In early July 2014 our troops fought against the so-called DNR militias for Mykolaivka, a smallish town near Sloviansk in Donetsk oblast (population 16,000, total area 6.5 square kilometers). Civilians took shelter in basements (in particular, under the local community center), secondary school No. 3 was damaged during bombing. Soon after all these events, volunteers from NGO New Donbas took care of the school. Not only did they help to renovate the building, but they also launched a series of art therapy projects. The most prominent of these initiatives was a documentary play Mykolaivka by German director Georg Genoux and Kyiv-based playwright Natalia Vorozhbyt and performed in Konstanz (Germany), Kyiv, Lviv, and Sievierodonetsk.
In 2016 the film Shkola Nomer Try (School Number 3) was jointly produced by Genoux and Ukrainian film director Yelizaveta Smith. In Berlin it won the Grand Prix in the youth competition Generation 14plus.
The shooting locations (school interior and the outskirts of Mykolaivka) are typical for any eastern Ukrainian place: concrete residential blocks, the hilly steppe with punctured by vertical lines: power towers and chimneys of the Sloviansk Power Plant (Mykolaivka is in fact a company town). No ruins, no cannonade, no men in military uniforms. But the war rings off in words and permeates teenagers’ revelations. School Number 3 is a private chronicle without a protagonist.
All monologs (as a rule, filmed statically and frontally, which creates an effect of intimacy and suggests a mise-en-scene in theatre) are triggered by an object associated with some special memories. A motorcycle helmet, a heart-shaped pendant, a toy sheep, a stuffed King Kong, an Eiffel Tower souvenir, a cartridge from a machine gun: each object brings with it an image from an individual life, shaping the faces of the loved ones. Someone has lost a friend. Someone nearly crashed on a motorbike. Someone lost his dog and then found it. Someone plays miniatures in a shadow show by way of distraction from a personal drama. Someone cheerfully sings along a sticky song to the accompaniment of a mobile phone. The rhythm and motion between the revelations hold together the intermezzos filmed with a dynamic camera, where the young people are just fooling around, flirting, or engaging in comically exaggerated arguments.
The likely ordinariness of the words and images is canceled by the reduction of distance, by optical proximity to the speakers, which gives each word or gesture maximal emotional value. The directors are gazing into the teenagers who are not playing themselves. On the contrary, they create a jigsaw puzzle of their war-torn childhood right there before our eyes, and it makes them just co-authors like Yelyzaveta, Georg, or Natalia. The summary of this great joint authorship is a portrait of a generation, as passionate as it is touching.
They speak of death, they speak of love. They are stronger.
Yelizaveta Smith: “The children let us into their world.”
“It all began when we, together with the volunteers of the New Donbas project, went to rebuild school No. 3 in Mykolaivka. Some were literally building, but I worked with the children. We produced a Santa Claus play. Georg Genoux played the Santa. There we met Natalia Vorozhbyt. Then, about a month later, we were invited to help produce a play; we thought we would be filming the process of production. It happened so that the videos filmed during walks with the kids, were included into the performance. Finally, I and Georg decided it was time to make a movie. So we filmed the monologs of all 13 teens and kept filming their daily routines. We worked a year and a half. Not all monologs from My Mykolaivka made it to School Number 3. On the other hand, we added episodes which did not fit the concept of the play.
“Communication with those teens turned into a therapy, which has helped both them and us. We also realized that when we jumped together from a bridge or walked in the hills, a space is born on the screen, which the kids let us enter, and it was something very personal and special.
“We shared our favorite books, poems by Zhadan, sent one another films and songs. They eagerly told us their stories, they let us enter their world, and it was really cool for both parties.
“Children in the ATO zone are much more adult because they live in such circumstances which many of us never experienced, and this prompts them to consider questions which we never consider in our ordinary lives. Their treatment of their family members and of each other is very human. Some have really deep personalities, even if they do not really have a lot of choices. Teens from big cities can go to the movies or clubs, but in Mykolaivka you can only go to a pizza hut which closes at 9 p.m., and then you have the park where you can drink. However, our schoolchildren received a chance to express themselves, and they jumped at it. It all started with the shadow show, they made it on their own at school, and it still exist. The same goes for The Voices of the Town, a newspaper created with the volunteers’ help. This is what makes them different: they are eager to act. We keep calling one another, they come visit me in the winter and in the summer, it is a story without an end. We are friends.
“Their lives have changed a lot, and their horizons have definitely expanded. I reiterate, I learned a lot from this experience, as a human and as a director. First of all, to be tolerant. Often it is very hard to hear things you believe to be false, and it is hard to take a person seriously, but if you are after a dialog, if you want to hear this person, you have to understand what they think. Also, as a director I know now what I am after. I am after the process. Not the result, not the image, but the process, together with the protagonists. It is very exciting. I think even if I turn to action movies, after School Number 3 I will know what I’ll be doing there.
“I want the viewers to hear the children who have survived a war but who are still as lively, as cool and as merry as their peers somewhere in Berlin, New York, and Kyiv, no matter where. It is a very deep and universal process.”