Blood, Sweat, and Tears in a Record-Breaking Ukrainian War Film
15 January, 2018

October 2014 marked the hottest days in the 242-day battle for Donetsk International Airport. Ukrainian soldiers and fighters of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) — each barricaded in different parts of the terminals — battled for control of the modern airport, which had been renovated for the Euro 2012 men’s football championship. Ultimately, the Ukrainian side lost that battle, which left the airport in ruins.  

The events at Donetsk airport left an indelible mark on Ukrainian national consciousness and the battle is associated both with pride and pain. Now this story has been turned into a film — titled “Cyborgs” — that has already broken national ticket sales records.

A screenshot from Cyborgs. 

“The questions raised in the film are nothing new: we raise them to each other and ourselves,” said director Akhtem Seitablayev. “But on the front line, they pose a different meaning [and have] a different emotional significance.”

Cyborgs was released on December 6, Ukraine’s Armed Forces Day. According to the Derzhkino state film agency, it broke Ukrainian records over the first weekend of its release, earning 8.2 million hryvnia ($291,000).

A screenshot from Cyborgs. 

Filmed with financial support from the Ukrainian government, Cyborgs was even screened at the Ukrainian parliament during a lunch break. The film’s production team has also joined forces with the Ukrainian Povernys Zhyvym (“Come Back Alive”) foundation to direct part of the cost of each ticket to help the families of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war.

Who are “Cyborgs?”

The term “cyborg” is usually given to people who have mechanical or electrical parts built into their bodies. But in Ukraine it achieved a different meaning after the long battle for the strategically significant Donetsk airport.

A screenshot from Cyborgs. 

“It is common knowledge now that the airport has become a symbol,” Seitablayev said.

It is not entirely clear how “cyborg” came to refer to Ukrainian soldiers, but one theory posits that Russia-led separatists first used the term to describe their tenacious opponents. Struggling to defeat the Ukrainians at the airport, they reportedly said: “These are not human beings, they’re cyborgs.”

Seitablayev says the idea to make a film about “cyborgs” — even though he says the soldiers aren’t keen on this term — was born while he was hosting a TV show called “Bravehearts” dedicated to the Ukrainians who fought in the east. One episode of the show focused on the defense of Donetsk Airport and nine “cyborgs” were in attendance.

“When I looked into their eyes and heard their stories, I realized, that having filmmaking as a tool, it would be a sin not to make a film about them,” Seitablayev said.

Director Akhtem Seitablayev. Photo credit: Olena Zashko / HROMADSKE

The film depicts soldiers having philosophical discussions on why they went to war.

“When a person knows that every moment can be the last in his life, it is truly important for him to think about why he is on the frontline, who he is defending, where he will return [after the war] and what he will do there,” Seitablayev told Hromadske.

Screenshot shows Ukrainian actor Makar Tykhomyrov portraying Mazhor in the film Cyborgs.

Several such discussions take place between the two main characters: “Mazhor” (a Ukrainian slang term for someone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth), played by Makar Tykhomyrov, and Serpen (August in English), played by Vyacheslav Dovzhenko.

Mazhor is young and somewhat impulsive. He acts upon his whim and isn’t willing to obey orders from above. He blames the older generation — people like Serpen — for “ruining Ukraine.”

Cyborgs" Mazhor (played by Tykhomyrov) and Serpen (played by Vyacheslav Dovzhenko) during one of their heated discussions. Photo credit:A screenshot from Cyborgs. 

“How many more airports and Chernobyls do you need?” he screams at Serpen during one emotional exchange. “It’s because of you the country is losing. I am only just starting to fight for it.”

Why is Cyborgs So Successful?

Seitablayev suggests his film’s success is due to how it combines an enclosed space, a small number of characters, and a short amount of time.

“According to the world-class theatre industry, these are the best kind of conditions for portraying a crucial conflict between people,” he said.

Cyborgs was filmed in the village of Kryukivshchyna in the Kyiv region and at the Honcharivsky shooting range in Chernihiv region. It was written by Nataliya Vorozhbit, a leading Ukrainian playwright, and edited by the “cyborgs” themselves.

Screenshot shows Ukrainian actor Makar Tykhomyrov portraying Mazhor in the film Cyborgs.

“Vorozhbit based the script on the [“cyborgs’”] memories. They would then read it thoroughly and make corrections and suggestions, which we would comply with,” Seitablayev said.

Seitablayev says he has a personal connection to the events in Ukraine. When he was 17, his family moved to Crimea where he went to a college and, after graduating from a university in Kyiv, he returned to Simferopol to perform in the theaters there.

“Some people do not acknowledge the war,” he said, “But I do, it’s my pain. For four years, I have not been to Crimea; during this time I have only seen my parents twice.”

“That’s why I care, and that’s why I tell these stories,” he adds.

A screenshot from Cyborgs

Seitablayev told Ukrainian news site Glavcom that the United States, Canada, Poland and some Baltic states have all expressed interest in showing Cyborgs.

But one of the most rewarding things, according to the film director, is hearing the soldiers and people in the military compliment his work.

“I was very pleased when, after the film presentation, [the commander of one of Ukraine's Naval Infantry battalions] only said ‘great job,’ saluted me, and left,” Seitablayev said. “Moments like this really motivate you.”

/By Maria Romanenko