School #3

Yelizaveta Smith, Georg Genoux

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Yelizaveta Smith and Georg Genoux, School #3 (still), 2017.

Artist Cinemas presents School #3
Yelizaveta Smith, Georg Genoux

115 Minutes
Ukranian and Russian with English subtitles

Artist Cinemas
Week #4

July 8–14, 2020

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for the online premiere of Yelizaveta Smith and Georg Genoux’s School #3 (2017), on view from Wednesday, July 8 through Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

The online premiere of Genoux’s and Smith’s film takes the War and Cinema program to its next phase. Each of the works previously presented by War and Cinema shared a number of common traits. Firstly, they were all made using open-source data, even if their respective authors approached this data with wildly varying attitudes. Furthermore, they were each less concerned with human individuals than they were with current technologies of moving-image production and their implications for human societies. Lastly, all of the films had been available online prior to their screening at e-flux Video & Film.

In contrast, the remaining half of the War and Cinema program will consist entirely of online premieres. Two of the upcoming releases are focused on the human and social toll of war, rather than on its political and technological roots. This does not mean that they depict the tragedy of warfare at the level of individual drama—a strategy that’s been at the root of misrepresentations of war in Capitalist Realism. Instead, these films seek ways of collective action and imagination because of—and in spite of—the war.

One of the episodes of The Battle of Ilovaisk by Forensic Architecture, screened in War and Cinema last week, takes place in an ordinary school in Eastern Ukraine that was converted into an interrogation facility. This week’s film by Yelizaveta Smith and Georg Genoux takes its viewers to a similar school in the same region. The hostilities are over, and the students of School #3 are returning to class, bringing their war traumas along with them. Together with the filmmakers, the students of School #3 created a documentary play that was then developed into a film over the course of two years. In 2017, their eponymous film, School #3, went on to win the Grand-Prix of the Generation 14plus award at the Berlinale.

School #3 is presented here alongside an interview with Yelizaveta Smith by Oleksiy Kuchanskyi. The film and interview are the fourth installment of War and Cinema, a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by Oleksiy 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(s) by Radynski and other invited guests.

Yelizaveta Smith in conversation with Oleksiy Kuchanskyi

Oleksiy Kuchanskyi (OK):
The film you’ve co-directed with Georg Genoux reflects on the deepest consequences of the war in Donbass—the transformation of everyday life. Why did you decide to focus on this school in Mykolayivka?[1]

Yelizaveta Smith (YS):
I first visited School #3 in Mykolaivka in 2014, when I joined a volunteer initiative there. That’s how I met the future co-authors of the film, co-director Georg Genoux and playwright Natasha Vorozhbyt, for the first time. I was preparing a St. Nicholas Day play at the school with the New Donbas initiative. It was a very cool experience. The children were really involved. Georg looks quite similar to St. Nicholas, so he played the main role. We started shooting then, but that footage was not used for the film because we didn’t understand exactly what we wanted to do at the time.

About one or two months later, Georg and Natasha were preparing a play at School #3. It was a documentary play where students were performing their own monologues about what they had experienced during the war. Georg and Natasha invited me to create video fragments to be used in the play. It was then that we decided to make a film based on these monologues. The project started with the volunteer movement, and was only later transformed into a film.

What is your understanding of the relationship between documentary theater and cinema? What do they have in common and how do they interact in your work?

Compared to the play, our film included more monologues. In addition to the monologues, we also filmed the students going to the river, drinking wine, listening to Radiohead, and doing whatever. We decided to shoot the monologues using two cameras and a single take, so that the viewer would have the impression that the students were talking directly to them. Although this very specific cinematic principle made it difficult for me to edit, it was important to us to avoid the “talking heads” effect, and instead create the impression of a conversation.

Let’s talk about the locations in the film and your filmic method. I really like the measured emotional tone of School #3. This differentiates your film from most other films made on the subject of the war in Ukraine, which are usually full of pathos. By contrast, your film consists of static frontal shots. It has a reserved rhythm. Why do you think it’s important to make a film about banal, non-heroic, non-tragic, everyday things, depicted in a manner that is devoid of dramatic images, in the midst of militaristic destruction?

We shot a lot of footage, some of which included images of destroyed buildings—but none of that was included during the editing. You see, we had been filming for a very long time—about two years—so it was no longer possible to film from the position of an outside observer. It became clear that the war was not just about the military or infrastructural aftermath. It also had a human face. Even against the background of the war, the teenagers we filmed were dealing with the same things that teenagers dealt with anywhere in the world: they fell in love, drank wine, and listened to music just like everyone else. This was very special.

Can you tell me a little bit more about this involvement you felt while you were filming?

The point is that it was not only important for the students to tell their stories, but it was also important for us, the filmmakers, to hear them. It is one thing to be in Kyiv and feel disturbed by the news of what is happening in Eastern Ukraine, but another thing to have it be directly tied to your personal business as well. The film itself is not only the image on the screen, but a result of our need for reciprocal conversation, a result of our co-existence.

I was finishing school about the same year as the students in your film, and I clearly remember how the Maidan uprising and the war overshadowed all those hopes for a happy future after graduation. Could we say that your film is about this sense of an overshadowed future?

I don’t think so. In Mykolaivka, young people have almost no opportunity to choose their future. Our project opened more horizons for these teenagers to see the world. They started traveling to Kyiv, to Lviv, to Berlin, to Odessa, where they visited the film festivals as part of our team. They had the opportunity to see the world beyond their small town, one built around the local thermal power station. Before that, most of them had never journeyed outside their town. Mykolayivka is, in general, a slightly different planet—“like Mars,” as one of our protagonists, Vanya Shilo, says. Vanya even got a tattoo of Mars after the shooting of the film. Currently, most of the students are studying at universities in Kharkiv and Kyiv. Altogether, our collective production of the film and its screenings opened up a multiplicity of perspectives and future possibilities. For instance, two heroines of the film, Vika and Alina, are currently getting a degree in film direction.

In my opinion, although traumatic events (such as war or revolution) bring pain and suffering, sometimes they can also become a basis for solidarity, cooperation, and support. I hope that the traumas inflicted by this war were worked through, in some ways—through the process of the project itself.

Who are the protagonists of your film?

The protagonists included students who responded to the call to be a part of the play, and then a part of the film. The friendship that has developed between us is really important. We’re still in touch.

There is a convention in documentary filmmaking that often centers the film around a main protagonist. Why did you decide to create a collective image of the students?

I enjoy finding new ways to approach filmmaking, to experiment with filmic language. Honestly, it never even crossed our minds to create a central character for the film. To a large extent, the “collectivity” of the students’ image is a result of the documentary quality of the theatrical play, and the relationships we built through our volunteer practice. This collective was simply our team, a team that emerged out of our filmic approach.

We made a decision to shoot in a typical post-Soviet school. We recognized its static aesthetics, and decided to emphasize it. The liveness of the students’ dialogues, walks, and stories became even more expressive against this unchanging background. In one of the walking scenes, we decided not to remove the noise of the wind that interferes with the sound of the Radiohead song playing on the mobile phone. In my opinion, this combination of the static setting of the post-Soviet era school with monologues that were improvised alongside the walks, created a third feeling. A feeling of life with the war and with post-Soviet infrastructure in the background.

You talked about the importance of hearing and listening. How can film be a platform for such conversations? What political consequences might this conversation have?

We approached what the students were saying objectively and impartially. We did not push the teenagers towards politics at all. Nevertheless, the screening of the film at the Berlin Film Festival—about schoolchildren who experienced the war in Donbass—can surely be seen as a political event.

We made this film without any political motivations, but with a will to talk—because conversation is something that is very lacking in our country. This is something I have come to believe based on my experience filming the Maidan, and from observing the referendum in Crimea. Eye-to-eye dialogue (including one that is recorded on camera) is the best way for people to be heard. In 2014-2015 it was important for the people of Eastern Ukraine to be heard, although not everyone in our country was ready to listen. Not everyone wanted to hear what they had been overcoming, their experiences. I don’t mean their opinions, because opinions can be based on false information taken from the Internet. I’m talking about experience.

There is an ethical dimension to the relationship between cinema and its infrastructure. You’ve mentioned that the students often attend the screenings of the film. Why did you decide to do this?

During the filming, we made an agreement with the participants that I would ask for their approval prior to each screening. This seemed very natural to me in relation to this film, because the students shared their personal experiences—they didn’t just give interviews on camera. This consultation is also important due to the fact that certain fragments of the film could, and might, be used by our political opponents. We take special care to make it impossible to record the film during its screenings, because if re-edited, it may have a completely different meaning. I really want to avoid this happening to the students.

[1] Mykolaivka is a town in the Donbass region of East Ukraine that was a target of shelling during the Russian invasion in 2014.

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

War & Conflict, Theater
Eastern Europe, Documentary, Soviet Union
Return to War and Cinema
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Yelizaveta Smith was born in Odessa, Ukraine and graduated from National University of Theatre and Cinema in Kyiv as a film director. In 2014, she co-founded the film company Tabor Production. After the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, she started volunteer work with children in Mykolaivka in the Donbass region, a town partly destroyed by the war. This was a starting point for her film School #3, which premiered at Berlinale 2017 and received the Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus program. Her primary interest is documentary theatre. Smith is a member of the Ukrainian Film Academy and the European Film Academy.

Georg Genoux is a co-founder of Teatr.doc, Democracy.doc, and the Joseph Beuys Theater in Moscow. He has directed and curated more than eighty projects for the theater in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Germany. His productions have been shown at festivals in Berlin, Warsaw, London, Hamburg, Basel, St Petersburg, Kyiv, Riga, Helsinki, Tallinn, Yerevan, and Sofia. In 2012, his work Crisis was invited to the Hebbel am Ufer for the 7th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art. Genoux also adapted Joseph Beuys’ essay “A Call for an Alternative” for the stage as part of a large exhibition in Moscow in 2012. Together with Nataliya Vorozhbyt, he founded the Theater of Displaced People in Kyiv in 2015. For his documentary School #3 (co-directed with Yelizaveta Smith), he was awarded the Grand Prix Generation 14plus at the 2017 Berlinale.


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