The Ukraine Dairy

Arrived in Kiev in the morning, Yuri meets us at the airport. We grab a cab and go to his flat. His flat is located in the center of Kiev and has been in the Zmorovych family for three generations. We drop off our gear and head out to check out Kiev. We start in the main square, a lot of action. From there we check out a market that has a lot of junk and old soviet stuff, someone was selling an Italian accordion. Yuri strikes up a conversation with a merchant selling parsley. I start filming not knowing what to expect, they seemed not to mind. A woman speaks to Yuri.

The project that we started almost immediately upon arrival in Kiev has taken on the title How Sweet is Life. The project started out after we were unable to start production on a narrative film called Split that was going to begin production in late march 99. Due to NATO bombing that was impossible to pull off. So we decided to go to Kiev and work with Zmorovch on a project, we had no idea that it would turn out the way it did. We had a basic understanding of some key figures we wanted to explore.

But the two weeks spent in Kiev opened up a wealth of interesting characters that pretty much make up the existence of post soviet life in Russia and Ukraine. People exist now in an uncertainty of economic and politics that will only get worse before it gets better.

We have received the translation of what we shot and it turns out everything we where looking for we got. The dialogue is very poetic, due to the fact that Yuri's Friend Raphael, a Russian artist and Poet living in a Chicago is doing the translation. How is Sweet is Life is an organic documentary that is happening out of discovery. The Documentary has taken on an experimental, visually poetic feel.

The title came to me when walking underground to cross the street. There are underground markets that people gather to sell anything from lone canneries in a cage, to meat and laundry detergent. A traditional song was playing called 'how sweet is life' that Yuri explained as a patriotic song that was sung by soldiers as they entered into battle. The song primarily expresses hope and new dreams in conquering new territory and identity.

We started to eat some corn dog sausage type things on the street and we meet a friend of Yuri's who invites us to a gallery opening. We accept and go to the gallery. A lot of graphic work and there is a presentation going on. I am sweating and it is very hot. After the ceremony Yuri takes us in the back to meet the owner and some famous Ukrainian Artist since we are famous American filmmakers we must meet. Which is Yuri's joke anytime we are introduced to someone they are immediately famous as we are. Vodka, Wine and Food. Great eccentrics that immediately are taken by us as we are to them. We shot are first improvisational performance with Yuri amongst the Ukrainian eccentrics, it has become known as Bread Puppet.

After some time we are invited to another gathering at a Jewish artist loft who is in the process of getting heart surgery, in a few days he will leave for Berlin.

Yuri then takes us to Eric's a bar located off the square. We get in there with a bag of hot-dogs we picked up along the way. We sit down and we realize we have only Marks on us and no Greivna. I tried to communicate with Yuri to see if they take credit cards but there is a Communication breakdown and he simply does not get the concept of credit cards. Partially it was my fault because when I finally just pulled the damn thing out a showed him and acted out a transition we were fine. But this was after we left Eric's. While we sit there trying to figure this out a dapper man in a white coat sits with us at our table and begins to draw a picture of Brian. He is Finnish and Brian is unhappy with it so he tries to alter it so it looks more like him. The man does not take kindly to this. A song begins to play and he notices me video taping so he starts to dance with Yuri and we have now come to refer to this as the View Dancing Yuri's or The Hot-dog dance.

After all of this we go to one last place, the cowboy bar, a 24-hour place that takes credit cards. We drink scotch and meet some Polish Dominatrix who smuggled in their own bottle. I buy them a drink so they have a glass and they pour me free drinks all night. Long Day and Night.

Slept late, felt pretty good. Igor Lipinski, Yuri and Brian are already up. Igor is a friend of Yuri's who came by to meet us. Igor is supper cool. A Poet and a very gentle man. It is hard for us to communicate since I speak no Russian and he speaks no English. But we get by acting out, pointing and drawing pictures. Yuri translates sometimes. We head out to the park. I buy a bottle of current Vodka since Igor enjoys it. We find a nice place to sit and talk. We begin to talk about the project and flush out a schedule. We decide on the following characters and to make a trip to the Crimean and visit the dead nuclear station. Went out to eat and then back to the flat to get some rest.

We go to the Ukraine Cinematheque to meet the masters of Soviet cinema that is now almost dead. It only operates 2 days a week and usually produces commercial and public services announcements for the state. In its Heyday the Cinematheque was one of the largest European film studios. Now since the situation economically in the Ukraine is shot, the studio struggles to survive. This studio and the people are part of How Sweet Is Life. We meet Vanya to look at some Convas 35mm motion picture cameras. Convas is a Russian made camera modeled after a French camera. Vanya explains the camera to us and we decide we want to purchases one. He will contact a private owner in the next few days and we will purchase a camera.

We also go and talk about 35mm film stock and processing costs. It turns out we can purchase Svema Russian stock for $40 for 40 minutes. Processing Negative and a print of this stock 20 minutes will cost $200. We purchase 40 minutes and intend to shoot the dead nuclear power station and the sea in the Crimean.

We go back to the studio to do a more extensive tour. We meet Svedlana the head of Archives at the studio. Svedlana is a director and was on the crew that shot the Chernobyl reactors exploding. She is a beautiful woman full of life and deep red lips. She shows us the editing tables and it just happens there is a copy of Portrait Without a Face, Yuri's film he made about 4 years ago, sitting in the studio. She loads it up we watch and then she begins to talks about the Chernobyl Experience.

We then meet Vlojda another character in the film. He repairs clocks and cameras at the studio. A man at peace with himself, a man of great calm and spirituality. Yuri begins to talk with him, we started filming, he explains that he was a political dissident and jailed for many years. He speaks of a friend who was in love with a daughter of a KGB officer. His friend was released and advised not to see his love. He defied the order and looked for his love, they met once and the next day the man was executed by the KGB. Through his eyes tears begin to form.

Characters are starting to fall into place, we have found a great bit of characters at the cinematheque. We go home and decide to go visit Olga tomorrow, a Russian Lilliputian circus performer who is one of the characters in the movie.

We are to go and meet Victor at the market. Victor is our cinematographer/cook who will be shooting the 35mm footage and cooking up some kick ass grub for us. We pick out some food, chicken, meat, vegetable, piwo, wine and one lady is convinced I am trying to pass counterfeit money. She refuses it then she yells at another vender not to take it. Yuri says they're crazy.

Three attempts and this lady has convinced people the money is counterfeit. It was transferred at the bank so we know it is not. But to add a little drama to our shopping experience I try to pass it any time I can. Yuri decides after we purchase the food we will go to the exchange to see if it is counterfeit. This is a little both that someone sits in and exchanges money. I get the camera out to videotape our little experiment the women states no it is not counterfeit.

At this time a cop sees that we are video taping and approaches and asks for passports. I continue to film until he tells me not to. I tell him I do not have my passport. Brian has his and the travel visa stamped inside. The cop tells us this is not enough upon arrival you must go and register with the police, issue them with current photos and get another stamp. They love stamping stuff over there. We advise him we will and he lets us go. Anytime you whip out a camera in The Ukraine get ready for cops to approach you and ask what you are doing. Suspicions do not die.

We get to Olga's flat over by the river. We walk up 7 flights of stairs. Olga is there to meet us at the door. Olga wears a magenta long sleeve button down blouse with a black down vest and black pants. Olga's husband just died so she is interested in company. Olga was brought up in the Circus as puppeteer. Olga shyly tells stories about the pictures that hang around the room. " That's my father, he was made to stand for 5 days by the KGB" Olga replies. She does not like the camera every time she notices it she runs away into the kitchen to see how Victor is doing.

Victor is making Chicken, Beef, Salads, rice and more. He prepares a feast and with the table set like it is a special holiday (They are always set like there is a special holiday). We eat and are first introduced to Olgas local Hooch.

At 80 she still makes her vodka. It is good, a little too good, we start to drink and just enjoy everyones company and Victor begins to indulge. Time passes quickly and we are to meet Boris the camera guy at the Cinematheque. We convince Victor we have to leave and pile into a cab.

We get the camera after a typical old soviet deal. Give the money to Yuri the middleman, he will then go into another room, transfer the money to Boris - a done deal. We leave after we get a picture of Boris and head back to Olga's flat to meet Jakub, another Lilliputian circus performer. Jakob is from Moldovia. The most economically deprived cities in the entire ex -republics and Eastern Europe.

He is known as the transformer. He takes Greivna and turns them into Dollars and back. We clear out a space for Jakob to perform. He wears a suit with a green shirt and a gray tie with teddy bears on it. After the transformation Yuri asks him about himself. Jacob replies, I am ill. My leg, he rolls up his pants leg and reveals a bandage made of cloth around his knee with a ¼¼ inch thick rope around it. He explains that if the rope is loosened he suffers a seizure and passes out.

The night goes on, we drink, we eat and Jacob and Victor begin to argue who is older.

Pretty chill day. We pick up the svema and go to a Cultural Happening at the Colloquium. Boris is reading poetry for a tribute to a Russian poet. It ends. We meet Anna the reporter, she gets us coffee. Scalding hot out of a 3-foot metal water warmer, she places the coffee in a plastic cup. It is so hot is feels like the bottom is going to fall out. It is too hot and muddy, I set it down.

On the street we tell Anna about the project we are doing she is interested. We invite here to Yuris flat. We shoot some video.

Travels to the Sea, start off a little crazy. We get a late start, we flag a cab. In Kiev anyone that is driving in a car can pick you up. This time actually a cab stops. We get in and run out of gas 3 blocks from the train. We are not late to miss the train, we are late to get a ticket for Victor. It is a holiday weekend and we fear all the train seats will be sold.

The guy gets out he has gas in his trunk. He fills it up and we leave. No tickets for Victor. We must pay one of the train workers for their seat. We get a sleeper compartment for three of us and victor scores with buying a train workers sleeper. We are on the train for 17 hours then we transfer for a 4-hour train ride to the Crimean.

We drink eat and talk about movies, projects etc...

It is morning, we have arrived somewhere. I thought we where at the sea. It turns out we are still four hours away by train. We have about 15 minutes to buy tickets. We are all confused. Yuri takes me inside to buy the ticket. Everything is early morning funk. Slow motion and heavy. I look around. Yuri positions as people position to get the next window. I see a guy as the sun breaks through the skylight. The sun hits and makes a splash in the middle of this little train station. A veteran on wheels with no legs and heavy gloves protecting his knuckles strolls the waiting area.

We get the tickets and get on the train. It is Holiday, a holiday weekend (May Day) Which means NO Seats. We get on and first stand in the only area available. The area is where they keep the hot boiling water for the tea. We decide to leave the gear with victor, he managed to find a seat. We head out towards the dinning car. We walk through about 17 cars. The windows are all closed; people have been traveling for days. I remember gypsy and people in there under garments and cucumbers on their eyes. We get to the dinning car. Yuri proposes to order. "Yeah I just need water". Brian puts his head down. Yuri orders a bottle of vodka and sardines.

We get off the train and hire a guy to drive us the last 30 minutes of our trip. We get to the sea and after looking at several flats decide to stay with Sasha's family. We walk around for a little bit, buy some fish and eat it and then head out to the nuclear plant. We shoot 16mm, 35mm and video of the plant.

The plant was started in 1985 and was being built as the economical savior for the sea community, but before one cap could be put on to the reactor, the project was called off due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The plant 14 years later is visited by rave techno DJ's spinning records in the reactor cap, which still sits, beside the reactor. The area has almost developed into an apocalyptic rural playground for the young, disillusioned and bored.

It gets late; we eat Georgian Barbecue and go home. Sasha has made us bread.

We go out with Serge one of the engineers who tried to build the Nuclear Power Station. He drives us to the site we photograph and interview him. He takes us to an old medical facility and then up to an area to get panoramic of the sea. We go for a swim eat fish and call it a day.

Arrive back in Kiev at 3:00pm. We kick back at the flat and have an appointment to do an interview with Jacob later in the evening. Around 8:00pm Jacob comes by, Anna visits as well. We take Jacob into the studio for an interview. Yuri's studio is the inside of his brain. Found object sculptures everywhere from floor to ceiling. Collages everywhere, huge piano, make shift instruments, Jazz instruments, periodicals, simply a creative den of insanity.

We finish and decide to shoot some video, 16mm and 35 mm of Jacob performing, footage comes out insane. We use the 16mm footage in the first piece we cut from Kiev called ZKV. 24 minute Black and White 16mm first experiment of documenting the experience, situations and characters that make up How Sweet is Life.

We eat and drink in the kitchen. Jacob collects the Bottles and explains he supplements his income from recycling.

We are looking for more Hi-8 tape, we visit several shops and then head to a market area where Yuri explains has the best smoked Ham. Shanks of smoked pig. At first we do not find the shank lady. We walk around the market, merchants are leaving. We run into some of Yuri's unemployed actor friends. They are intrigued by us because we are Americans they want to drink with us, they are already drunk. It is funny. " We must drink with you" instead of let's get a drink. Buy us all a bottle so we can drink with you. This is right at the time of NATO's Bombing in the Balkans, they're saying, in broken English statements about what is going on, World War 3, Bill Clinton is a Homosexual. What? What ever, listen to the rant. We go into a tiny place with plastic patio furniture and Christmas place mats. The guy is still going on about Clinton. Finally I say "Dude I probably hate Clinton more than you do". He looks at me confused and eats a cucumber. We drink more vodka and his buddy decides it time to sing. The lady behind the counter turns the music down and the other guy starts singing Frank Sinatra. Sinatra, people love him over there. Cowboys and Sinatra. Pulled many chains denouncing Sinatra in Kiev.

We end up in Yuri's flat and decide to stay in and watch some of Yuri's work. We check out Vulvas Prophecy, AAA Performance Group and Mouse Pad. Mouse Pad blew us a way, shot in 1 hour and then edited through a toaster real time improvisation. Total time to make 2 hours. 1 hour to shoot, 1 hour to transform.

We get up and have to get to the Cinematheque to turn our 35mm svema film in. Wednesday is the only day to process. We have to get this bureaucratic shit done before we can get it to the lab. You do not simply go in and give it to them and then come back and pay. First you write out a letter explaining what it is, who the company is Blah, Blah Blah. Then you go somewhere where nobody is. This person is supposed to be there so you can get a stamp. We wait and get uptight; Yuri is a master of "no problem". If we do not process or get it in by a certain time we have to wait until next week and we leave on Sunday. Yuri disappears. In Time he comes back, "Gentlemen," we go somewhere else, no stamp lady. OK. Times ticking. We go back to the original place. We go to the lunchroom. It is too early for lunch, she should be in her office. Finally we track her down. I am like, cool it's done and we have just enough time to run over to processing. No now we need to go into payroll, get another stamp at account receivable and then we can go and pay. Somehow we beat the Bureaucracy and the Head of the Processing Department, who looks like Brian's Grandfather, likes us so he forgave us for being late, he understands.

We head to the flat. Yuri has to go rehearse with an actor for a show he is doing at the Planetarium. Nobody is at the flat. I go and get some cognac . We decide we want to shoot the monster mash. Yuri has all of these props he got from the prop studio; shields, armor, weird masks and what inspired the whole monster mash is the Boar head from Yuri's Film Portrait Without a Face. In the film a woman is wearing the head and shoots a gun with her top off. Yuri just wanted a woman to shoot a gun with her top off. She says no, I don't want to take my top off. What if you put this on, he digs out the Boar mask. With that she decides to do it. I saw that film in Krakow in 98, it was part of Euro Underground. Then again several time since. The Boar and the image in Yuri's film fascinated me. I put the Boar head mask on, some armor and knelt down and played the drums. First one done, we wanted to do about 6 and see what type of weird thing we could come up with. We get started on number two, lights are on I got some ram type colorful mask on and I am playing the Trombone. We start going, playing all over the place, I jump on the floor. Then all of sudden no lights. Oh no, we blew a fuse. No big deal or I guess there is. You do not just switch a circuit breaker and fix the problems anyway not only our flat was blown out but the entire building. I walk out figuring I can speak enough Russian or at least take the guard in the lobby up stairs and point in the dark and switch a switch to convey no power. So I go down stairs and the elevator does not work I take the stair, notice the lobby area is dark. Oh well, I smile and walk out the door and get some beer. Come back and sit in the dark.

After about two hours the power is restored. By that time Yuri's wife comes home and the kids are back from school. We end shooting for the day.

Yuri performed a tribute to a Russian writer at the planetarium. Incredible place. Old soviet space capsules in the lobby area. The performance goes well we meet the actress at the end of the show. We go to the Cinema House for a post show meal. The cinema house in the hey day was the cinema for all the big shot directors. Now the cinema barely shows work, but they have a great restaurant. We eat traditional Ukraine and Russian.

After the meal we go and visit this club that might be interested in hosting a film show. We meet, we talk, we leave. It is getting late so we decide to go to this other club, a surprise for Yuri. We are in the main area of Kiev and I stop to relieve my self behind a tree. Brian and Yuri keep walking down the large soviet style sidewalk. I dart out behind a tree and start running to catch up to them and at that time the police are walking up and stop us. They ask for our passports. Yuri talks to them. At one point I sense the discussion is going too long and a pull out a $20 bill, turn my back to the cops and show Yuri attempting to bribe them. He shakes his head and the cops ask us to stand to the side. They radio for a truck to pick us up. We wait. This tiny jeep pulls up and the 3 of us and the 2 cops plus a driver and another guy squeeze in the Jeep. We are laughing. The radio plays this weird baby sound techno music and we are off to see the magistrate.

We get to the police station and are taken into an industrial green office. The jail is right outside the office. The jail is a long narrow pen with bars as sides and a front with a concrete back. The magistrate is drunk, the key holder to the cell is drunk. We hand the one cop our passports and he starts writing information by hand into a tablet. We are laughing, cracking jokes. Every time the magistrate has a sober sense he leans towards us, Yuri pleads our case he shows letters of invitations etc...In mid sentence the guy would drift away and start writing, we wait. I am like, we are here arrest me for whatever, running, extort us we will bribe you, lock us up so we can cause a scene or just let us go so you can go back to your vodka. We end up being there about and hour and then they let us go.

When we get out I want to pay back Yuri for his hospitality and introduce him to our newest character in How Sweet Is Life. Lora the dancer at Illusions. Yuri loves this idea. Illusions is a club right by the flat that Brian and I went to a few nights ago. We met Lora, a dancer. She is a classically trained dancer, but there is no money for that type of dancing so she dances in the club. Yuri calls us his Euro Underground Mafia. Since the only people that go to strip clubs in Ukraine are the Mafia. We go in and order a bottle of Vodka and some beers. Yuri loves the show clapping in his pinstriped suit. We speak with Lora about doing an interview, she agrees.

There are a two Mafia couples in front of us in leather lounge chairs. We sit in the back on leather couches, one of the Mafia guys turns around, raises his glass to us "So how do you like our women".

Two more days before we leave. We have gotten a lot done in only two weeks. 8 rolls of 16mm film, 20 minutes of 35mm and about 8 hours of video. We get to the cinematheque and meet with the head of processing he say the footage is great. Everything is perfect. That means Victor is a good shooter. The Russian will not tolerate any imperfections in Cinema. Everything is perfect and precious.

We go to the screening room to view the footage. We are pleased. Victor's footage of the Nuclear power station is very claustrophobic. A lot of movement in his tight shots. Great panoramic shots of the sea.

We decide to head back, we are happy that all the 35mm came out so beautiful. We get some Indian food and decide to go visit Olga and have a party with Olga and some other people.

Last day in Kiev. We go to the market to by old soviet stuff and visit the gallery. I buy some drawings and a soviet flag and other stuff. We go back to Yuri's flat. Shoot about 1 non-stop hour of Yuri's improvisation performance pieces. Demon Fighter I Will Kill You Is Born.

Take a cab to the airport. No sleep and homemade vodka is catching up with us. Yuri makes sure we get through customs all right. Since we have no entrance stamp that we where supposed to get and no one told us until the first cop stooped us and every time we tried to get to the office it would be closed so we said we got better things to do than run after stamps. We played dumb and showed others stamps and confused the situation and they finally just stamped us out. Not before they ask to see some of our artwork we declared. Brian is first, the customs lady says; "can I see the sculpture you are declaring. He digs around and unwraps the "sculpture" a sculpture of Alf in a green jacket with a cell phone in his pocket, "It's a gift for my father he loves Alf " Brian states. She laughs and shakes her head. I am up next. "Can I see the art work you are declaring". I open up my neatly packed portfolio and start showing the art work Burnt Photographs of Zmorovych's a little toy solider Yuri's son's drew and some erotic drawings that caught her off guard. What was funny is she said nothing about the schematic drawings of the nuclear power plant. The actual blue prints of the site. Yuri waits as we stumble around with our bags and new Convas 35mm camera .We go through ticketing everything is fine we are off and we say good bye to Yuri in his Lavender double breasted sport coat.