If not for the outbreak of war in Ukraine one year ago, Dariia Kovalchuk (19) would still be studying documentary film at her university in Kyiv, preparing her annual film assignment, and likely focusing on her own topic: reflecting on herself ‘being Ukrainian’ and the differences between Russian and Ukrainian cultures. Yet, the war broke out last February. Kovalchuk is living in Prague and studying at FAMU today.
At a glance, Dariia Kovalchuk definitely fits in with the artistic environment of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). The eccentric black-haired girl floods you with her energy and her enthusiasm for whatever she is currently focusing on, amazing you with how uncompromising she is – without a doubt because her native country has been drawn into war.
Mum, sister, cat, and me
Her stance towards the aggressor is clear, stark, and uncompromising. You can sense its depth and inner truth, and also that it cannot be shared. It cannot be understood fully. What you lack is the authentic experience. An insider’s view.
And so, during our interview, I get to accept the views and emotions that Dariia has amassed on the basis of objective facts as well as – perhaps even more importantly – subjective experiences, take interest in them, and just let her speak about them. I am increasingly gaining the impression that no one has the right to judge them, and also that no one must necessarily understand them.
“Thanks to being at FAMU in Prague, I have an opportunity to be part of the information war and join an artistic front. There is a nice, creative artistic community at FAMU, but I also sense that there is an information gap here. When I start speaking about the war, its implications and the overall context, others often don’t understand me. I have to discuss many things that are obvious and understandable to me down to the very basics, and yet I meet with misunderstanding. During one open seminar, my colleagues told me that I was a fascist. That’s because I had said that, to me, a dead Russian is a good Russian. Of course, by that I didn’t mean that we should kill all Russians; what I wanted to impart is that, for example, I will never again have any friend in Russia who would interest and inspire me. I had a close friend in Russia before the war, but then I wrote to her that we wouldn’t communicate anymore. I just can’t do it anymore. I feel the urge to explain this stance and help Ukraine through art,” Dariia explains.
For example, she is currently preparing for a trip to Ukraine in cooperation with Deník N, planning to film a documentary on how her country is being demined. “This process will likely take many years to come, but since mines are virtually everywhere, it’s not possible to start building a new Ukraine without doing this first.”
The person I used to be
She recalls what type of person she was before the war broke out and how the impact of the conflict has changed her. She mentions forthright that she is now much courageous than she used to be.
“I used to be much more anxious than I’m now. I was unable to handle my anxiety, to face the mental pressure, and I often ended up not doing what I should have or not filming something as a result. That’s not the case now. I feel the need to combat my anxiety, handle it actively, do something, make films – just go on. It would drive me crazy otherwise.”
What does her struggle look like in real life? Right after arrival in Prague last March, she was flooded by a huge sense of powerlessness but, she says, she got to work on everything that made sense to her. She volunteered at Dům dobra, a charity that helps war-stricken Ukrainians. She got involved in issuing FAMUfest accreditations to Ukrainian students. She signed up for various lessons and modules at FAMU. She also strived to weather the stress caused by the war as well as her personal difficulties such as the split with her boyfriend and the fact that her grandparents stay in the Donetsk area and it has been almost impossible to contact them due to the Russian occupation.
Thinking back about the times just before the war, Dariia Kovalchuk recalls writing a poem two weeks before the war broke out; it reflected on her emotions about the beginning of the war in 2014 when pro-Russian forces incited armed conflicts in the east of Ukraine, while also expressing concerns over what was going to happen currently.
“It was in the air,” Dariia says. At that time, she also started focusing intensively on the topic of herself being Ukrainian and on the differences between Ukrainian and Russian cultures. “I was just a student like any other at the time. I had a great bunch of schoolmates in university and an excellent workshop leader. I took it for granted. Only when I lost all that did I realise what sort of ‘paradise on earth’ that was. We were able to film anything, our supervisor supported us professionally to the full extent, he guided us as we were creating, and he taught us not by criticising but by offering matter-of-fact comments that made us understand what works and what doesn’t in our work.”
Russian nightmare and Czech Dream
At the beginning of the war, Dariia and her colleagues at her Kyiv university took a one-year sabbatical. There was no other way – their group includes a student who is currently in combat action with the military; another schoolmate lost a home during a missile raid, his parents are not working, and so he has to support the family; and many other students from her year of study are scattered all over Europe.
“It cost me a lot of nerves to beat the university’s bureaucratic machine on behalf of us all and convince them that online classes are unfeasible for us given the circumstances. We couldn’t consent to it – not least because of the boy who’s fighting for us.”
Dariia was admitted to Prague’s FAMU as part of a scholarship programme in support of Ukrainian students, financed from AMU funds and then by the Ministry of Education. Destiny has taken her to the environment that had intrigued her years ago.
“I saw One Flew over Cuckoo’s Nest once, and this film made me think about studying at FAMU. I learned Czech for two years, but having graduated from high school, I felt that the admission procedure and the required portfolio of work was too much for me, so I gave up. Of course, Czech comes in very handy now... I remember the very first Czech film they had us watch in the language school was Czech Dream. When I met director Vít Klusák at FAMU in Prague, who told us how the documentary came about, it was an incredible experience for me.”
After some time, Dariia got an opportunity to take admission exams for regular bachelor’s studies. “At first, I said no. I thought I would go back to Ukraine to my great schoolmates and our magnificent head of department in a matter of weeks; I thought everything would be okay and I would finally get to film my documentary ‘masterpieces’. I realised that everything would be different one month later,” explains Dariia, a regular student of a three-year bachelor programme at FAMU now.
Rich husband and poor lover
She likens her relationship to Prague’s Academy to “marrying a rich man who you don’t love because you have nothing in common, but he makes your living easier and supports you financially, which is nice of course. But my soul is in Ukraine.”
Even though she is ‘married’ to FAMU now, her relationship to her Kyiv university has not changed. In fact, she realised she could be even more useful for her home university thanks to FAMU. “If FAMU is like a notional rich husband to me, then I view Kyiv university as a poor underground guitar player who I love madly, who I can create crazy stuff with, who keeps inspiring me, and who I want to help,” explains Dariia.
This is why she wants to film a documentary about her Kyiv university. A film about one Ukrainian government film university that is reportedly dying now. There is a risk that the bureaucratic machine will have its way, close the university, destroy all its archives, and build residential blocks in its site.
“Given the current developments in Ukraine, nobody cares about bureaucracy now. I don’t think the Ukrainian Film Society even has any idea of what is going on at the university. This is why I feel the need to film an original reportage about a university that needs saving.”
Mum, sister, cat, and me
Dariia arrived in Prague one year ago with her mum, a sister aged eight, and a cat. This would be a cute detail, if the circumstances were not as gloomy as they undoubtedly are in any war.
Dariia’s family split two days into the war, on 26 February. Her mum and younger sister left for a cottage west of Kyiv, and Dariia chose to go with her grandma and cat to grandma’s home in the Donetsk region.
“All the trains were going west, and when granny and I were finally seated on what was likely the only train going east, bombs started dropping, sirens wailed, there was total bedlam, lights went out at the station and on the train… Granny seemed not to care; she was happy going home, but I couldn’t fully grasp what was going on. That’s when I realised that, regardless of how much I loved her, I didn’t want to go east with her and my fear was growing. Grandma started crying, but she kept repeating that she had to go home and couldn’t stay with me. I understood her, and she understood me.”
Grandma left and Dariia was left alone at the station, with just her cat in the box. “It was night time, missiles kept hitting all around, and it was too dangerous to walk anywhere. I hid in the underpass near the station and, at five in the morning, took the first train to reunite with my mum and sister ,” Dariia remembers. Together, they made it on board one of the evacuation trains going to Prague. She says the cat managed the long trip well, including the mandatory ‘walks’ during the stops, and was huge mental relief for all children on the train. “They cuddled and played with her, and the cat excellently distracted attention from how horrible the situation was.”
They lived together in Prague for the first six months; thanks to the owner of a maisonette apartment, they could temporarily use one entire floor, but then they had to split again. Charita provided living for mum and sister, but Dariia had to keep on searching because Charita does not accommodate pets.
“The animal is hugely important to me, like for many other Ukrainians who arrived here with a cat or a dog. Yet, it’s not easy to find accommodation where a pet is not a problem. I cannot imagine getting rid of my cat only to find an apartment for sublease more easily…” Eventually, Dariia Kovalchuk was lucky, and she is currently living in a large, four-bedroom apartment along with four other young ladies. “One is a psychotherapist, one a photographer, and then there is me and my schoolmate from Kyiv – both documentary filmmakers. It’s like an artistic line-up. Three cats are living along with us,” Daria laughs.
That’s the way I see it
During the interview, Dariia repeatedly touches on her relationship with Russia and Russian culture. The developments in Ukraine that started in 2014 and, in a way, continued last February have informed and influenced Dariia significantly, and of course they still keep acting that way.
The topic is huge and crucial to her, and she feels the need to discuss it. To explain her stance as clearly as possible, she uses a simile again. “The relationship between Ukraine and Russia is like the relationship with your former boyfriend. While you actually split back in 1991 when Ukraine declared independence, you forgot the key to your apartment at his place. Plus, you never bothered to tell him: ‘Don’t come visit me, don’t answer the door; I won’t answer the door if you come knocking…’ We had economy, business, and a lot of information environment common with Russians; the nations’ musicians and filmmakers often collaborated. However, we didn’t understand in 1991 that this is not how things should be, we didn’t even understand in 2014, and so now we need to understand that we must finally shut the door between the two of us. This is the only way to not give Russian evil any opportunity to come our way. The resistance is up to each and every Ukrainian. I am not saying we should hate Russians. Yet, we don’t need to cooperate, we don’t have to breathe the same air… we don’t owe Russians anything. I don’t understand the argument citing the strength of their ‘great Russian culture’. I mean, there are so many cultures around the world… Inspiration can be found elsewhere. If someone is still interested in Russian culture, let them start by dissecting it down to the basic building blocks. They will understand that at least one half of it is based in different cultures, which the empire simply stole and convinced others that it was a Russian item. This shows clearly that the notion of ‘great Russian culture’ is exaggerated.”
Dariia does not even recognise the position of those Russians who act pro-Ukrainian abroad. “If a Russian makes films, directs operas, establishes creative cooperation and so on here in the Czech Republic, all I see behind that is their ego. It’s like they said: ‘Look what I’ve done for Ukraine!’ But that’s not supporting Ukraine. If he built a new home for someone after the war, that would be supporting. When physicians learn to treat people, their principal rule is to make sure not to exacerbate anyone’s condition. I would apply precisely this rule to all the Russians who want to support Ukraine – simply put, don’t let them make matters worse. If you cannot do anything to make matters better, just be quiet. Most importantly, don’t reassure me that I’m your friend or sister.”
Dariia celebrated the beginning of the new year in Ukraine where she stayed for a few days for the first time since the outbreak of the war. “I arrived in Kyiv in utter darkness – there were no lights anywhere and I couldn’t tell this was it. I went to see the city the next day. I walked past a hotel that had been hit by a drone with a mine a few hours earlier. I used to walk to my classes past the hotel every day. It was just debris all of a sudden. The entire neighbourhood next to the university is closed down because it is full of mines. Soldiers guard it. Everything is different. Yet, totally absurdly, I was overwhelmed by such a sense of happiness, satisfaction and peace being back home in Kyiv – something I hadn’t felt for a year prior. My brain was working at full speed, generating new ideas and contexts. I realised that my heart, my soul was still at my university in Kyiv, and at the same time, the wound caused by the war opened up so painfully. It will not heal until it is all over and I can go back to Ukraine and my university.”
What would Dariia choose if presented with three wishes? Without a second thought, she says she wishes for Ukraine to win the war. Her second wish is related to her profession and university: She wishes for the Ukrainian Film Society to be encouraged and rebuilt along with the Kyiv film university and its priceless archives. For her third wish, she hesitates, then says: “Maybe, for Putin to die, because that could be the beginning of the end of the war, the beginning of the end of one horrible period. Stalin’s death also helped to end one horrific period back in the day… I also wish for Putin to leave this world in torture and pain for every single child who died because of the war in Ukraine, for every person who was forced to leave their home, for everybody who lost their parents or friends to the war. For all the pain of every individual, for every destroyed town and city, for Bucha, for Lyman, for Dnipro, for Mariupol… simply put, for everything he has caused.”