Krakow Film Festival 2024

Unpacking trauma

UKRAINE / The young Ukrainian generation, scarred by war, prepares a play based on the motifs of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Director: Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski
Country: Poland, Germany

«To be or not to be, that is the question»: This is arguably the most famous Shakespeare quote of all time. Taken from Hamlet’s soliloquy in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, this simple line exposes the inner turmoil that comes with reaching potentially life-shaping decisions. In this case, Hamlet contemplates the biggest decision a human can possibly make — whether to live or die.

The Hamlet Syndrome, a feature-length documentary by Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski, focuses on the development and performance of The H-Effect, a play that marries the motifs found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the real-life experiences of five young Ukrainians. The parallels that can be drawn between Hamlet and the actors’ lives are diverse. For example, the young Danish prince Hamlet finds himself in the midst of a power struggle, torn between the mortal fear of death and his need to avenge the enemy. The situation is impossible, and death persistently lingers over him like a curse. Similarly, the actors in The H-Effect, which premiered in 2020, speak of how the circumstances they were subjected to made them look death in the eye, leaving them altered and haunted by what they had seen, heard, smelt and thought.

The Hamlet Syndrome, a film by Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski
The Hamlet Syndrome, a film by Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski

Intense rehearsal

The intense rehearsals, run by young Ukrainian theatre director Roza Sarkisian, forced the actors to confront past and present traumas head-on, digging deep into wounds that had not yet fully healed to craft narratives of truth out of their pain. The topic of decisions played a big role in the rehearsal process. The actors explored the choices they struggled with or continued to struggle with: whether to stay country, to leave without the bodies of dead friends, or to pull the trigger.

Katya Kotliarova, Sławik Gavianets, Roman Kryvdyk, Rodion Shuygin-Grekalov, and Oxana Cherkashyna open up about the traumatic events that have left a mark on their lives, but the process is not always easy, and emotions often run high in the rehearsal room. Guglielmo Schininà comments in Dramatherapy and Social Theatre: Necessary Dialogues, «(…), even in a protected educational environment, any social theatre experience inevitably comes to include personal involvement and the venting of intimate feelings and stories. Here, concentrating on participation while downplaying the therapeutic dimension of social theatre could amount to placing technique and ideology above the needs of the individual.»

While all of the actors underwent therapy prior to their involvement in the play and the film, there are moments when applying an artistic process upon such gaping wounds becomes hard for the ensemble to bear.

The actors explored the choices they struggled with or continued to struggle with…

Gruesome details

This is hardly surprising. The details are gruesome, raw and unsettling. Roman, an actor-turned-paramedic, shares his memories of faeces-covered corpses arriving in body bags after the victims had sustained fatal skull injuries. «I didn’t know what to do with the injured», Roman tells his therapist. «Dammit! I hid all that helplessness inside me because it was war. There was no other way I could have reacted. I know that faced with this situation, I did my best, but the wound still hasn’t healed.»

Katya, a volunteer soldier who began fighting after her involvement in the 2013 Maidan protests, spent 18 months in active combat. «When I went to the frontline in 2014, I understood what it meant — what it meant to be captured, especially as a woman from the volunteer battalions. So, as well as the gun, ammunition, grenades and the first-aid kit, I carried a special grenade. I carried it in the pocket close to my heart. That grenade was meant for me.»

This film, which approaches the subject of trauma from an artistic rather than a journalistic angle, normalizes discussions surrounding horrific events and their emotional responses. The need for open discussion about trauma continues to grow as the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in yet more anguish.

Anna Shilonosova, a UK-based Ukrainian assistant psychologist, notes of recent months: «It became the eerie norm to receive text messages from people who had managed to come online in pauses between hiding in the shelter from bombs. (…) Messages such as «I feel drained», «I need an urgent vent call», and «I need to talk to someone. I feel it’s taken a toll on me» started to appear in our internal specialists’ support chats more often.»

The Hamlet Syndrome, a film by Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski
The Hamlet Syndrome, a film by Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski

Essential viewing

Watching this film in 2022, with the knowledge that three of the play’s cast members are now back on the frontline, is heart-wrenching. Trauma continues to sew its seeds into the everyday lives of ordinary Ukrainians. The Hamlet Syndrome gives the viewer insight into the extent of that trauma — an accumulation of pain that goes far beyond the 8 years and 5 months of the Russo-Ukrainian War thus far. This film is essential viewing, as it opens the door to understanding, empathy and discourse, all of which can, in their own small way, alleviate the burden of the victims of war.

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Melita Cameron Wood
Melita Cameron Wood
Freelance journalist, film critic and voice-over artist.

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