The Ukraine Dairy
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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...
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 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 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 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.
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".
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.