Letter to a Turtledove

Dana Kavelina

This video is no longer available

Dana Kavelina, Letter to a Turtledove (still), 2020.

Artist Cinemas presents Letter to a Turtledove
Dana Kavelina

20 Minutes
Russian with English subtitles*

*To view the subtitles, select the Closed Captions (CC) option on the player

Artist Cinemas
Week #5

July 15–21, 2020

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for the premiere of Dana Kavelina’s Letter to a Turtledove (2020), on view from Wednesday, July 15 through Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Dana Kavelina’s film-poem Letter to a Turtledove was completed just a couple of weeks prior to its screening on e-flux Video & Film, which marks the film’s premiere. The artist’s original intention had been to publish her new work on YouTube as a reciprocal gesture towards the found online footage she had appropriated. The film’s inclusion in the War and Cinema program is an attempt to alter the trajectory of this film that works as a shell fired at no particular target, and with no casualties in mind.

One of the crucial sources for Kavelina’s work is the anonymous five-hour documentary To Watch the War (2018), a piece of found-footage filmmaking in its own right (previously discussed on War and Cinema in an interview with Yuriy Hrytsyna). Letter to a Turtledove is thus a second-degree artistic appropriation of amateur footage shot during the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine, recombined into a surreal anti-war film-poem. The war videos are interspersed with Kavelina’s own animated segments, staged mise-en-scènes, and archival footage of the Donbass from the 1930s (when the region became a hotspot for Stalinist industrialization of the Soviet Union, and of heated class warfare) onwards.

There’s an actual poem at the film’s center: a monologue spoken off-screen, authored by Kavelina herself (and translated into English by Sergey Levchin). This piece of writing encapsulates the multitude of traumas, grievances, horrors, dreams, and hallucinations that have descended upon the Donbass region since its invasion by Russia in 2014. Still, numerous elements of this multitude originate from long before the war had actually broken out.

Letter to a Turtledove is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmaker by Oleksiy Kuchanskyi. The film and interview are the fifth 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.

Dana Kavelina in conversation with Oleksiy Kuchanskyi

Oleksiy Kuchanskyi (OK):
Why did you decide to name your film Letter to a Turtledove?

Dana Kavelina (DK):
Initially, Letter to a Turtledove was conceived as a radio play. The word “letter,” in this case, actually refers to a radio signal, or call, addressed to a woman in the occupied territories—a message intercepted by someone on the other side of the frontline. The film itself is an attempt to build an alternative optics in order to examine the conflict in Ukraine, an invitation to understand the war not through the lens of the “friend-enemy” distinction, but through the “rapist-victim” dichotomy.

Within these coordinates, the most important thing for me was to discover the specific agency the victim has in their possession—to grasp this kind of paradox. The “victim” is usually understood as someone whose subjectivity has been confiscated, and who is, therefore, understood as an object. I propose to think of the victim as someone who, while not a transmitter of violence themselves, possesses agency by absorbing and encapsulating it.

You work with different mediums as an artist, including drawing, installation, and animation. Why did you decide to make Letter to a Turtledove a film?

The most important thing for me in the case of this film is the text. Film and animation are mediums that vitalize the text—they bring the images in the text to life. I was totally influenced by the anonymously authored film To Watch the War (2018), which was composed of 422 pieces of video evidence from the conflict zone in Donbass. These pieces of evidence were so compelling to me that I felt the need to create an additional space for dialogue between them—which, for me, is a dialogue between the past and present, between the political and the intimate.

Why is this dialogue important today?

Because now, as always, there is a struggle over interpretations of the past. Sometimes this is referred to as “rewriting history”—for example, rewriting the history of the Lviv pogrom[1], or rewriting the history of collaboration with the Nazis. But I think that history is always being rewritten—always reconfiguring whose particular optics is relevant, whose narrative is dominant. The prevailing nationalist historical narrative seems to be very dangerous, so I think that the aim of my work as an artist is to produce other points of view, to offer an alternative interpretation, or to at least create a space for the appearance of something else—by revealing the most uncomfortable blind spots, or by exposing wounds. I think we should let the dead witness for themselves.

Why did you decide to use archival footage in your film?

It seems to me that in relation to the Donbass, we are faced with the distortion of the past and the dehumanization of an entire region of the country in which we now live. It’s as if we are stuck in an eternal present. By including archival footage, I wanted to recall other myths about the Donbass. The Donbass was the place of inescapable labor enthusiasm and the “All-Union Stokehold,”[2] and the motherland of the Stakhanovite movement [3]. The Donbass city of Donetsk is represented as both the city of a million roses and as the mining capital. As long as these chronicles still exist, I have evidence that there are alternative historical narratives about the Donbass region. Given the current political situation, I have the feeling that it’s not just me looking at the archive, but that the archive is staring back at me. The archival materials have their own agency, they cast a long shadow, they raise questions. We must give them answers. We cannot erase seventy years of Soviet history, but we can pursue a dialogue with it. I’m trying to revive and recreate this possibility of dialogue by comparing modern footage with footage from the 1930s or ‘70s, and compiling the footage in such a way that they cast a shadow on one another, so that in this shadow, in the gap, we can outline ourselves—our alternative Ukrainian identity. The history of the Donbass seems to me to be a kind of fracture point: it is not our history anymore because the current political narratives are based on a radical rejection of our Soviet past, which creates a kind of blind spot. It is not our history because we refuse to accept this rejection—but it’s also no one else’s history. It exists as a kind of gap, a paradox. Territorially and temporally, our Soviet past existed, but at the same time it didn’t. It’s a missing piece of the story, a blind spot.

I really like your idea of archival footage staring back at us. It is interesting how you combine this footage with a very personal speech addressed to a specific girl. Could you talk more about this element of intimacy in your film?

The intimate component of this speech is intended to find the space between the political and the intimate, since I try to weigh their importance equally. What we call “intimate” can ultimately turn out to be very political—for example, when we are talking about rape during war.

I reduce the distance between an abstract number of victims to a specific woman to whom the speech is addressed—a “you,” who may potentially be anybody. However, the actress in the film is a person who is really close to me—my friend, comrade, muse. In this sense, the intimacy is genuine. But in the film, her name and physical body are an empty vessel. She is a friend and lover who plays anyone’s lover, because any one of us could be on the other side of the frontline. She is a doll on which injuries can be shown, or rather, a doll who decided to show injuries on herself—as a warning gesture. In the end, Katerina could be you, or we, or me. Brecht writes in his poetry, “I survived by accident.” So here we are, those of us who survived by chance. This is our guilt.

Should we overcome this guilt?

Yes and no. Primo Levi writes about “ survivor’s guilt,” or the guilt of the living towards the dead. But the guilt is not only for having survived, it’s also guilt about what became of the story—that’s how my film should be looked at. The beginning of the story is interpreted through its ending, and vice versa. It’s as if the amateur videos from the occupied territories cast a shadow of guilt towards the archival footage, as if we were sending a message via time machine to the hungry 1920s: “One hundred years have passed in the Donbass and there are still victims and tanks.” Or, to the 1970s: “Your roses are no longer here, and your miners aren’t getting their wages.” This guilt can be a driving force in comprehending the present—a place from which one can start.

I was very impressed by an idea you mentioned in your public conversation with Anya Shcherbyna. You were talking about war from a feminist perspective, and about the rape of women as an invariable consequence of military conflicts. You observed how woman, or the female body, is treated as a text to be exchanged between warring parties. Could you speak more about this?

Rape usually becomes a kind of “normal” feature of war. It is seen as an undesirable “consequence,” or “side effect.” However, I would like to suggest looking at rape as the transversal meaning of war.

I suggest looking at all wars from the perspective of rape because every rape, even in peacetime, carries the seed of war. It shows the very capability of one human being to humiliate, and to display his anatomical power over, another human being—in this sense, the penis is the earliest weapon of war. Of course, as we know from Abu Ghraib, a woman can also become an agent of violence, but the effects are difficult to compare because female physicality carries, for example, the likelihood of pregnancy. Because of this, the rape of a woman by a man can last for months, years, a lifetime. And in this sense, mass rape may be seen as an “ethnic damage”—to bear the children of the enemy. In a patriarchal society, where victims are always to blame, rape becomes a text, or message, sent by the men one side to the men on the other side: “You cannot protect your women.” Speech on this topic simply doesn’t exist, because the rapist is justified a-priori as a hero, while the victim is always guilty and obliged to remain silent.

At one point in Letter to a Turtledove, there is an image of a female body torn apart by an explosion—an image at once disturbing and erotic. Is this connected to what we were just talking about?

This has to do with the eroticism of a body about to begin its decay, a body that is already lost. And this loss makes one feel a special desire and pain, because of the inability to possess it. This nostalgia and longing also casts a shadow on the old footage of the Donbass, which bear the inevitable imprint of eroticism—the special enthusiasm of an era that we can no longer possess, and must renounce forever. Something that, like a torn body, cannot belong to us anymore.

There is also a geographical component, when the body parts are carried to different parts of the world. What was your intention here?

The body is never separate from space. It is always somewhere, it is always connected to geography. Place gives the body its physicality. In the frontline territories or in the grey zone, the body is especially vulnerable—deprived of its basic needs, and always in danger. This is an unmourned body, a “separatist” body, pre-dead, sacrificed for territorial integrity—an invisible body.

There is also another layer of imagery. That of the Donbass-body and the body of the Donbass, which, figuratively speaking, also becomes vulnerable when factories and mines, houses and museums, are destroyed. When the body of memory in the Donbass is destroyed, the memory of the body in the Donbass is destroyed in turn. For me, these things are always figuratively connected.

In your previous animated film The Story of Mark Lvovich Tulipov, Who Talked with Flowers (2018), you portrayed the story of a displaced elderly person who was forced to abandon his beloved garden in Lugansk, and his life before the war more generally. That cartoon was really lyrical. Although many of the topics it deals with are similar to those in Letter to a Turtledove, this new film is tougher—there’s a lot of violence and explosions, and a dreamy giddiness. What is the reason for this shift?

On the one hand, this shift is connected with my search for a new artistic language, one that is more abrupt and absurd, and can translate reality more clearly. On the other hand—on a more intimate level—it is connected to my own recent mental experiences, which, in the film, are translated into geographical and political images.

[1] The Lviv pogroms were the consecutive massacres (pogroms) of Jews in June and July 1941, immediately after the Nazi occupation of Western Ukraine, perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalist troops, German death squads, and local crowds.

[2] All-Union Stokehold was a nickname given to the Donbass region in Soviet propaganda.

[3] The Stakhanovite movement was a state-organized Stalinist campaign promoting “shock labour,” that is, taking pride in workers’ ability to produce more than was required.

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

War & Conflict, Feminism
Eastern Europe, Soviet Union, Experimental Film, Documentary, Poetry
Return to War and Cinema
Return to Artist Cinemas

Dana Kavelina is an artist and fimmaker originally from Melitopol. Before the full-scale invasion she was based in Kyiv/Lviv, Ukraine, but is currently living in Germany. Kavelina primarily works with animation and video, but also uses installation, painting, and graphics. Her practice often concerns military violence and war seen from a gender perspective, and addresses the position of the victim as a political subject as well as the distance between historical and individual trauma, memory, and misrepresentation. Her works have been exhibited at the Kristianstads Kunsthall, Sweden; Haus der Kunst, Munich; M HKA Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, Belgium; Fridman Gallery, New York; and the Neue Galerie Graz, Austria. In 2022 Kavelina participated in the MoMA screening program “Notes from the Ground.”


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