Directors: Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosolowski (Poland, Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Very recently, a theatre project started in Lviv. Ukraine. Young theatre director Rosa Sarkissjan approached actors born after the break up of the Soviet Union for a play loosely based on Hamlet. All had been somehow involved in the Maidan uprising – which each of them refers to as a revolution – and the subsequent war. The play was intended as some sort of therapy for the actors, where they could work through their traumas on stage and confront their recent memories.
Sarkissian explains her motivation behind the play: “Through Hamlet and their stories, I want to understand what people are fighting for in life today, if we ask: to be or not to be? To do or not to do? Do we make compromises or not? Should we be radical or not?” These questions intensified with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But while this all sounds very good in theory, the fragments of rehearsals that we see seem to have very little to do with Hamlet, at least not in any direct way.
We are slowly introduced to the 5 actors. Rodion is gay, and was involved in the protests in Donbas, until he was repelled by the homophobia he experienced and moved to the more cosmopolitan Kyiv. He has been working as a stylist and costume designer while studying at the theatre academy. In the film he confronts his mother and demands that she apologise for past homophobic behaviour. She insists that she saw her son as being different but never as inferior.
Slavik volunteered for the army in 2015, and was captured and imprisoned – an act which was captured on world wide social media. He was tortured in prison and his life was threatened. When a loaded pistol was pointed at his head, he felt a sense of existential freedom, in which he was no longer obliged to take any decisions. He owes his survival to his father’s negotiation skills. During rehearsals, Slavik overcomes his past homophobia through a close relationship with Rodion.
Katya also took part in the Maidan protests and volunteered for the army. She had traumatic experiences gathering dead bodies and fighting to be allowed a place to bury them. She now makes interviews with the victims of war so she can document war crimes. We see her interviewing a woman about her horrific experiences, but breaking off the interview half way through as it reminds Katya too much of everything she has gone through herself.
Roman volunteered for the army and spent 18 months as a battlefield paramedic, a job for which he was emotionally unprepared. Someone tells him “you are a normal person who was suddenly pulled into the war”. You can feel Roman’s post-traumatic stress during the rehearsals. While others storm out, Roman tends to sit there looking increasingly uncomfortable until he feels first to burst into untrammelled rage.
Like the others, Oksana was involved in the Maidan protests. Unlike them, she sees no future for herself in Ukraine, not even in the army or the resistance. She has left for Poland where she works helping refugees. It might be because of her slightly different perspective, it could be her artistic temperament, but Oskana does not seem well integrated with the rest of them. She is forever a coiled spring, a loud strop just waiting to happen.
This all sounds pretty fascinating, so it’s a shame to report that there was something about the film which didn’t fully engage me. Maybe it’s less to do with the film itself but with the theatrical performance which it documents. It feels somehow inappropriate to use a public stage to examine the trauma of young people’s experience of war. I understand how the process might work as therapy for them, but does this really need to be performed in front of a paying audience?
The extent to which the young actors have been traumatized means that they are not always the best people to express what they have experienced. Rehearsals are regularly interrupted with someone storming out of the room. This is fully understandable given the horrific memories which they are confronting, but it often makes it difficult to understand what exactly is happening. Besides which, I don’t find watching someone being forced to relive old traumas that entertaining.
We have an added problem given the, shall we say, theatrical environment. It is difficult to be sure when people are reacting through trauma and when they are just being a bit of a diva. Oksana in particular has a tendency to strongly (over?)react. She is maddened when she feels the others do not respect her feminism and again when a Ukraine flag is added to the performance. Yet on both occasions, she seems unable to articulate what exactly she is getting so upset about,
In some scenes, it is clear that people are not reacting as we would expect them to do because of the unspeakable horrors which they have experienced. On others, you just wonder whether they are just theatrical people who have learned how to put on a bit of a performance. Anyone who has spent time with actors knows that off stage, some of them can find it awfully difficult to function after the spotlight has dimmed or has moved onto someone else.
Maybe I’m seeing things in the film that are not really there, and I don’t want to detract from the high emotions which it is documenting. The unravelling of five different characters in front of us is certainly psychologically interesting, but I found it hard to derive too much enjoyment. Although all participants took part willingly, watching them fight and reconcile and finally perform in front of an audience just wasn’t too much fun. A hard film to watch, and not necessarily in a good way.