«Digital images of war and violence surround us, which can desensitise us and impact our future vision»

DOCUDAYS UA: Program Director Yuliia Kovalenko on the current situation in Kyiv, the necessary adjustments to programming a festival during wartime, the role of Program Director amongst the wider team, and more.

Docudays UA facilitates the respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, establishes an understanding of human dignity as the highest value, raises the level of civil activity in Ukraine, and promotes the development of documentary filmmaking in Ukraine and abroad. For 2023, Docudays UA celebrates 20 years with a determined physical festival.

With Docudays UA 2023 scheduled to run from 2 to 8 June in person in Kyiv, we had the opportunity to speak with its Program Director, Yuliia Kovalenko. In our conversation, we explore the 20th edition of Docudays UA. In our conversation, we touch on the current situation in Kyiv, the necessary adjustments to programming a festival during wartime, the role of Program Director amongst the wider team, and more.

PC: Stas Kartashov

Let’s begin by discussing the decision to have a physical festival. When was this decision made, and what criteria were considered? Why is the physical festival in June 2023 the chosen route?

We had lengthy discussions about having a physical festival. Initially, it was planned for March last year but was postponed due to the full-scale invasion. We realised that organising events under challenging circumstances was possible and felt the need to meet and have a semblance of normalcy. We organised a mini-festival last year, which was challenging but provided valuable experience. We decided to apply that knowledge to this year’s festival. June seemed ideal due to the weather and relatively stable situation in the city relative to elsewhere in the country. We wanted to meet people in person and know how to organise the events.

Could you elaborate on what you learned from the mini-festival and how that knowledge was applied to the upcoming festival?

Security measures were a significant aspect. We needed plans to respond to air alarms and quickly evacuate people to nearby bomb shelters. Fortunately, we had shelters near the cinema venue. People in Ukraine already knew what to do during emergencies, but reminders were necessary. We adjusted the scheduling to accommodate potential interruptions and made travel arrangements for international guests considering the longer travel routes. Some guests were brave enough to attend and support us.

Can you share the general mindset of international guests towards attending the festival? Are they apprehensive or willing to come?

While some guests may be apprehensive, most are curious and eager to contribute to supporting Ukraine’s film community by attending physically. We gave them the option to participate online, but many were enthusiastic about attending in person.

PC: Stas Kartashov

How are you gauging the interest of local audiences in Kyiv and across the country to attend the festival?

Local audiences are interested because it offers an opportunity to attend a live event, meet friends, and participate in something beyond the online experience. It provides a sense of normalcy and an occasion to engage with international guests on important topics. Generating interest from the local audience has not been an issue.

Could you provide an overview of the current situation in Kyiv in terms of safety and stability? How would you describe it to someone who may be apprehensive about coming?

Compared to other cities in Ukraine, Kyiv is relatively safe and calm. Though there are still air alarms and occasional attacks, the Ukrainian defence system has improved, and I feel safer than a year ago. However, it’s important to acknowledge that the feeling of war persists. Nevertheless, Kyiv remains predictable compared to other cities, particularly in the country’s east.

Though there are still air alarms and occasional attacks, the Ukrainian defence system has improved, and I feel safer than a year ago.

Let’s shift to your role at the festival and the programming. How did you get into programming, and what led to your current position?

I initially worked as an editor for the festival, handling policy and printed materials. With a background in cultural studies and film criticism, my career naturally gravitated towards the festival. In 2019, the program director, Victoriia Leshchenko, invited me to join the programming department. As of May 1st, I assumed the program director position after the previous director left.

What about your programming approach? In normal times, what characteristics or criteria make a documentary a featured film? And has that changed this year?

One of the most important criteria is the creative aspect. Most of the films we select for our program are creative documentaries that go beyond simple journalistic or informative films. We look for films with powerful cinematic language rather than just interesting topics. If we compare a film with strong cinematic language to one with an interesting topic but a simpler form, we will choose the former.

As for changes after the start of the war, I hope our approach hasn’t changed much. I try to maintain a sober and objective view of films and not let the war affect my perception. However, topics related to war and Ukraine are naturally interesting to me. Therefore, we extensively discussed with our colleagues during the selection process and carefully considered each film. It was a challenging and thorough process.

We look for films with powerful cinematic language rather than just interesting topics.

Can you compare the number of films this year to previous years?

Before the war and the pandemic, we aimed to program no more than 100 films each year, including features and short films. This number was convenient for our festival. However, the number of films has decreased this year for practical reasons. We had limited time for scheduling films during the day and needed to allocate more time for each slot. Compared to 2019, for example, we had a full day to screen five or more films. But now, we must reduce the program by more than half to accommodate the time constraints. It’s a physical limitation, not a decision based on programming or capacity.

Can you tell me about the Docu/Art program and its place in the festival?

My previous colleague, Olha Birzul, created the Docu/Art program. I was a big fan of this section before I joined the festival. It allows for experimentation and focuses on cinematic language. I was delighted to curate this program when I became part of the festival. It’s a small section with only three or four films, but it provides an opportunity to explore artistic topics.

This year, the program is dedicated to the theme of images of violence, war, and the future in the digital world. Digital images of war and violence surround us, which can desensitise us and impact our future vision. I want to raise questions about how we navigate through these images and maintain the ability to shape our future.

PC: Stas Kartashov

Another aspect of the programme is the screening of Kokomo City, which focuses on LGBTQ+ issues. Why is it important to include films like this in the festival?

This screening is part of a special event curated by Bohdan Zhuk, our colleague who co-founded the first LGBTQ+ festival in Kyiv, Sunny Bunny. This festival is essential for the Ukrainian cinema landscape as it raises important questions about human rights and promotes dialogue within society. Despite the circumstances, this screening at our festival is significant and supports the development of Ukrainian film. It’s an event I’m excited about!

Apart from the specific screenings mentioned, are there any other events or films in the programme that you find compelling or have a particular affinity for?

We have another very nice special event that I would like to highlight. It’s a film screening curated by our colleagues from the Krakow Film Festival. This event is significant because we collaborated with them last year, and they kindly hosted our national competition program. Their support was crucial for Ukrainian films, as they had their Ukrainian premiere at their festival.

This year, we decided to continue our collaboration by curating a film to be shown at the Krakow Film Festival. While the film hasn’t been announced yet, I assure you it will be included in our program. It’s called We Will Not Fade Away. Additionally, we plan to show a Polish film curated by Krakow Film Festival called No Elephant in the Room, which explores the changes after the fall of the USSR. This topic is highly relevant and important to the Ukrainian cultural landscape.

Moving on to a more personal question about your relationship with the documentary genre. Is there a specific film, filmmaker, or filmography that sparked your interest in the genre?

One director has been one of my favourite filmmakers for a long time, Jem Cohen. He is an American filmmaker who works on both documentary and feature films, often experimenting with his approach. When I first watched some of his movies, like Benjamin Smoke, it was a magical experience for me. His documentary filmmaking and editing approach is unique, light, and profound. It’s incomparable to any other filmmaker or style. I know he is associated with Jonas Mekas. But, of course, Mekas is one of the most influential film directors ever, and Cohen has a completely different approach to documentaries.

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