The Human Face Of War In The Donbas
28 October, 2017

On October 26, School Number 3, a new documentary that examines the lives of teenagers living through the war in eastern Ukraine, was released in Ukraine. Co-directed by Ukrainian Liza Smith and German Georg Genoux, the film won the Grand Prix in the Generation 14plus category at the 67th Berlinale Film Festival.

In the film, 13 adolescents from a school in Ukraine’s Donbas region that was destroyed during the conflict and subsequently rebuilt share their experiences on camera. They talk about the things that matter to them, about experiences that move them, about first love and loss, about their hopes and fears.

While making the film, Smith, Genoux, and their team developed a close relationship with the children involved. As a result, the film offers a uniquely intimate look into the lives of young people suffering through war on both sides of the conflict line. Despite this, the war is never depicted directly on screen, but it is a constant presence in stories the protagonists casually share.

Hromadske spoke to Georg Genoux about the human face of the war, the healing effect of sharing one’s experiences, and what unites people with different political views in Ukraine’s east.

Georg, in Ukraine you are known for the Theatre of Displaced People, whose performances are the real experiences of people in Donbas. Could you please describe the aim of this project and why it was so successful in Ukraine?

When I came to Ukraine, we had ideas to build a theatre for contemporary plays, actually what we wanted to do, but then, it was a somehow strange feeling just to stage typical performances when war was going on in the country where you are living. On the other side, during our travels to the east, we understood that somehow theatre can help to handle especially young people with the situation, because for a lot of young students, pupils I met after surviving the war, there was lost sense in the world and, for me, theatre is an instrument to get back sense. And this experience that other people are taking your pain, your thoughts, your fears seriously already is a healing process, at least that I am not alone. For example, these children from School Number 3, I know that they are already helping other people by performing, by speaking about what is happening because I lot of people don’t have the possibility to speak.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

The documentary School Number 3. at first was a theatre project. Why did you feel it was important to screen this story? Why this play in particular?

In some way you can say that the film developed itself during the rehearsals. We were driving along the destroyed houses. Nobody took away the results of this war. It looked like it happened yesterday. And then they told us not to leave the street, never go to the nature to watch every time [what is] under our feet. I was lost and I just couldn’t place all those wonderful Ukrainian volunteers who were already involved in the process, they did a lot of things. Also the trust came by [itself]. We prepared a big celebration for St. Nicholas, which is somehow a symbol of this theatre place, we do this every year. I couldn’t help practically because I really was in shock and then somebody said: Ok, this guy could be a good Nicholas because I had long hair, I have this beard, not so slim, I’m not aggressive, you understand. Really, these children from the first classes believed and for me this was a very, very important change in my life because actually, they wanted, as Nicholas for me to promise them that war would stop. I couldn’t say this because I can’t say something that I can’t promise, but then I felt important to support somehow.

The film also shares very intimate stories of teenagers. Can you please tell us how hard it was for you to work with them because it’s being a teenager is not a very simple or nice time, especially being a teenger living in war. So what was your experience with that?

Photo credit: HROMADSKE


It may be strange to hear to you, but only positive, and in every town. When Natalya Votozhbyt and I went from to class to class to present that we wanted to make a theatre project, we were very afraid that nobody would come. Then 13 people came, they all stayed in this project. Ok, it was a time of getting bad age, but then there was still one icebreaking situation when you spoke about the intimate things. We asked people to bring things without which they would never leave Mykolaivka, and that was suddenly a breakthrough situation. And they couldn’t stop to bring the things and they were somehow speaking  through these things, it was like a medium.

Could you share with us what kind of things there were?

For example, one of the girls showed us a bracelet with the Russian flag, which she actually presented to a boy who is very for the separatists, for Russia, and when they had problems because of them, he gave it back to her: “Take it, I don’t want to speak with you anymore”. And she loved this boy so much, at this time she was still wearing this in the film, she is speaking about this and this was, of course, a shock. Or, I don’t know, I will never forget when Sasha Babakov couldn’t believe that, at school, he could speak about all his experience with alcohol and sex. He looked at us: “Is it really possible to speak about this?” Then he bought this bottle when he showed us how they made such a boy experience, which head is harder when they were taking the bottles to the head. But yes, there was also the other moment of fear, of losing people. I will never forget when Katya brought a curtain and was just telling the story that she actually prepared herself for her wedding with this. And we said: “Ok, ok, ok, wonderful,” and she still somehow this curtain is close to her, she is thinking about it. And then, at the end of the story we understood that this boy who organised these weddings died during the war.

The documentary leaves a feeling that these teenagers are mature for their age and their judgements are very deep. Do you think that is a consequence of the war?

This is about inner qualities, but they are so much aware of things, of course, because this is connected to the war. Because suddenly somewhere you have to get adult to understand that such things are going on in this world, suddenly you have to handle this because your relatives died or your boyfriend died during the war. Maybe it will sound now very cruel, but we can’t change that there is a war and we already can’t change that we all survived such situations, so now we have to use it as a chance to build personality. And I believe that if you can handle that situation, you can get a very, very strong personality. This is a cruel situation, we have now to take the good things also war can bring to a person. In a way it can build you for your whole life – as in a bad way, and it a good very way.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

We know that, in the film, a lot of the students have different positions on the war – some of them support Russian separatists, some of them support Ukrainian soldiers. When you discussed these topics with them – because you obviously had to - and you didn’t show them your position, what is their attitude towards war?

When I came to Ukraine, I actually wanted to make a project representing both sides, because in the German media it was quite clear that this was an inner Ukrainian conflict, and there are just separatists and people from the west of Ukraine, they can’t find a solution. And then when I came to Donbas, now already for three years speaking with people there I very much changed my opinion about who was the aggressor and what was going on. But, on the other hand, for us it is important that every person in our project knows that he can feel himself in safety speaking about his feelings and his opinions, in safety. And we never tried to convince. We can just show that we are people like this, and you have a choice in life, which people you are choosing. But of course, you are right, there were different opinions, also the parents have different opinions. In place in east Ukraine I found a very pro-Russian atmosphere, in others – a very pro-Ukrainian.

The Theatre of the Displaced People and both the film are very well known abroad. Why do you think there is such a huge interest in this topic?

For a lot people in Europe, actually, Madan was something that we looked with a lot of hope what is going on in Ukraine and with a lot of fear that a war is going on in a country which is so close to us. This is the fear that if you mention that Europe is a town, and the next street is Poland and the next street is already Ukraine. That is very close, so because of this there is interest. But I think even more that these children, that they gave more of an interest to what was going on in Ukraine because war pictures you see in every news, but you don’t see how people deal with this in a very personal way.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

I know that nowadays you are doing a new theater project in eastern Ukraine, can you please tell us a bit more about it?

It’s a collective work with, of course, Natalya Vorozhbit, who was a young Ukrainian theatre director, Alik Sadarian, psychologist Alexey Karachinsky and our team, and we are already almost one a half years travelling to little Ukrainian towns in the east like Popasna, Schastya, again we were in Mykolaivka. We are organising theatre improvisations, first meetings of pupils and of soldiers, [which is] why the project is called “Theatre and Soldiers”. And we feel how much fear both sides have to to communicate with each other, and for me, how much it could help the children and the Ukrainian soldiers to start to speak with each other. I saw how hard it was for Ukrainian soldiers just to open their souls, to speak about what was for them, their stories, at home mama is waiting, at home the children are waiting. Then we are presenting these meetings in the form of theatre performances in these towns, people from the town are coming, you could imagine that this is very emotional because everything is very personal. I hope, like we had in some places, that after we are leaving that the contact between the soldiers and the children will continue.

/By Mariia Ulianovska