Art as a mediator of communication - Interview with the Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze following the screening of The Distant Barking of Dogs
As a part of the Travelling Docudays UA, in cooperation with the Biennale of Trust in Lviv, the festival held a screening of The Distant Barking of Dogs and a discussion attended by Alevtina Kakhidze. In her art, the artist, just like the film’s director Simon Lereng Wilmont, addresses the experience of a person who lives in the occupied territories. For example, in her project The Story of Klubnika Andreyevna, or Zhdanovka, Alevtina uses texts and images to speak about her mother’s life. She also works with children as a tolerance ambassador for the UN Development Programme in towns and cities near the separation line, establishing dialogue in the language of art. Before the film screening, we talked about trust, experience and tolerance.
I would like to talk about people. As I looked at your projects, I had a feeling they were piercingly touching, they evoked trust. Both trust in the author and in Klubnika Andreyevna.
Yes, there’s that. I thought a lot about how I am different from a journalist. Because I’ve been writing about Klubnika Andreyevna for five years, and going there for five years. And all the time I’ve been thinking about how I am different. There are fantastic journalists, I love them very much and I work with them. But the thing that my mother and I have, the trust, they have nowhere to get it from. It’s something that was part of our life, and the war had no impact on it. I think that it’s a matter of immersion, it’s my city. Because I know much more than I write down. I know every family on my street, what happened to them, what befell them. But you can’t write everything down. Although you can transform it somehow, without naming names, without naming specific locations. It’s just that we’re going to meet in any case. And this difference in experience will become a problem in communication. When there was Maidan, and my mom didn’t support and didn’t understand it, I remember it very well from that time. Later, everything changed, and she got the experience I didn’t have. But back then, she didn’t have the feeling that she should call me and ask about everything, so that when we met we didn’t have the thing that happened between us. I remember when I came, and she told me, “Alia, is it right to throw rocks at police officers?” And I said, “No, it isn’t.” Because she didn’t teach me to throw rocks at police officers. I mean, in order to understand it, you needed to experience those three and a half months, to understand what was happening there. It’s the biggest problem of Ukraine, and globally around Ukraine. Because this difference in experience, it’s very hard to communicate. Art can do it to a large extent, and journalism to a smaller extent. Although it also works out quite well sometimes.
We’re talking about art as a mediator which is capable of reducing this difference in experience or letting people teach each other. Please tell us about your practice in more detail.
I’ll say that the fact that my mum and I constantly talk about what’s happening in the city, it’s basically a kind of therapy. We don’t avoid it, we talk all the time. But I understand that you need to hold on to something. If you read my latest conversations with her, they are always about the weather. And I keep thinking, why talk about the weather? It’s the power that a person wants to have, to hold on to, it’s at least something constant.
But there is another thing. If my mom didn’t have the wisdom that she has, most likely our conversations wouldn’t be so nurturing for both of us. And she wouldn’t become the hero who, in a sense, gives me lessons in wisdom. The most awesome thing, “Mom, who is shooting?” She says, “Do you want me to come out of the cellar and check who’s shooting? I don’t know.” And then you expand on the thought. A week ago I was at a Munich conference for MPs and journalists. And I told them, “Don’t believe them, the civilians, they cannot know what is happening, who is shooting, you are sitting in the cellar, how can you?” It’s impossible. It’s just that my mom turned out to be the case who says, “I don’t know.” You can talk for hours with other mothers who have this desire to interpret the reality in ways that don’t make them come out of their comfort zone. But my mom could do it. For example, she says, “That’s it. What can I do? The war has started, the machine is moving, I can only watch.” She’s such a courageous person and she’s so ready to become an object when you would like to be an agent who could influence the situation. I mean, she is one of the people who do not interpret and do not say they know everything. She has such a critical perspective on anything, “Oh, I haven’t been to the market yet, let’s see what they say there, they will start with all this ‘our people-your people’ stuff.” They live in this situation of constant stress, who’s yours, who’s ours, this polarization of the society. The thing is that it also exists in the controlled territory. Obviously, these people are very marginalized. And we are in the majority, but as soon as the majority is lost, it’s closer to the confrontation line.
Or, for example, the toxicity of language. In my texts, I always emphasize it, because I notice it in hindsight. For example, “We slept as if we’d been killed,” this expression came from the World War II. Or, for example, “Oh, this woman moves forward like a tank.” Now, when the war is going on, these expressions are so scary. Curiously, I’m sensitive to them, but my mom isn’t. She says them the same way as she used to. It always seemed to me that she should review her whole speech and remove all these things from it. But it isn’t happening. When she says them to me, I don’t even always tell her. But in the text about Klubnika Andreyevna, I always say it. Because, on the one hand, it’s this seemingly light-hearted narration about what is happening there. But at the same time, there is a little bit of criticism in it. I always try to insert it in there somehow, if I can. But today, there’s nothing to write about. Nowadays, one day is very similar to another there. Although they’re now having an election, because Zakharchenko was killed. I’m afraid to write about all of this now. Because they all started arguing when he died. By “them” I mean people at the market.
Look, this text of mine, it’s the reality from the perspective of a 70-year-old person. I would dream of having a connection with someone younger, but I don’t have it. “Mom, have you seen any of my classmates?” And it’s scary for me to write about them, because they use Facebook. I have many texts which I don’t publish. They are written to preserve the memories. I re-read something recently, and it’s incredible how little we remember. If we forget everything, it will be impossible to build the future, because there will be nothing to build it from.
Can we trust our memory? And what should we do with the desire to document?
We have to. Right away, the memory works clearly, and we should write everything down. But later memory is very selective. The moment of amnesia is human nature, we want to suppress everything that’s unpleasant or negative. We want to remember only the good things. I think this is what we need artists for, artists who can preserve this, live through this. By painting or describing it.
By making films?
Yes, we played a game pretending we were a real TV studio. It was an art project [the Battle of Gardeners project. Auth.]. And I pretended to be a TV host who arrived from Kyiv. We just wanted to talk to elderly people. We told them, “So what happened to your garden in Slavyansk?” And they started to talk about war.
And all these stories about how the gardens in Slavyansk grew wild, they are exactly about this. And all these wilding gardens, once again, I think, represent the lack of understanding of the nature, the nature of plants and human nature. In Donbas, as we realized, the vegetable gardens are very sterile: there’s a row of tomatoes and that’s it, you kill all the grass. Kill everything, tear everything out. So that they grow in an absolutely idealized, unnatural environment. So when everyone left Slavyansk, all these empty spaces were filled with weeds. They were so huge! And it was perfectly natural. Because the so-called weeds (I don’t make a distinction between weeds and cultivated plants, it’s a human invention, they used to be just plants and that’s it), the ones we call weeds, they are like plant pioneers who are the first to fill an empty space. So people prepared the ground for them to come. And, of course, if they did not uproot everything, the weeds would go away. So it’s, once again, the lack of understanding of how things should be. For me, this empty land is the place for homophobia, racism. Or you fill it with something else, some other plants. Because there is big difference between the human and animal world, and the world of plants. Plants don’t run away, they cannot, so they developed their own mechanism. You can find some inspiration in it.
The author of the drawing is Alevtina Kakhidze; it was taken from the author's FB album "Klubnika Andreyevna and the resolution http://www.sbu.gov.ua/sbu/cont"
Curiously, Pavel Makov has also been using the metaphor of gardens and weeds in recent years.
Yes, yes. Yes, it’s so interesting, because I don’t call the vegetable garden a vegetable garden. I just call it a garden. A vegetable garden is a practical thing, it exists just so that you could come and take. And you don’t treat it seriously. I wrote an article recently where I compare the processes which we call the war to a garden, with a gardener. In the plant world, if the gardener doesn’t come, there is no war. They can dominate, but plants don’t kill one another.
I did this research, I started thinking about what tolerance was. Because we were invited to a project to be ambassadors of tolerance. And I told my colleagues in the UN that Ukrainians do not know that word. Tolerance, patience, respect, openness to new things, people tell you all kinds of things if you ask them what tolerance is. And I started thinking, well, why think when I just need to check the terminology. And, basically, the word tolerance originated in the plant world. It’s when a plant keeps on bearing fruit even though it has been damaged. I mean, some kind of pests are living on it, such as aphids, but it still bears fruit. For example, this year I watched kidney beans, they were all covered with aphids. And I was thinking, “Are there actually going to be beans?” There were, not many, but there were. Tolerance is not that we’re patient, or that we’re born with it. It’s a toolkit. And this ability to talk.
The discussion after the screening was dedicated to the children of war who found themselves in the war zone and continue to live in that territory. In addition, the participants of the discussion shared their experiences of working with children.
What can you say about your experience of working with children?
Yes, I work a lot with children nowadays. For example, I teach at a children’s creative school in Kyiv. Parents pay 200,000 a year. And I teach art there. I have 51 kids. And my classes are about negotiating and coming to agreements. During one class, I divided them into two groups, took some sheets of paper and drew land areas on each. With my eyes closed, I drew rivers and lakes. And they were supposed to come to an agreement and build bridges to have access to the water. It was very interesting to watch, it was a fantastic experience. In one class, a child started to draw rocket launchers because his neighbor didn’t want to give him access to water. And some children also didn’t want to negotiate and drew pools. Then I gave them bills and told them, “Don’t worry, now you’ll have to come up with jobs.” Here’s my meaning. We need to have this common concept of how to just live. It’s not only our country that’s at war. It’s a global problem. Maybe it’s time for us to develop non-violent communication?
As for these children, this family — of course, we feel empathy, I feel empathy [meaning the film’s protagonists Oleh and Yarik. Auth.]. But we’re all in this situation. For three years, I was in the situation when all my friends kept telling me to take my mother away from there. But it means that they are shifting responsibility from themselves onto me. She is, of course, not a piece of furniture which can be just taken away. And she, just like this grandma, doesn’t want to leave. And the responsibility should make us think what we can do for them in the place where they want to be.
What about the experience of working with children in the liberated territories, in the cities near the confrontation line?
I worked in Avdeevka, in Severodonetsk, in Rubezhnoe. And, actually, I’ll put it like this. As for the people who live in cities near the line of contact, there are different kinds of teachers. I went there with my own project called To Children about the Citizenship of People, Plants and Animals. It’s my reflection about the fact that every school nowadays is supposed to have a patriotic education board. I did something there, and there was a great response among teachers in these schools, and they told me that they needed it. But in the case of Avdeevka, I remember that when I came, it was winter, very cold, in the early morning, I went inside an ordinary school and saw that horrible board. Who knows what these boards look like? They are very horrible, everything on them is incomprehensible for kids, they’re about adult things, but they are called patriotic education boards. They’re not about the things that are needed. But it’s very good that they are hung so high up that children don’t see them. I entered, and it was empty, I took a picture of that board, some people came out and told me that I needed to ask for permission to take pictures. I asked who was supposed to give the permission, and they told me that it was the principal. I asked the principal, and she asked me, “Why do you need it?” I said I was researching. And actually, later I had a class with these children, and it was great, I asked for seven-eight children so that I could work with them properly, but they brought me 25. They made a lot of noise, but I ignored it. The principal asked me, “What is this?” It was my idea of a class, how we could talk about such complicated things as “What is patriotism?”
I had many interesting questions to ask of children. For example, in Avdeevka I asked the kids what was more important, a human being or the President? And in Avdeevka, almost all the twenty children shouted that it was the President. The school lacked twenty percent of the windows, they were boarded up. And only about five children shouted, “Human! Human!” And one of them shouted very loudly, “HUMAN!” I’m so sorry I can be there only for a short while. Actually, the results were striking. And the examples when I wasn’t allowed to take pictures or I had to ask for permission, they were random examples, by the way. And these things should be articulated, these are “Soviet” things. Why can’t I, as someone who grew up in the Donetsk region and lives in Kyiv, and who feels the responsibility for everything that is happening in the country, take a picture of this horrible condition in order to make sense of it? I think that we need to fight, or, if we don’t like that word, to advocate for how it is all supposed to be. Even if you only come for two days.
The event was supported by Moving Docs.
The conversation was led by Oleksandra Kushchenko.
Docudays UA is a unique international film festival about human rights, that runs almost all year long. It launches in the last week of March in the capital Kyiv, and operates from October to December with the Traveling Festival. Docudays UA works on the edge of civil society activism, art and culture in Ukraine and has several core goals: bringing global documentaries to Ukrainian citizens; bringing Ukrainian documentaries to global citizens; contributing to the level of observance of human rights in Ukraine and developing the critical thinking among their audience. Get to know more about the Moving Docs Ukrainian partner Docudays UA with Julia Kartashova.
“We promote human rights and popularize national and global docs, by sharing Ukrainian docs and art abroad, as well as produce the catalogue of Ukrainian documentary films and present it on the international festivals. We mostly target youth, which comprises about 70-80% of the festival visitors every year!”
Why did you stop screening feature films? Could you please explain this decision and why you now specifically focus on human-right documentaries?
Documentary films are the most effective tool for teaching human rights and enhancing civic activity, because the documentaries’ characters are real. Often, these are strong and determined activists who, in their countries, have defended human rights and have succeeded. Upon watching such films, Ukrainian viewers cannot say that it's a fantasy of a scriptwriter and a director and that it is impossible real life, in fact, it often looks really impossible because such is our political situation, such is the country, such are the people ... So when we show the successful stories of real people from Europe, America, Asia, Africa, our viewers understand: if it's possible there, then it's worth trying to do it here. The success of real heroes inspires them and encourages active human rights activism.
We believe that the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms are one of the pillars of a healthy democratic state. When we started our work back in 2003, our state was very young and tried to find its development path. We noticed how political leaders were mostly focused on their own prosperity rather than on the country development, while the majority of citizens felt lost and did associate themselves with the power that can drive change in Ukraine. Therefore, the idea of developing critical thinking, civil activism and increasing awareness level about human rights and fundamental freedoms became (and still remains) crucial for our country. Our team is mostly comprised of film lovers and film professionals and we understood that human rights topics will not reach the large audience if we use only the roundtables, conferences and other events of such type. As film lovers, we understood that emotional response and empathy that human rights documentary films provoke - are the proper tool to reach the minds and the hearts of a large and diverse audience nationwide, and thus contribute to establishing genuine democracy in Ukraine.
“Ten years ago we couldn’t even dream about the comprehensive competition program of the full-length documentaries made by Ukrainian film directors”
Why are documentaries important and what is their impact in Ukraine?
The documentary films in Ukraine over the years are becoming more and more popular. We are proud to claim that it is largely due to Docudays UA festival audience and industry development efforts. For example, ten years ago we couldn't even dream about the comprehensive competition program of the full-length documentaries made by Ukrainian film directors (even 1 decent short documentary film made by Ukrainian director was already a success). Now, our jury members experience a lot of sleepless nights to select the best of the best documentaries from Ukraine for the festival competition program. Ten years ago, the audience we reached with documentaries was mostly the cultural elite in Kyiv and several large cities of Ukraine, while now we have a wide network of film clubs located in cities, towns and remote villages across Ukraine and reach a very diverse audience from pupils and students to prisoners and various target groups of the local CSOs. Throughout the year, we reach more than 200,000 people with the screenings.
Screening and production of documentaries in Ukraine impact directly the personal development and critical thinking of each and every viewer, while it also boosts the development of Ukraine as the state, the emergence of the grass root initiatives, and civil society activism.
“I believe that many problems of the state system stem from the fact that state employees treat citizens just as statistical data, while we look at them through the prism of the human stories”
How does screening documentaries support human rights in Ukraine?
Our 15 years’ experience in realization of the Docudays UA festival gave us a clear understanding that screening the best human rights documentary films from all over the world can become an impactful tool in driving changes in the county’s life. If such screenings are properly presented, promoted and discussed the citizens of Ukraine at once receive a range of benefits: (1) lessons learned from other countries/spheres where similar human rights issues were raised; (2) put into Ukrainian context and discuss with various stakeholders the ways of how this or that situation can be improved/addressed; (3) network and unite with the stakeholders for joint targeted solution of the problem; (4) develop the personal level of culture and erudition, and on top of that simply enjoy the documentary artworks.
What is the most motivational/positive feedback you ever got from members of the audience about a film or the festival?
It is really hard to choose one so we decided to give several:
Anastasiya Leukhina, Ukrainian activist, advisor for state reforms, analyst:
“I believe that many problems of the state system stem from the fact that state employees treat citizens just as statistical data, while we need to look at them through the prism of the human stories. Only this can change the system. I am grateful to DOCU/CLUB for an opportunity to use in our training a film by Dutch director Jan Jaap Kuiper ‘Sinner's disease' (2011). This film depicts events similar to reality we live in and to the way our police treats public events. We organized a screening and discussion of this film with our trainees. This experiment was a success because film helped to reach not only to their minds but also to their hearts. And when you accept these stories into your heart, when you live through them, you cannot have the same attitude towards people as our old police had. I believe that we will see the positive changes in attitude of our new patrol officers towards people in the streets”.
Yuliya Rukavitsyna, school teacher:
"In the system of secondary school, each student is a hostage to the image imposed by the collective, few are able to change it. In our school, children learn to be themselves, to think and speak freely, not to be constrained by the others. When they watch films about their peers, they identify themselves with the characters of movies. This brings the understanding of their own mistakes and opportunities, empathy and acceptance of others, of difference."
Vasyl Shestakov, moderator of the film club in Dneprodzerzhinsk training school for personnel of the State Prison Services of Ukraine:
"During the period of film club work I noticed positive changes among students - a better understanding of human rights and qualitatively different attitude towards prisoners. To consolidate these changes in attitude and understanding of inalienable nature of human rights, it is necessary for Docudays UA film clubs to continue and even expanded their activities in State Penitentiary Services of Ukraine".
Want to know more about Docudays UA? Visit the website http://docudays.ua or Facebook, @DocudaysUA.
International Media and Entertainment Management student and Intern at Moving Docs
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