How Ukraine’s Top Film Studio Became a Haven for Those Fleeing War


The staff of Ukraine’s top studio, Film.UA, didn’t give much thought to the abandoned bomb shelter on site. A remnant of past conflicts, the sealed shelter sat unused alongside the company’s extensive wardrobe department for years. But at the start of the war, the space was hastily reopened to accommodate at least 90 Ukrainians safe from Russian air raids.

Located on the outskirts of kyiv, Film.UA – one of the biggest production players in Eastern Europe – had celebrated the premiere of one of its major film projects, “The Big Picnic”, the day before of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 29. 24. Champagne was flowing, celebrities were chatting, and the team was celebrating a company milestone.

“Some people were hungover in the morning and woke up to the news of the war,” says Kateryna Vyshnevska, head of development and co-production for Film.UA. “Some of our colleagues went to work as usual, but it was also weird because you come to work and realize, ‘This is war’.”

Everything stopped that day. Plans to film in Film.UA’s sound stages were put on hold and work came to a halt as the cold reality of a much-feared Russian invasion crept in. a haven for Film.UA employees.

“But then it picked up momentum because now we have a saying in Ukraine: every Ukrainian is either a warrior or a volunteer. You can’t stay away,” says Vyshnevska.

Almost immediately, the studio opened its doors to people from the surrounding district of Troyeschina, many of whom were older, vulnerable and unable to easily evacuate to safer places. The bomb shelter was quickly turned into a refuge during the air raids, and some of the wardrobe department’s thousands of suits were used for aid. The company’s catering company set up kiosks and worked tirelessly to feed everyone and deliver food parcels to people with reduced mobility.

At one point, nearly 100 people – including a woman and her newborn baby (pictured above) – were taking shelter at Film.UA.

Nearly 100 people – including a woman and her newborn baby – took refuge at Film.UA.

Vyshnevska recalls a “scary moment” when the team realized that the Ukrainian army air defense unit, used to shoot down Russian missiles, had been stationed on the street next to the back of the studio. An old World War II bomber plane parked in front of the studio as a peacetime decoration was also cause for concern. “That meant that potentially the area could become a target for the Russians,” Vyshnevska says. But, fortunately, that never happened and Russian forces are now withdrawing from Kyiv and the surrounding area.

Vyshnevska herself narrowly escaped from the city. The executive, who divides his time between London and the Ukrainian capital, fled on March 7 to the south, then to Moldova and finally Romania. She has since traveled across Europe, talking with the industry at markets like Series Mania and MipTV and encouraging the film and TV community to continue working with Ukraine to ensure the local industry survives the war.

All the while, she had been desperately trying to confirm the safety of her Mariupol-based mother. For 17 days, without any kind of communication, she didn’t know if she was dead or alive. Part of her building, and Vyshnevska’s childhood home, no longer exists, having collapsed after three hits during heavy fighting in the eastern Ukrainian town. But somehow Vyshnevska’s mother was evacuated and is now in Lviv, waiting to cross the Polish border.

With the backing of London MP Tulip Siddiq – who was instrumental in securing the recent release of dual Iranian-British Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from Iran – Vyshnevska was able to secure a visa for her mother to come to the UK. Warsaw on Monday and help her make the trip to London.

The rest of her time is spent rallying industry for support – to make sure she doesn’t leave Ukraine behind. Although Russian troops are withdrawing from cities like kyiv, the war continues. On Friday, an airstrike at Kramatorsk train station in eastern Ukraine, used to evacuate civilians, killed at least 39 people, including children.

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The studio’s catering company worked around the clock to feed those in the shelter.

As Film.UA Group CEO Victoria Yarmoshchuk told MipTV delegates earlier this week, Ukraine needs no pity, pity or condolence. What it needs are new projects, international cooperations and jobs for people in the creative sector.

“On the first day of war, we realized that content is our weapon,” Yarmoshchuk said. “Ukrainian stories are not local stories; they can be understood anywhere. The best thing the world can do right now is to collaborate with us. »

Representatives of Film.UA Group, Media Group Ukraine, 1+1 Media and StarLightMedia, once content and viewership rivals, gathered in Cannes for a “Stand with Ukrainian Content Industry” session, urging international players to notice their showrunners, producers and writers, ready to work right now.

One of the main goals is to organize an industry fund that would ideally receive contributions from big companies like Disney and Netflix. “It’s to create jobs so we can help ourselves, and so [displaced Ukrainians] in Europe and all over the world can return home,” says Vyshnevska.

The fund is still in its infancy, but “we hope streamers will contribute, as they have a responsibility as the most international players”.

Vyshnevska adds that although filming in Ukraine is now suspended, other work such as dubbing and localization is still possible. Film.UA staff initially worked from home, but have now returned to the studio to do dubbing and dubbing for all channels as well as news outlets. A team of 20 people stationed across Ukraine is also producing an animated series chronicling the history of the Ukrainian resistance.

“We have no choice: we have to go back and do what we are doing,” Vyshnevska said. “If channels start buying more Ukrainian content, that helps immediately. If they start doing animation or post-production with Ukrainians, that will help them. We have a plan for how we can resume production, and the industry must help. »

Marta Balaga contributed to this story.

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