22 January 2023

I wouldn’t mind weaponizing the image against the aggressor. Lesia Kulchynska interviews Oleksiy Radynski

L.K. My first question will be very simple: Do you document the war?

O. R. Yes, I do, from the first days actually. And this documentation has several different iterations, several ways of doing it. In the first few days of the full-scale invasion, I joined the group called Kinodopomoga. It’s a group of filmmakers who were filming the war on the ground and passing the footage to editing teams that were processing it quickly and spreading it through different media. During the first weeks, I was editing the footage shot in different places across Ukraine. Now my colleague Mykola Bazarkin, along with other people from the team, made a film out of this footage, called Overcoming Darkness.

Then, after a month or so, I joined another team of documentarians, founded by journalist Natalia Gumeniuk together with her colleagues. From the very start, this project was formally focused on documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine. But, more generally, I see the role of this project as a documentary history writing on the ground during the invasion. This documentation of the war crimes takes form mostly in collecting the testimonies of witnesses, but also in documenting the context of these crimes and the invasion. In this project, I focus on one particular story, a particular war crime, namely the occupation of the Chornobyl nuclear plant and the Chornobyl Zone of exclusion as a new kind of war crime,  characterised as nuclear terrorism. In a sense, it’s an unprecedented case, because it’s the first time in history that a nuclear facility of this kind has been occupied and taken over by an invading army. So it’s kind of a new step in military practice, a Russian innovation, so to say. This project has a dual purpose and a dual meaning. The evidence that we are collecting is basically forensic evidence. It’s collected according to certain procedures that would allow it to be presented in court. There is a team of international lawyers who are part of the project and analyse this evidence to build cases against the Russian army. But this project has a purely documentary purpose, too, which is documenting the processes taking place during the war.

There is also one more way I document the war. I don’t know if it’s important or necessary, but I also use black and white film and an old camera that I found just before the invasion. So I started to take very conventional black and white pictures of Kyiv and other places in Ukraine, without any clear purpose or idea—just for myself and my memories.

Why black and white?

Basically because of my daughter who is interested in analogue photography. I just had this black and white film and started to take these pictures in Kyiv in April, when it became possible to take pictures again. Because during the first month of the invasion, it was almost impossible to take pictures without special permission. But in April, the situation became more relaxed in Kyiv, so I started using this black and white film for documenting the city. And then I thought that it was actually a very appropriate medium for what was going on, because this war and the way this invasion happened was very old-school. Even to call it a “XX-century-style invasion” would be doing a favour. It’s an invasion based not only on very conservative political ideas, but also on strangely conservative military strategies. It all looked like a historical reenactment, which of course has a structural link to conservative ideology, kind of reenacting the phantasies about shit that never actually took place in real life. Before the invasion, there were so many fears about Russian advanced military technologies, Russian hackers, etc., but when it came to practice, they turned out to be extremely backwards. So because we are now kind of travelling to the past in time, this black and white style makes sense to me. 

Kyiv Film Stills, Oleksiy Radynski, 2022

I know that there are a lot of restrictions on taking pictures in the situation of war, but you said that in April it became more relaxed. What changed?

I can only talk about the place where I was myself, which is Kyiv, because the situation was very different in different places. In April, the battle of Kyiv was basically over, there were no hostilities happening in the Kyiv region any more. However, there are completely different rules for taking pictures in the zones of hostilities. We see it in Chornobyl, which is a special zone in many senses—and now also a special image production zone.

But, to be honest, even when it was not allowed in Kyiv, lots of people were still taking pictures, so there is a lot of footage from this first month as well.

Yes, I think this is true, that despite all the prohibitions, this war is unprecedentedly well-documented. Everyone who is in Ukraine and who has a camera—and nowadays, almost everyone has a camera—documents this war on a daily basis. In the background of the mass production of visual evidence of the war, what is your specific methodology? In what way is the approach of documentary filmmaking different from the everyday evidence production by people equipped with smartphones who witness the war?

In a way, everything is different. But what is important for me is what documentary filmmaking and everyday production have in common. Because I know that my work is actually nothing compared to the results and efforts of this collective documentation that everyone is involved in now in Ukraine. So, in this sense, the work of the documentary filmmakers is not really that more important than the work of anyone else who takes pictures and creates evidence of war. Of course, you never know where this evidence will end up and when and if. It’s like an ocean of evidence that no one is able to control and certain parts of it—or almost all of it—will probably disappear, but other things will be preserved and reemerge at some point.

However, if we speak about the differences, what mostly makes me different —and isa privilege of a documentary filmmaker—is the ability to produce long-term documentation, and to use long-term strategies. I am not saying that it’s better, because in situations like war, brief and arbitrary reactions sometimes are much more important than long-term observations, but this is what our job is—to devise the strategies that are at least a little bit more long-term than immediate reaction; kind of looking into certain things in a very focused way, or select certain fragments of reality and explore them very closely. It is also important in a situation like this, when enormous perpetual war crime is being committed, because its intention is to bury everyone in this avalanche of images of atrocities, where basically nothing in particular matters anymore. So this strategy has to be countered and certain things have to be looked at in a very detailed way, as much as possible, to not let it go, not let it be forgotten, to at least maintain the claim that the perpetrator should be punished. For this purpose, we are now spending a lot of time in Chornobyl, in order to document just one tiny episode of invasion, which also happened to be the first episode of it—I mean the takeover of the Chornobyl nuclear plant. It was a very special episode, even though no one was killed during this takeover. In terms of violence, it was probably the least violent war crime of this war.

Kyiv Film Stills, Oleksiy Radynski, 2022

You started work in Chornobyl after it was deoccupied?

Yes. It’s impossible for Ukrainian and most international journalists and documentarians to work on the occupied territories. Some people were trying to do this but it ended badly, like in the case of Mantas Kvedaravičius, the Lithuanian filmmaker who was killed in Mariupol during the storming of the city. So we came to Chornobyl when it was deoccupied, but it’s still a very special zone, very heavily militarised, which is quite understandable. Actually it is in a way still a combat zone, but not in a conventional way. The Chornobyl Zone is divided between Ukraine and Belarus, each state has its own alienation zone. Belarus’ alienation zone is now being used to launch Iranian drones.

I always thought that the Chornobyl zone of alienation is a kind of a portal into the future, and now it literally became a portal through which the Russian army entered Ukraine trying to take over Kyiv. But they went through this portal and got totally stuck there. 

It is also curious that the Russian invasion of Ukraine started by occupying this small-scale model of the Soviet Union that was left in the territory of Ukraine. The only monument of Lenin still left in Ukraine was in the Chornobyl Zone. It was also the only place where the street names were not changed, there was no decommunization there.

You mean that the Soviet fantasy of Ukraine and Russian unity was still inscribed into this territory? Do you think that this was the reason why it was so easy to invade it?

It was very easy to invade it because there was almost no army there. It is a state within a state to such an extent that there is a border between Ukraine and the Chornobyl Zone, but almost no real border between the Ukrainian Chornobyl Zone and Belarus. The border was very vague and very poorly guarded. Now it is very different, there is a very real border there.

It sounds like the investigation that you are doing in Chornobyl could lead to revelations not only about Russian crimes, but also about some unpleasant things concerning the Ukrainian state.

Very much so. Although what I’m doing there is hard to even call an investigation, because everything is so much on the surface. But there are other investigations that have been published by real investigative journalists about the role of Chornobyl in the Russian invasion of Ukraine that reveal a great lot about the Ukrainian state before the war.

However, I’m interested in Chornobyl because it’s not just a part of the Ukrainian state—in a way it is the essence of the Ukrainian state. You know, there is this kind of liberal tendency to compare the Russian Federation to the Soviet Union, which I think is a huge favour to the Russian Federation, because the system is so much worse now on so many levels. And Chornobyl is a kind of place where this became highly visible. When the Russian troops came to Chornobyl, they assumed that they had some knowledge of this place, but then they had to face the fact that nothing of what they thought they knew about it actually works. On the very first day of the invasion of Chornobyl, the Russian command was in a very deep state of shock, when they realised that what they had just occupied was not in fact a nuclear plant; it’s a decommissioned, contaminated post-disaster plant, which is in fact a totally different thing. And this, in a way, is what happened in general with the Russian invasion of Ukraine: They came, they had some assumptions about the place they were invading, but none of them turned out to be really true. So I believe that by studying Chornobyl we can learn a lot about Ukraine.

I know that your documentary practice has always been quite critical. I also know that now, during the war, many artists refuse to take a critical stand towards the Ukrainian state or society, not to weaken it in front of the enemy. Do you face any self-censorship issues during the war?

First of all, I don’t agree with the opinion that the Ukrainian state should not be criticised during the war, because the ability to criticise the state is exactly our most basic difference from our neighbour that we are fighting with. But at the same time, I feel that my historical task as a documentary filmmaker now is to expose the much bigger villain, which is the Russian state, and, actually, its failure. Because what we are now observing is a historical failure of the Russian state. So I see my task as not only to observe it, but to foster it by all means possible.

However, when I’m criticising the Russian state or Russian culture, I also feel like I’m criticising myself. Not just because I’m partly Russian in my origins, but also because as a Ukrainian, I am a subaltern of this empire, and as a subaltern, I can see and understand this empire much better than it can understand itself.

Kyiv Film Stills, Oleksiy Radynski, 2022

So your criticism of the Russian Federation can also be a kind of self-criticism?

It can happen. But it’s more about the Russian imperial project, which is not only about Russians, it’s also about those who were subject to the imperial rule, so it’s very much about Ukrainians, too.

But going back to your question about the criticism of the Ukrainian state, I think this idea of self-censorship should be strongly opposed. Let’s take an example of the situation with the Dovzhenko Center: there were some opinions that we should not discredit the Ukrainian state by creating a huge outcry around it, but I think such failures should be made as loud as possible.

This war produces an incredible amount of images. What, in your opinion, is the special role of art in this massive image production economy?

First of all, it may be important to understand that a lot of practices coming from Ukraine that never had a chance of a mass outreach now have this possibility because of the increased attention to Ukraine. Of course, it’s not comparable to mass media outreach, because these artists are in a completely different place in the attention economy. However, the practices or messages that seem to be very marginal or were marginalised before can now still be spread much further due to  this global attention to Ukraine. So I think artists should not shy away from this kind of outreach that became available now because of the war, and if there are messages that we want to share massively, we should use this moment. Ukraine is just one huge untold story. It’s a place where during 25 years almost no films were made, and there are so many things that can remain invisible if they are not represented. My question is why it took a war like this to get the chance to be visible. Why was there no chance for visibility without a war? The answer to this question also contains the answer to the question why Ukraine was invaded by Russia.

What is the answer?

Ukraine was a total blindspot of the global attention economy. That’s just one of the reasons, of course. 

You are right that we have a chance for bigger visibility at the moment, but at the same time, I have a feeling that in a way Ukraine still remains invisible under the very shadow of war. This war is the only thing that is seen and discussed in the context of Ukraine.

You are not only right, it’s even worse. This is actually the plan of Russians, to reduce Ukraine to the topic of war. Even if they cannot win, they will win symbolically if they succeed in reaching this goal. Which is why I am trying not to participate in this. When I am showing something publicly, I’m trying not to show any of my current work, first of all because it’s unfinished, but more importantly, because there is a lot of pre-invasion works that still have to be shown. 

But I can totally understand what you are talking about in the film circuits: everyone now wants to show a film about the war in Ukraine and nothing else. The films that are not about the war are going to be totally disprivileged now. That’s why we should value the work of those who are not following this pattern.

Kyiv Film Stills, Oleksiy Radynski, 2022
Kyiv Film Stills, Oleksiy Radynski, 2022

As a person who left Ukraine on the first day of the full-scale invasion, my experience of the war in my country is very strange. This war is very real for me as it touches me directly, but at the same time, it’s very virtual, as I observe it mostly on the screen.  So I have a question for you as a person who stays in Ukraine almost all the time during the war: Is it possible for you to differentiate between your media experience of war and your direct experience of it? Can you grasp this gap?

My experience, I think, is as much mediatized as yours. I am not sure what this direct experience is. Mediatized experience is not direct, but it’s also very real. I think the real difference is between the experiences of the people who are on the frontline and the rest of us, who are not. For me, this war was very much mediatized not only because I was observing things happening on the screen, as everyone else, but also because I was editing someone else’s footage from the very first days. Media now is just one of the weapons in this war, it’s completely complicit with it.

Do you feel that you, as an image producer, also take part in this weaponization of the image?

There is aggressive war and there is defensive war; there is aggressive weaponization of the image and a defensive one. I don’t think defensive weaponization of visuality is necessarily a good idea, but I wouldn’t mind weaponizing the image against the aggressor. 

Oleksiy Radynski (b. 1984) is a filmmaker and writer based in Kyiv. His films have been screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, DOK Leipzig, Sheffield Doc Fest, Krakow IFF, Docudays UA, e-flux (New York), and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), among others, and have received a number of festival awards. 

Lesia Kulchynska (PhD, b. 1984) is a Kyiv-based art curator and visual studies researcher currently affiliated with Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History. She taught Theory of Communication at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Cultural Studies and Media Studies at the Kyiv Academy of Media Arts, and worked as a researcher at Pinchuk Art Center as well as a curator at the Visual Culture Research Center and Set Independent Art Space (Kyiv). Kulchynska also curated The School of the Lonesome at the Kyiv Biennial 2015 “The School of Kyiv”. In 2018-2019, she was a Fulbright Scholar residing at New York University. Her research interests are the theory of the image and the visuality of violence.