“I Heard Shots Behind Me, Turned Back and Saw Killers Approaching”: Lesya Kalynska on Tribeca Premiere A Rising Fury
In Ukraine, Russian disinformation has finally met its lie-dismantling match in the information warfare sphere—which, ironically, within the larger landscape of our head-spinning, 24-hour news cycle, only serves to muddy the waters of “truth” even further. Fortunately, the besieged nation has a thriving documentary scene with a habit of taking the patient and longterm vérité approach. Out of that tradition comes Lesya Kalynska and Ruslan Batytskyi’s feature debut A Rising Fury, world-premiering at Tribeca Festival, the culmination of an often fraught, messily complicated eight-year filmmaking journey. This breathtakingly cinematic explainer of current events follows the young patriotic Pavlo, a soldier from the Donbas region where the war began in 2014, and activist volunteer Svitlana, a single mother who the infantryman met and fell in love with on the frontlines of the Maidan Uprising. Over the course of nearly a decade the pair’s hopes and passionate idealism is tested on the battleground of Russia’s insidious hybrid warfare, changing the couple and their beloved country forever—as it has the Ukrainian filmmakers behind the lens.
A few days prior to the Tribeca launch on June 10, Filmmaker caught up with NYC-based, Kyiv native Kalynska (who heartbreakingly had to include a dedication in the film to her mom after she passed away post-evacuation from Bucha); while Batytskyi was understandably unreachable, too busy filming with the troops back in Ukraine.
Filmmaker: So did you first meet Pavlo and Svitlana at the Maidan uprising? Were there other characters you considered following?
Kalynska: Yes, we first met at Maidan. We were immediately drawn to their energy and spirit. Something that stood out to me was their appearance; they were not dressed as ordinary people as many others were. They wore army fatigues, and helped to prepare self-defense units against hired thugs and police forces controlled by the corrupt, Russian-backed president Victor Yanukovych.
We began following many interesting characters, around seven in total. We filmed hundreds of hours of material over eight years, and we are currently filming in 2022. The real challenge was cutting some of our most beloved characters, because it just wasn’t possible to include so many storylines. The character that was hardest for me not to include was a 21-year-old Maidan activist named Serhiy Nihoyan. He was ethnically Armenian from a family of refugees. Serhiy spoke Ukrainian beautifully and recited the iconic Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko at Maidan. Our crew last filmed him on Jan 21 of 2014, and learned the next day that he was killed by a sniper. He was the first gunshot victim of the revolution. It was so emotional for me. I went and filmed his funeral in the Dnipropetrovsk region and even met his family. So, cutting his story out of the film was one of the most personal and difficult decisions. I hope one day I can tell his story in some other way.
Filmmaker: The cinematography is so harrowing and astonishingly intimate. Were you actually filming on the frontlines as well? Did you incorporate footage shot by the soldiers themselves into the film?
Kalynska: For my co-director Ruslan Batytskyi and me, as well as for our characters, the war had already begun at Maidan. Our team began filming in 2013 and spent days and nights there until the very end of the revolution. In November 2022 it will be nine years since we began filming. This project is rather epic, so we had several cinematographers filming, including my co-director/DP Ruslan and myself. We spent so much time with our characters that the camera became a natural part of their environment.
The images feel intimate because we didn’t just film Svitlana, Pavlo and Vadym; we lived through dramatic moments together with them. There were many dangerous situations. One in particular I will never forget, the massacre in February of 2014. The riot police, hired thugs and unidentified snipers killed more than 100 people in the heart of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Ukrainians call the fallen heroes of those events “Eternal Regiment.”
It started on a beautiful sunny day; the spring was coming. On February 18th, protesters marched to the Ukrainian Parliament to demand the resignation of President Yanukovych. Our crew split into two teams so that we could film in two different locations. I was following our character Vadym and his self-organized defense unit in Mariinskyi Park. Suddenly riot police began attacking from all sides—running forward with their shields, beating people with their batons. Then they started shooting for real, with live rounds, and the hired thugs were beating people without mercy. We were trapped. Our only chance for escape was through the narrow street. The crowd in a panic pushed. Then I heard shots behind me, turned back and saw killers approaching, but we managed to escape. I only survived because I was filming Vadym and his unit, who helped civilians to retreat.
While I was in Mariinskyi Park, Ruslan was filming on Instytutska Street and barely survived. We’re trained as film directors, not as war journalists, and we realized that we needed some knowledge and protection in order to film in hostile environments. Doc Society (BRITDOC at the time) provided special training for us from a former British officer.
After the Maidan massacre our team changed strategies. When one director was on the ground embedded with the characters, another was on lookout duty, constantly checking on crew members and being on standby in case of an emergency. So, for example, when in the summer of 2014 Ruslan was embedded with the battalion in Eastern Ukraine, I was atop covering the shoot, fundraising and impact-producing in the US, while also sharing information about Ukraine with journalists and the international audience.
A few amazing filmmakers filmed on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, including Anton Yaremchuk, Taras Tomenko and Taras Tkachenko. We also worked closely with soldiers. Pavlo, our main character, filmed some truly unique material. One soldier, Mykola Petskovych (call sign “Ninzya”) was able to capture incredible moments during the historic battle for Luhansk, and courageous Lesko Kromplitz captured the harrowing images from Donetsk airport in 2015.
For me, it took many years of traveling back and forth from the US to Ukraine to continue filming. During the full-scale invasion here in 2022, Ruslan continued filming new material that we included in this latest version.
Filmmaker: The editing likewise is so deftly crafted, though it seems like that process might have been overwhelming. Were you editing throughout production?
Kalynska: We began filming in November 2013 and started editing in March 2014. We had multiple versions throughout the years, with eight different main versions. We started with the Maidan revolution, then there was Crimea, then Eastern Ukraine—and now, in 2022, a full-scale invasion. What was our story? Which characters do we focus on? How do you explain hybrid war, but do so simply? Let’s do voiceover. Yes! Wait, no. It was not only necessary to understand the unfolding history before our eyes, but we also had to find a story—especially because there were so many stories in our footage.
In the first five years, Ruslan and I were the only editors. We reached a point when we knew we needed an editor with a fresh perspective. We considered many for this very daunting task, and met and interviewed both European and American editors. Then we watched a documentary called Following Seas, directed and edited by Araby Kelley. It’s about a sailing family that makes 20 ocean voyages over two decades in some of the most remote areas of the globe. She captures both adventurous characters and tragedy. After watching that film I told my producer, “She can edit our project.” We approached Araby in March of 2020 and she agreed to join the team.
When the latest invasion began in February of 2022, the team kept filming. We added the new material to this version; I feel that it makes the film so much stronger. Our main character Pavlo predicted in the film that a bigger war was coming. Unfortunately for Ukraine and the rest of the world, he was right.
I’ll also say that our team has been waiting years to launch our film at a top festival like Tribeca. When we were in the final stages of postproduction this past January we were thinking only of summer and fall festivals. But when Russia invaded Ukraine it changed all that; we felt the need to share our film as soon as possible. Thankfully, the Tribeca Film Festival accepted our film as a world premiere. Under normal circumstances this would be a time of celebration, but considering personal tragedies and the tragedy in Ukraine, for me it isn’t at all.
My co-director Ruslan is still in Ukraine filming, so we relied heavily on our producer T.J. Collins to help finish the film and prepare for Tribeca. He’s been with us as a producer on this project for six years, and worked so hard to get this film made. During the last two years I collaborated with T.J. and Araby on editing; it was such a great experience.
I’ll add that currently one of our biggest sources of support is the Ukrainian-American community. They have been there for us from the beginning, but the support from them now has been overwhelming.
Filmmaker: I’m especially curious about one particular aspect of the doc. Though the “little green men” have been a staple of the conflict’s narrative since Putin’s annexation of Crimea, these years-in-the-making “sleeper cells” created by the FSB—another element of Russia’s “hybrid” warfare that you document—has barely been covered (at least not in English-language western media). Why do you think this is the case? Are on-the-ground influence operations just harder to prove?
Kalynska: Indeed, it is harder to prove, but more importantly not many people are even aware of these hybrid strategies of warfare. But for our filmmaking team, the greater challenge has been to explain and unpack all this information in a transparent way.
We ourselves learned about it in 2018, when Pavlo began trusting us more and opened up after five years of filming with him and his family. He was brave enough to share stories of his past in his hometown of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. For us it was a discovery, and not easy to understand at first.
Empires targeting young people in occupied territories and conditioning them is not new in history. The Ottoman Empire kidnapped children from Ukraine and trained them to become killers, then sent them back to fight. Although just an example, the concept is rather similar to our film. For years Russian propaganda tried to portray the events in Eastern Ukraine as a civil war, and that is just not the case. There’s an array of subversive operations taking place—on the ground, cyber, informational, political—all unfolding at the same time over the course of years to achieve a desired outcome.
Filmmaker: Finally, I have to ask, what’s it been like to prepare for the Tribeca premiere while your country and your own lives have been so thoroughly upended? Do you find comfort, or perhaps just a sense of purposeful distraction, in this mission of capturing “truth” in real time for future generations?
Kalynska: What’s happening in Ukraine every day, the tragedies unfolding in each family, is hard to comprehend and put into words.
I recently lost my mom in this war. She resided in the city of Bucha, and no matter how many times I warned her and begged her to leave she refused. She was an accomplished scientist in endocrinology, and she kept working till the very day of the full-scale Russian invasion. She could be in the US right now with me, but she was passionately attached to Ukraine.
The day my mom passed away was the day when Tribeca wrote to us about accepting our film to the festival. After the ceremony of saying the last goodbye to my mom, editing our film saved me from falling into a very dark place. I found a few clips of my mom at Maidan when we went there together. I ended up watching her beautiful face again and again, and it helped me to extend the denial that she is not here anymore. Now she lives in our film.
I am not trained to be a soldier, but I believe that filmmakers can make a difference. The Russian Federation has a powerful propaganda machine and is very aggressive in informational warfare. And who opposes that? Brave journalists. Filmmakers. Writers. A very modest battalion of understaffed, underfunded, exhausted documentarians who keep digging into what’s really going on. To document the truth. To stop this insanity and shine a light in the darkest of places.