Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine

Yuriy Hrytsyna

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Yuriy Hrytsyna, Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine (still), 2015.

Artist Cinemas presents Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine
Yuriy Hrytsyna

64 Minutes
Ukrainian with English subtitles

Artist Cinemas
Week #1

June 17–23, 2020

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Yuriy Hrytsyna’s Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine* (2015), on view from Wednesday, June 17 through Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

Let’s think of a mass uprising, sparked by police violence. Over three months, the confrontation intensifies. The central square of the capital is taken over by the rebels. The police mounts its pressure, the protesters respond accordingly. The escalation reaches a climax, and dozens of protesters are killed in one day. But, instead of the bloody crackdown continuing, as would be expected, something completely different happens. Law enforcement suddenly evaporates.

The regime, which only yesterday was sending the army against its citizens, is now collapsing before our eyes. The president has fled the palace. Some say he’s already in Russia. (No, this is not about Donald Trump). What can be done when law enforcement is gone, and the people, en masse, start weaponizing their social media bubbles, their mobile phones, their bodies, and their cars?

Yuriy Hrytsyna’s Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine (2015) is an experimental documentary that interrogates the notions of online mobilization, direct democracy, hierarchy, and violence. The film is based on conversations recorded on a Zello online radio channel, used by the community of car drivers who organized into a grassroots patrol militia in the city of Lviv in Western Ukraine. These conversations take place during the brief interregnum right after the collapse of the pro-Russian government of Ukraine, in the wake of the February 2014 Maidan uprising.

Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmaker by Oleksiy Radynski​. The film and interview are the first installment of War and Cinema, a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by Radynski, and comprising the second cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

War and Cinema will run for six weeks from June 17 through July 29, 2020, with each film running for one week and featuring an interview with the filmmaker by Radynski and other invited guests.

*Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine continues to be available online on this link.

Yuriy Hrytsyna in conversation with Oleksiy Radynski ​

Oleksiy Radynski (OR):
Let’s talk about the time of action in Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine. It’s February 20, 2014, a state of exception: The Yanukovych regime has just announced its “anti-terrorist operation” in Kyiv to crack down on the uprising. But the regime suddenly collapses, there’s a power vacuum, and the role of the sovereign in this state of exception is taken over by the rebels themselves, all over the country.

Yuriy Hrytsyna (YH):
Just for the sake of chronology: On February 18, 2014, the police attack a large-scale protest march in Kyiv. There’s a real bloodbath in the government district, and everyone gets the impression that the end of the uprising will just be a matter of a couple of days. There is no general plan, the opposition is totally confused. In the city of Lviv, groups of people start to assemble, without obvious coordination. Before that, activists had been blocking the exits of military units where the riot police were based. But now, completely different people start coming to the military units, and suddenly, they are occupying them. The prosecutor’s office and several police departments get occupied as well. Someone seizes the weapons while the prosecutor’s office is busy burning documents. And no one can in fact say who’s doing all that, and what’s the purpose of it all—apart from, maybe, showing the central government that the city is out of their control.

One of the participants of Varta 1[1] in your film mentions listening in on the online channels of anti-Maidan.[2]And it becomes clear that the participants of anti-Maidan are also listening in on the Varta1 channel, and making their own conclusions. There’s an idea that the war in Ukraine was to a large extent determined by digital communication technologies—or by the inability to control the effects of their use. For sure, some experiments were staged; someone might have thought they could model and control the situation, or create a certain scenario of events. And each of these scenarios collapsed one by one, as the effect of mobilization on social media was almost always completely different from what was expected. What do you think of the role of Zello online radio in this situation?

Zello is a technology without memory, programmed for immediate reactions and for constant presence. It’s impossible to rewind what you hear on Zello, to be able to analyze it somehow. It’s a great source for emotional escalation, because fake information that was announced an hour ago, and then refuted, remains in the emotional memory of those who came in touch with it.

Everyone had a Zello these days. There were lots of anti-Maidan channels in the Donbass as well. Everyone was listening in on everyone, and trying to infiltrate each other’s channels to do some acts of sabotage and so on. All of the conversations were recorded, then some re-edits were published in order to prove some point. Lots of media sources were used in the Donbass during the spread of the panic. Zello, in fact, was a tool for spreading rumours, rather than a tool for real immediate coordination—it was really difficult to get on the channels where the real action was happening.

So, your work with the Zello archives goes against the grain of this medium, which is aimed at immediate emotional mobilization and the oblivion of facts. By replaying these recordings again and again, you are kind of disenchanting the medium, because all of these conversations were meant to be heard only once.

It only makes sense to work with archives if you’re questioning them. I started by archiving the recordings, which were meant to disappear without a trace. Then I disassembled this archive into parts, to enable dialogues that could not happen in reality because of chaos and the limitations of this technology. To a certain extent, this is manipulation, even though I’ve approached the material really carefully, trying to stick to its context. I created the dialogues that I wanted to hear in reality. It seemed to me that, had these dialogues received more attention at the time, the course of events could have been different.

In a way, Varta1 is a film created to be unarchived in ten, twenty, or fifty years. I think this is when the messages contained in these conversations will fully open up. This would be a realization of a certain moment in history, its reassembly in the future.

I think I’m mostly concerned by two issues: memory and distance. Is experience possible over distance? Is it possible to get an experience of events you’ve never participated in? Is memory about such events possible? It seems that film is the best suited form to ask these questions.

A key moment for me in your film comes when the moderator announces a railway strike—the workers want to block Akhmetov’s[3] freight trains that are headed for the EU. But in a couple of minutes, a chase after a black Porsche Cayenne starts, and there’s no mention of a railway strike any more. To me, this is a really savvy representation of how grassroots popular rage works—even if you didn’t construct this deliberately in your film. Or did you?

The train blockade was a very advanced step. Possibly, it was the most political gesture in Lviv during those days. But there are no official mentions of it left, which is also the case with most of the events that took place in Lviv at the time. Everyone felt that something needed to be done, but no one had an idea what exactly. So everyone was trying to cover their own sector of reality, whatever they could reach out to. I’m sure that the people who were chasing the black Porsche Cayenne were thinking that the most important moment of their lives had come. Suddenly, justice became really obvious, and it could be restored by their own hands. But this restoration of justice starts to get normalized—gradually, but confidently—by the moderators, as if they were some kind of power representatives. And this destroys the hope in the importance of sovereign action, which is not sanctioned by power or the state.

Let’s not forget that people in the city had quite a few firearms expropriated from police departments at the time. And suddenly the situation comes back to the norm: some kind of hierarchical equilibrium gets reestablished—but with completely different players at the top. Do you imagine how this could have developed if war hadn’t broken out in the East of the country, and consumed this energy of dissent?

It seems we know much less about these events in Lviv than we know about the first days of conflict in the Donbass. Hundreds of hours of video were recorded in the Donbass, and everything got more or less reconstructed by open-source intelligence. But there are always black holes at the centers of these reconstructions. Who had pushed the first domino bone? Did they have any idea what they were doing, or what it may lead to?

It’s much more difficult to talk about the Lviv events. What’s left of them are these radio conversations, but practically no videos or recollections. There’s no kind of oral history. There are no official investigation results. Even though, in my eyes, this seizure of arms in Lviv was a central event of the revolution. The pro-Russians in Crimea and in the Donbass constantly referred to it to justify their actions. There’s lots of conspiracy theories about it, but no adequate reconstruction, no understanding even as to its necessity.

The question of the seized arms is crucial. Where did they end up? The patrols didn’t find a single firearm in those early days. Eventually during 2014 many of the arms that disappeared on that night were returned to the police anonymously. Did the seized arms play a role somewhere? Were they used at some point? I don’t think so. But the very idea of arms in the hands of people had set a chain of events in motion. Everyone suddenly had an excuse.

Today, as we know, a lot of people have arms that come from the frontline. While you hear news of explosions in peaceful regions almost every week, these firearms are not used for political violence—they are rather kept as a guarantee of personal safety. And they are very often used for suicide.

How did you start to work with the online video archives from the Donbass war? Did you have any system for searching and archiving, or was it entirely spontaneous?

I started watching these videos as soon as they were coming out. I remember well the shock from the famous video of the seizure of a police department in Sloviansk.[4] Immediately there was a feeling that this was serious and was going to last for a long time. But I didn’t have any system to work with these videos. I was monitoring the online communities and video-channels of the military and separatists in the East of Ukraine, I was archiving the videos into playlists, downloading certain things. Starting summer 2014, I had two basic search tactics: to view every video searchable under the tag #ATO,[5] and to search for each town and village where there was action on that day. I would also follow the channels of people who shot the videos that were spreading on social media.

In 2015, I used this footage to make ATO 720p mp4, a film based on several dozens of videos that shows how anonymous authors were searching for a form to express the experience of war, and to transmit messages to viewers. But I was always tormented by the need to sign this film with my name, to be its author. All of these videos existed in the zone outside authorship, and it would be absurd to become a director of all this. I wrote an essay about my confusion, but I never came to terms with the inevitability of authorship, so I’ve hidden this film and all my other attempts to find form for this kind of cinema.

And then in 2018, a big surprise came when I found a film on YouTube that had combined videos shot by 443 different people into a five-hour-long panorama of the last five years of war in the East of Ukraine. It’s an anomymous film called “to watch the war.” It’s obvious that someone had made a selection and edit of these materials, but in the absence of explicit authorship these videos had been left in their natural environment— in the anonymity of common access on YouTube.

When, in the same year, I went back to my video playlists from 2014, I realized that more than 70 per cent of the videos had been deleted, even the titles were gone. Some channels had been reported for violent content, some had been deleted by their authors. Some videos had been saved on channel aggregators that monetize shock content. Oftentimes the videos on these channels were already cut, with watermarks added, and taken out of context. As a result, channels like these became the most lasting archives of the war.

How does your practice relate to open-source intelligence? It seems you’re interested neither in establishing the facts, nor in punishing the perpetrators. What motivates you then?

My approach has been more anthropological. While viewing these videos, I’ve been rather looking for some kind of visual grammar of war. For me, this was more important than the chronology or relevance of events. The most important thing about the videos produced by Bellingcat or Forensic Architecture for example is their evidentiary value, but for me the visual surface is more important. The form of videos of war is sometimes more important than their content.

For me, these videos are not about the evidence of war. What’s important here is how the story about the war is formed, how the war is taking place in territories that are far away from the actual hostilities. Because the goal of such videos is to mobilize and, even more importantly, to create memories of these events in people who never participated in them. These videos create an impression of something that happened to you personally as a viewer—through shock, passion, compassion.

So, to a certain extent, this war is not just for territories, its a war for images. It’s a war that lives through the production of war images. Those images are the fuel that runs the war machine. Which is, in fact, an excavator unearthing those same war images.

Let’s talk about emotions in the context of war and cinema. In your latest film Far from Lviv (2020), there’s a mention of an idea that Lviv as a city was supposed to produce emotions, and nothing else—it’s actually a quote from a managerial strategy by the city government, from ten years ago. And now, since the war broke out, the economy of emotions has taken on a completely new significance in our country. These days, in fact, the whole population is producing emotions that are in turn monetized by war, and via digital technologies. It’s interesting that your films are quite anti-emotional. Or are you developing some other modes of emotionality in your films?

I don’t think my films are anti-emotional. In the end, the main impulse to make them comes from strong experiences. Usually this is rage, but also longing and confusion. All of my films are about the distance from places where I would like to be but, for various reasons, I can’t. My first film was about Lviv as a place that was about to be transformed from a post-Soviet city into a gentrified neoliberal space. Now, ten years later, it’s clear that this transformation has been completed. So film is a form of remembrance for me. In the same way, Varta1 is a film about my Lviv, which has to be remembered through the filter of this lo-fi Hi8 film, which is the only way to capture its visual aura. In Far from Lviv, there’s a feeling of the end of something that remains unnamed, but is related to borders, to distance. Now I feel it’s a full-fledged quarantine film.

We should resist the monetization of emotions, but it’s hard for me to imagine how to do this. We are entering a new era, when emotions and experiences will become even more of a surplus that’s available to a limited circle. And it seems that cinema, which had performed the function of this surplus during the last hundred years, will have less and less relevance. Because film is a linear pleasure. Be seated, be silent, and watch. Stay at home. But nowadays, all enjoyment in visual culture is concentrated in media that allow viewers to simultaneously be the consumers of their own content.

I believe in the constant elaboration of one’s own stories and finding commonalities with stories seen through the eyes of others. So I’m not so much in favor of anti-emotionality, which is quite common in contemporary art. I’m in favor of a partisan emotionality of all things small and temporary—just like my films themselves. This is a constant work that has more to do with the process than with its outcome.

Can you speak about the landscapes represented in Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine—something we call bumblefuck? (It’s kind of amazing that there’s almost a literal English translation of this Ukrainian slang term—yebenia). It seems bumblefuck has proved to be resilient enough to survive the Lviv version of gentrification. This is best seen in the shots with the Euro 2012 football stadium on the horizon—it looks as if its on a different planet in relation to the landscape in the foreground. There’s an impression that any kind of capital is going to break its teeth trying to deal with this. It seems the Soviet era had produced way too much bumblefuck—it’s just too total and overwhelming to be digested by capital, which is probably going to consume itself from within much faster.

The landscapes in Varta1 are pretty much anonymous spaces, they could be shot in the majority of post-Soviet cities. The film kind of evades the city center—something that is actually thought to be the city of Lviv. But my memory of this city is constructed in such a way, that my emotions are connected to these spaces.

Bumblefuck is a very interesting thing to me. When you see an element of a city landscape that emerged during the Soviet era, you oftentimes get a feeling of, “This is where I belong, I know who I am within these coordinates.” One could say this is “ruin porn,” and this should make you feel guilty. But for those who grew up in these kinds of ruins, or still live among them, this nagging feeling is a kind of invitation to the gentle surrealism of the everyday, where potentials grow out of raw chance. It’s quite realistic to imagine that huge parts of these landscapes will disappear in the next twenty years, but maybe the recession will slow these tendencies down. At the same time, it seems to me that this aestethization of bumblefuck is going to become an important emotional export of our country. You can already see this in the music videos shot by Western pop stars in Ukraine.

Why did you call this film Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine? Why was it important for you to stress this geographical and political attachment?

This title is an attempt at a very precise localization, and it also points out that the film is about three phenomena. It’s about spontaneous activists in times of revolution. It’s about Lviv as a city at the periphery of this revolution, but simultaneously a city that’s somehow central in the Ukrainian collective imagination. And it’s a film about Ukraine, as the conflicts and discussions that transpire in the film have always been decisive for this country, and always will be. I wanted to make a film about a very specific event, and simultaneously a statement on the tendencies of Ukrainian history.

Tell me about Société des amis du peuple. What is this group and why are your films signed with its name?

Société des amis du peuple was a revolutionary, socialist organization, founded by August Blanquit in nineteenth-century France. I came across this name in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and decided to appropriate it. Its name conveys some kind of love of the people, and at the same time a certain distance, an observation from outside. It seems that this position suits documentary filmmaking. I would like to think about it as a label where I could collaborate with like-minded authors. But I don’t have producing ambitions at the moment.

You came to filmmaking through cinephilia. Can you speak about your experience as a cinephile?

Cinephilia is a school of sight, a constant calibration of optics. In 2012-13 I could watch four films a day. When the Maidan started, it became much more difficult for me to watch films. In 2014 I didn’t watch nearly anything, apart from war videos. The same as now, during quarantine—there’s no urge to watch films. When life thickens, when all the aching spots of reality become visible for a short time, reality becomes more important than someone’s footage. And I think that the urge to take a camera and start filming is very logical and natural. It’s a form of communication. Cinephilia is an ability to share what’s important, through films. The same goes for filming—it’s always a message whose addressee is unknown.

[1] Varta1 is the name of a Zello online radio channel used to coordinate the communities of car drivers (the “Auto-Maidan”) involved with the protest movement in Lviv.

[2] During the Maidan uprising in Ukraine, anti-Maidan emerged as a loyalist movement in support of the pro-Russian government of Ukraine at the time.

[3] Rinat Akhmetov is a Ukrainian billionaire, oligarch, and political patron of Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine who was toppled in 2014. After the Maidan uprising, Akhmetov retained his influence and remains one of the wealthiest men in Ukraine.

[4] On April 12, 2014, a police department in Eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk was seized by armed men, leading to the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbass region. Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov), an officer of Russian secret services, admitted he was in charge of this armed group.

[5] ATO, or Аnti-Terrorist Operation, is an official designation used by the Ukrainian government to refer to the hostilities in the Donbass region of Ukraine that started in April 2014.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

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Yuriy Hrytsyna is a Ukrainian film director, film critic, photographer, and anthropologist. His documentary film Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine won the FIPRESCI prize at the Odessa International Film Festival 2016 and received a special mention at the International Human Rights Film Festival Docudays UA 2016. His areas of interest are temporary archives, amateur videos, digital anthropology, memory, and nostalgia as mobilizing and demobilizing projects. Filmography: The Language and the World (2011), Varta1, Lviv, Ukraine (2016), Far from Lviv (2020).


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