Day 39 - 67: April 29 - May 26, 2014

Yesterday was Ukraine's early presidential elections. As most who have seen the news now know that the winner is the "Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy oligarch that might add stability to Ukraine - despite being "more of the same." Last night, we attended his election night party. I snapped the below photo as a crowd of journalists descended upon him upon his appearance in the Art Arsenal museum. He spoke almost exclusively to Ukrainian television, to the disappointment of many international journalists. We overheard one major American network journalist cursing about being denied an interview as she waved around her credentials. 

Kiev, Ukraine - Petro Poroshenko speaks with journalists at Art Arsenal as exit polls place him as the winner. copyright Jason Blevins 2014

Polling center in Kiev, Ukraine. 

Overall, election day was rather low-key. There were lines, but in Kiev, there was no celebrations in the streets. People seemed to simply want a return to normalcy. This was quite surprising for me and my team. We were not necessarily expecting anything major, but we figured people would gather in Maidan. This lackluster tone was most apparent at the second place presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, 

Yulia Tymoshenko's concession speech. Copyright Jason Blevins 2014

Earlier this week, we attended a wedding for two members of the notorious Right Sector. In what was one of the more bizarre moments I've filmed, there was a balaclava-wearing Right Sector member riding atop a subversive tank that was decorated with balloons and a Canadian band played folk music atop. 

Right Sector wedding. copyright Jason Blevins 2014

The previous night we had met the leader of Right Sector, Dmitry Yarosh. The now-former presidential candidate and alleged 'terrorist', Yarosh, is on Russia's most wanted list. Hard to imagine this soft-spoken man in a suit that spoke to us in the hallways of Hromadske.TV station being what Russia has accused him as being, but we'll see what impressions arise from our interview with him in the following weeks. 

On Saturday, we went to a shooting range with the Ukrainian equivalent of the NRA. We had earlier interviewed the coordinator for the gun association. His arguments for the right to guns was very similar to what one might hear the NRA make, however the sincerity was far more moving here. When the government is corrupt and the police cannot be relied upon to do their job... what other options does an individual have to protect himself and those around him? It's not an ideal situation, but more has to be accomplished in Ukraine before they can work toward idealism. 

Speaking of idealism, we interviewed a historian for Mikhailovsky Monastery. His insights into the church during the Soviet Union and now with respect to the people's revolution against Yanukovych's government was quite revealing and often moving. 

I didn't take a photo of this, but we also got an interview with Mustafa Nayyem, a popular journalist and co-founder of at Hromadske.TV and is credited by some in the media as having motivated the first gathering of people in Maidan, an act that launched a revolution. I won't go into what he said now because much of it should be heard, not read. Look for it to be featured in the trailer for our film to be released sometime in July/August. 

That is all for now, and only a small part of the interviews we have done over the last month. We have something like 100 hours of footage thus far and have many ideas of how to cut it all together into a unique portrait of Ukraine's revolution that is unlike anything we've seen thus far. I cannot wait to share it with everyone.

Day 2 - 38: March 21 - April 27, 2014

I've been terrible at this whole blogging thing. I'll try to update more frequently! But definitely follow me on Instagram where I post photos more frequently!

To answer the question I repeatedly get asked on Facebook, we are safe. In fact, oddly enough, it is very comfortable in Kyiv at the moment. Perhaps it is the post-revolution spirit, but this city is quite a unique place to be at this moment. Never had I imagined walking at night through a center center turned military camp and not feeling threatened by a mob of masked men carrying makeshift weapons. Not only that, also feel comfortable approaching them.

Currently, Maidan is like a carefully curated museum. The inhabitants of the numerous tents take care of these grounds, cleaning them often and chastising anyone who dares litter, even if just a cigarette butt. We often witness them escorting drunks out of the square. These people are largely self-governing units. Their coordination and collaboration is quite inspiring. In part because many of these people come from diverse backgrounds and opposing ideologies. To some degree, one would have to imagine the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street collaborating seamlessly to grasp how little ideological rigidity has interfered with their overwhelming aspirations of unity and patriotism — at least in Kyiv.

It's been quite interesting to see how the themes of conversation have shifted over the past month. When I first arrived, a few days after Crimea seceded from Ukraine, many people expressed concern that World War III could be ignited if they were not smart. To some degree, they acquiesced to Putin's land grab hoping it would be an implicit exchange to allow autonomy from Russia. But now, people sound ready to fight in and for eastern Ukraine. They are frustrated with the interim government's inaction. And lately, I have heard many predictions of a Maidan 3.0 to ignite around the upcoming elections. We shall see...

Now onto the updates on the production. Where to begin... 

I should first start by mentioning that I've been working with a Seattle-based camera operator, Darius, who I met the first weekend after I arrived in Kyiv. He's been an invaluable asset to the film that I had not ever anticipated having while here.

Darius waiting in a cafe for our meeting with Spilno.TV founder. SpilnoTV is a live streaming news channel that had volunteers live streaming from the front lines of the protests.

A quick overview of some notable interviews we have had, include:

- A pastor from Mikhailovsky Monastery (aka St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery) where student protesters sought refuge in on November 22nd, the event that sparked the Euromaidan protests that lead into the revolution.

- We also met Alexei, a Cossack guarding Maidan. He invited us into the Ukrainian House, a convention center, that has been occupied for the past few months by the self-defense militias guarding Maidan. This convention center has generally been off-limits to the press (confirmed when one Cossack blocked our camera while shooting B-roll when he thought we were press). We were given unique access to interview their ideological leader, and other Cossacks, in their barracks on the second floor of the Ukrainian House. They shared many intimate accounts of witnessing the deaths and brutality at the hands of the Berkut riot police, as well as snipers. We were with them until 2 am as one Cossack after the next lined up to speak on camera. The biggest take away from this was how little they liked to discuss themselves, and instead praised the bravery of their fellow Cossacks who were killed or injured. One young Cossack expressed a degree of shame for being hospitalized during the worse days of violence on Maidan. He would have rather been beside his fellow Cossacks and Ukrainians. 

- We also spent an evening on patrol with Alexei, who gained us access into a post office being occupied by the notorious Right Sector. We followed one member, who was 19, through the basement into their converted exercise room. Our conversation with him revealed how simplified the media has portrayed Right Sector throughout the recent months. Labels such as neo-Nazis or fascists have been applied broadly with little context behind this accusation. This is one of several encounters we have had with Right Sector. Perhaps they are what the media says they are, but it also seems they have been made the scapegoats for moderates who want to distance themselves from the dirty work of the revolution. But who knows! Hopefully our schedule interview this week with one higher ranking member will clarify the subject for us.

These are just some brief highlights, but the project has been growing throughout our shoot and we are looking forward to seeing the end result — not only of the film but Ukraine, as well. 

Oh! And our crew member accidentally stumbled upon Vice President Joe Biden at Mikhailovsky Monastery. Unfortunately, he was too busy on his 48 hour stay in Kyiv to grant us an interview. Oh well...

Day 0.5 & 1: March 19 - 20, 2014

Yesterday, on my birthday, Salt & Light reached its funding goal on Kickstarter with six days left. Naturally, additional funds will be used wisely and are still needed, but I'm overwhelmed by the support people have offered to make this happen. 

I arrived to Kiev at 1 PM on March 19th. My taxi driver, Sasha, drove me to my apartment while kindly pointing out landmarks along the way in his rough English. The eastern outskirts of the city were lined with birch trees along the highway. As the taxi pulled up to my rental apartment, I realized how close I was to Maidan. A barricade of tires and wooden boards blocked an archway to the main road. I was greeted shortly after by a young man, who handed me the keys and showed me to the studio apartment I would be spending my first week in. For as close to the center as I was, I was quite surprised how spacious it was.

Later that evening, I met with a friend of a friend. We took a tour of Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central location of the protests. I was uncertain what atmosphere I would find, but I was surprised how much pride and curiosity the people had. Immediately upon arriving, a drunk was being escorted. I was told there was no tolerance there for such belligerence. Families, couples, and a few tourists were all in the square taking photos and walking between barricades. It was like walking through a film set. A month after the worst clashes between police and protesters that resulted in an estimated one-hundred deaths, windows remained shattered and there was still a lingering smell of burnt tires.

But what I was shocked to find was that while the barricades remained in place, detailed care went into cleaning up the streets. As we stood at the scene of one of the sniper shootings, there was no shattered glass or no dried blood. Nothing that would exploit the events that happened there. Those taking photos did not do so with a smile on their face. There were no selfies, as I was shocked to see at Auschwitz concentration camp. The people there seemed to memorialize it through photography or be listening to the men in military camouflage speak of the events. 

The next day, after struggling to wake up early (ultimately to sleep until noon), I went for a long walk to see the rest of Kiev. Despite the impression otherwise, the city felt safe. People were calm. Children were running to class (which made me curious when school starts here). Workers swept the streets. Younger students sat in cafes reading or chatting with friends. Kiev is quite the beautiful city. Cobblestone streets, steep hills, and pastel-colored churches. But the people are the most attractive asset here. They are friendly, helpful, quiet. Most seem to be walking with friends or families. 

As I re-entered Maidan from the eastern corner, there was choir music blasting from a nearby tent. In a rough mix of Russian and English, I asked who it was. The military-outfitted young man responded, "Pikkardiyska Tertsia," and typed it into my phone. The music was a bit dramatic, like stepping into a war film, the three men and him standing beside it seem to make sure this is intentional. An overwhelming sound barrier that interrupts any other thoughts you might casually be thinking of or any conversation you might be having. It instead asks you to recognize where you are entering. Kreshchatyk St. is lined by high-end outlets and is a commonly used main road. So, in case you did not notice the toppled over automobiles or barricades, then the music should at least leave an impression on you.

More later... Onto Day 2: The First Day of Shooting.