so-called «line of contact» between the Ukrainian army and separatist forces.

There is a charm and dreadful certainty about Alisa Kovalenko’s film.

We Will Not Fade Away Alisa Kovalenko
We Will Not Fade Away, a film by Alisa Kovalenko

Geopolitical faultines

We Will Not Fade Away is a testament to a generation coming of age on a seismic geopolitical fault line. They consider themselves Ukrainian but speak Russian. Their region is Ukraine’s industrial heartland, heavily settled by Russian immigrants under Stalin and politically and linguistically divided.

Shot over the course of a year or so, the five youngsters display all the joy, dreams and naivety of teenagers everywhere. These are good kids, full of ideas and initiative (if initiative is the proper term for Andriy’s resourcefulness in obtaining aluminium wire to repair his motorcycle by pulling it off abandoned old Soviet power lines, that is.)

Their entertainment is like that of other rural youngsters: homemade. Sometimes they stand on top of old buildings for a better view of the flashes, smoke and ‘crump’ of mortars from the frontlines. They watch columns of Ukrainian armour pass by their home. They chalk drawings on shrapnel-peppered iron gates while caring for younger siblings.

Their entertainment is like that of other rural youngsters: homemade.

Dreams

Lera, who dreams of studying photography, takes arty shots of her girlfriends in a burned-out police station and courthouse. War has already scarred this place, but more is to come. We viewers from their future know it. They don’t yet.

Liza is a talented young artist who dreams of being a designer.

Ruslan records rap songs expressing the boredom of provincial life.

Andriy’s urge to fix things is irrepressible – even if his father scolds him for blocking holes in a motorcycle engine’s gasket, he presses on, tinkering in his own little brick-built workshop.

Ilia paints his face, plays Grandfather Frost in a village New Year’s event, and insists he will be an actor. His mother reckons he’ll join the police force, like most young men who want to avoid the mines.

The five kids are brought together thanks to a unique project developed by a leading Ukrainian sports journalist to send youngsters from the conflict zone to Nepal to hike up to the Annapurna Base Camp below Everest.

The teenagers are selected and form a tight and natural bond when we follow them on their epic journey towards the end of this gentle and prosaic film. Watching the sun break out above clouds near the top of the earth is a moment none shall ever forget.

We Will Not Fade Away Alisa Kovalenko
We Will Not Fade Away, a film by Alisa Kovalenko

Stories

Back home, another eternally-etched memory awaits them: the launch of Putin’s full-scale war on Ukraine in February 2022. This is where We Will Not Fade reaches its endpoint: as the kids sleep on the long bus ride home from their return from Nepal, sub-titles tell their stories:

Lera was preparing her first photographic exhibition and dreamed of moving to Kyiv. After six months of occupation, she managed to escape to France.

Liza had started to study design in Kharkiv. In March 2022, she was evacuated under bombs. She is now studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium.

Ruslan had recorded a rap song and started a computer programming degree. He fell under Russian occupation in May 2022, and contact has been lost with him.

Andriy’s home and workshop were destroyed by Russian artillery fire soon after the war was launched. He and his family became refugees, and his plans to train as an engineer at a technical university in Kyiv were postponed.

Illia had entered the Donbas Police Academy to study to become a detective at Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, those dreams of acting put aside. When the war started, he fell under Russian occupation, and nothing further is known of his fate.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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