To most of the world, Russia’s massive, armed aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 came as a shock. For Ukrainian filmmaker and activist Larysa Artiugina, it may have seemed all but inevitable. Artiugina has been on the ground in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has been shelling Ukrainian citizens continuously since 2014, telling stories that depict the country’s plight and resistance—work she continues in a variety of roles. For her trouble, she has been placed on a Russian hit list.
THE MAKING OF A DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER
Larysa Artiugina was initially drawn to a field unrelated to filmmaking—nuclear physics—which she studied at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. She did, however, also pursue training in her current career by studying directing at Kyiv’s Karpenko-Karyi national university of cinema, theatre, and television.
After making two short films in 2012, she plunged into documentary filmmaking at the Euromaidan demonstrations of 2013-14 as a co-director of Stronger Than Arms (2014), a production of the newly formed documentary collective Babylon ’13. She was drawn to record the protests as a way to protect her friend, Yehor Soboliev, then a journalist and activist and later elected to Ukraine’s parliament.
At the same time, Artiugina, who was teaching at Karpenko-Karyi, gave her second-year undergraduate documentary film students the assignment of filming Euromaidan. “They had such a chance—that of filming history,” she said. When the protests turned deadly, she said, “I would greatly worry about them. However, I realized that they were already independent filmmakers, and it was their own decision to shoot there.” The films would later gain acclaim as Black Diary of the Maidan. (Another excellent documentary about Euromaidan, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) can be viewed on Netflix.)
Artiugina also founded and runs New Donbas, a cultural reform organization for grade school students in eastern Ukraine. The idea for New Donbas emerged in 2014, while she was filming How We Became Military Volunteers among the freedom fighters in Donbas. She found out about bombed schools in Mykolayivka, a town occupied by pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region that was liberated by the Ukrainian army. There, she shot Bohdan’s Happiness, which shows the war in the east through the eyes of a six-year-old boy.
PROMOTING CULTURE AND PEACE
Artiugina continues to make short documentaries as part of Babylon ’13. She also works as a leader of Docua, a group that researches, films, edits, presents, and distributes documentaries. And, she serves as a supervisory board member of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.
As she sees it, her mission is to fight for the physical and cultural security of Ukrainians. “The difficult situation in the country is caused by several reasons, one of which is the complete absence of a cultural policy,” she says. “The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine . . . is structurally the same as the Russian one; its logic is deeply Soviet. Sigmund Freud said that in order to avoid war, much needs to be done for the culture, or more precisely, not hinder its development.
“Only using military means is not enough to secure a victory. You can restrain the enemy by it, but not win,” she says. “You should have something else—this unique Ukrainian volunteer movement. It is something that Putin would not have expected. He cannot influence it, and this is our most powerful weapon.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Larysa Artiugina has made the world aware of the ongoing struggles of the Ukrainian people through her documentary filmmaking and distribution. She isn’t just shining a light on the present, but also she is building for a future of peace and understanding by facilitating dialogue between young Ukrainians who have been damaged by war. By placing the arts at the center of nation-building, she is providing an example to the rest of the world of the importance of culture.— Marilyn Ferdinand