How do you go from working an advertising office job in Melbourne to becoming a documentary filmmaker in a war zone? We spoke with Australian documentary filmmaker Stefan Bugryn who has made the 24-minute War Mothers, a doc about the cost to families who’ve lost their children in conflict – shot in war-torn areas of Ukraine.
What made you make this film, and put yourself in these risky, unstable areas of Ukraine?
The catalyst to the project was a story I came across one day on Facebook. As a member of the local Ukrainian community here in Melbourne, I followed news of the conflict in Ukraine quite closely, and in particular from a certain blog, Euromaidan Press.
One post came up with the heading, ‘war mothers’, and I was immediately drawn in. The story was about a woman called Svetlana, whose son had sadly passed away on the frontline. In his honour, Svetlana joined the army, and served alongside the soldiers that fought with her son. The reality of this situation hit me deep. I am close to my mother, I’m passionate about my Ukrainian heritage, and I always felt what was happening in Ukraine was unjust, so this story stayed with me, and I realised I wanted to not only hear more stories of these women and mothers, but I wanted to tell them, to help keep Ukraine in the conversation.
When I told my boss I was quitting to film a documentary about war mothers in Ukraine, I knew it was going to shock them, but they were incredibly supportive. Most people, once they learnt about the project, wanted to help or contribute in some way. It’s been an amazing experience, it has united people from the other side of the planet. In fact, Yulia, one of the mothers from the film, said something quite eloquently for the audience at our first screening:
‘I always remember how far Australia is, on the other side of the planet, and that there are people there who care about us, have faith in us, and believe that we can withstand the hardship and that everything will be fine! I tell my men about this and it gives them strength again, their tiredness goes away… We see your faces all around the world, how you as the children of Ukraine support us in different parts of the world. We see our yellow-and-blue flag waving in the streets in every country of our planet.’
How did you make the film in such an unstable country? Did that add to the immediacy of the project?
I worked largely on my own with different fixers (temporary PAs who helped me with translation, transportation, etc) and a small team of around 2-3 crew. As I have Ukrainian heritage, and Ukrainian tattoos, and I speak Ukrainian rather than Russian, I was taken in by a lot of people as their own and treated as a distant relative. People allowed me to live with them, travel through the conflict zone, and I met people that might otherwise be unreachable because of my status.
The instability of war added its own complexities, especially travelling through the war-zones. People would be suspicious of me at first, but those barriers would break down quite fast. There was also the security factor, but people were often quite relaxed. War has become second nature to most people, it’s in its 4th year now, with no signs of slowing down, so, many formalities were actually quite relaxed.
How long were you there?
Altogether, I was there for around 3-4 months over 3 separate trips, with most of my time spent in Zaporizhia where a lot of the war mothers are located. I lived in the Prival volunteer centre, which acts as a hospice for travelling soldiers. It has 20 beds, with a 24-hour roster of mothers who would mostly cook and clean and attend to the soldiers. This volunteer centre was created by Galina, one of the mothers in the film, whom I speak with still today. She manages the centre, and travels to the frontline every fortnight to drop supplies to the soldiers. Her son died in 2014, and she used her trauma to help others. She is one the most incredible people I’ve ever met.
Did you feel threatened at times, were you scared?
In the war zones I always felt uneasy. The first time I went to the frontline, I didn’t even know that’s where we were going due to the fact that my driver spoke mostly Russian and I didn’t understand him! I told him I wanted to meet some soldiers, so he drove me 3 hours to the very frontline! I ended up sleeping there with the soldiers, and thankfully there was no fighting. I arrived when it was dark, had dinner with everyone, and they just bombarded me with questions. I felt like they were doing a documentary on me!
Most times, I never knew where I was, because for security reasons I couldn’t be told. On another visit, I was put in the back of a truck, and was in complete darkness while they drove half an hour to the frontline.
I didn’t realise how stressed I was until I was back out of the war zone. I woke up one morning with intense stomach pain, I couldn’t get up. An ambulance came for me, but as soon as I got in, I felt better. They ran blood tests, urine tests, x-rays, you name it, and it all came out OK. I only realised afterwards that this pain was most likely a result of the stress and anxiety I had for days travelling through the war zones… coupled with a poor diet of nothing more than sausage and cheese!
What’s your Melbourne Documentary Film Festival Masterclass about, what will people get out of it?
I will not only be recounting my experiences, but discussing how I raised funds, how I operated largely on my own, how I conducted these sensitive interviews, and how I sourced my crew. My producer will be joining me, and we’ll both talk about the editing process, finding the story through different narratives, and how we are working on the next one, which is the story of another incredible woman who, despite all odds, became one of Ukraine’s most important figures in the war… all at the age of just 21.
Stefan Bugryn will be speaking about his experiences making War Mothers in a masterclass at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.
You can buy tickets here: http://moshtix.com.au/v2/event/mdff-melbourne-stories/104478