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Five stories from Ukraine

'Open Access', a new revealing documentary from Ukraine, will have its UK premiere on 21 June 2014 as part of the Open City Docs in London (17-22 June 2014).

Ondrej Timco
18 June 2014

The camera moves through scenes of nature and cities, and the pace slows down only to capture the everyday life of the main protagonists, ordinary Ukrainians, who are attempting to find their way through the bureaucratic labyrinth of Yanukovych’s presidential regime. Five stories of very different people, all of them exercising their right to access information, and voicing their concerns about the issues directly affecting their lives. Whilst letters are exchanged between the main characters and the echelons of administration, the camera takes us to a country of blurred lines between public and private spheres. The central characters must overcome setbacks without surrendering themselves to the omnipresent cynicism stemming from the rigid system, and stark differences between the living standards of the elites and the rest of the population. 

Five stories 

‘The answers are too ready. I don’t like it, it’s alarming… because they agreed to give me the answers very easily,’ remarks journalist Sergii Leshchenko, when probing into the beneficiaries of Yanukovych’s infamous palace Mezhyhirya, hidden from the public eyes behind tall walls and data protection laws.  

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The infamous palace Mezhyhirya is hidden from the public eyes behind tall walls.

‘How long can I deceive myself?’ asks an Afghan war veteran in his Sisyphean effort to obtain an apartment in Kharkiv. 

‘They have money for themselves but not for us,’ points out a worried parent, confronted with the fact that there is enough money for an official’s new car but not for a school. 

‘They live in such a world and think in such categories, where there is no place for monuments,’ adds a lecturer in Higher Mathematics who is trying to protect and restore a historical building in Kyiv. 

‘Nobody cares about us. We have been left here like on a deserted island,’ explains Zoya, her mission is to renew public transport to her village Panasivka. 

We can understand this film rather as a mosaic, piecing together pebbles of moral virtues.

'Open Access' invites us to experience a life full of questions with unclear answers. Yet this film also provides a powerful insight into the ways people endure corruption and care about those who cannot defend themselves. Perhaps we can understand this film rather as a mosaic, piecing together pebbles of moral virtues, which lead the central characters through the corridors of administration, and the changing seasons between 2011 and 2013. 

Uncovering the presidential palace

The first story maps the efforts of Ukrainian investigative journalists to find the source of finances for the luxurious presidential palace Mezhyhirya. Confronted by the blatant lies coming publicly from the President himself, the journalists wonder: ‘Why do they think that this does not provoke ordinary people?’ Some suggest a worrying answer: ‘People do not care,’ or perhaps nobody could imagine the scale of corruption taking place at that time. The confident cynicism with which the President mocks the nation barely interrupts the echo of a question: ‘Why did you write down our names?’ Sergii Leshchenko guides the viewers with his sarcastic humour through the cat-and-mouse game with the administration and president’s staff, indicating the links between the weak rule of law; rigidity of institutions and lack of transparency. The story emphasises the extent to which journalists go in resisting the imposed constraints. Their moral integrity is contrasted with the favoured journalists selected to go on a staged tour through Yanukovych’s residence, where he allegedly swims five kilometres every day in a pool obviously too small for such an exercise. Although the film ends before the latest round of protests which led to Yanukovych’s prompt departure from Ukraine in 2014, it is worth pointing out that the Ukrainian journalists featured in the documentary (from the initiative Stop Censorship) have since gained access to Mezhyhirya. Whilst there, they have found a few thousand pages answering enquiries that they were persistently demanding. Their findings are now publically accessible here. 

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Yanukovych's former residence is decorated with imported natural marble, Italian crystal and precious woods.

Waiting 21 years for a flat

The second story opens with Gennadiy Torkachenko, an Afghan war veteran and Cossack, at exercise, deeply lost in concentration. We follow Gennadiy into his house in the small town of Lyubotyn, where he has been waiting 21 years in a queue for a flat in the nearby city of Kharkiv. Gennadiy is worried that when his son returns from military conscription he will ask: ‘Dad, and what have you achieved?’ A friend provides immediate advice on what to answer: ‘Son, if you are that smart, go and get something from them.’ In response, Gennadiy exclaims: ‘See! My dad was always telling me the same.’ In contrast to this statement, Gennadiy displays incredible self-discipline, and does not give up despite all of the hardship that he has faced. His calm character strikingly illuminates the patience with which he considers every word; teaches local kids martial arts, and endures the stress of waiting for the letter, to which his friend comments in Ostap Bender’s tone: ‘Maybe you want us to show you where we keep the money?… Surely, they have told you almost everything. You just have to read between the lines.’ 

The system is resistant to change, and defends itself through informal practices whilst being shielded by institutional authority.

Parents united

The third story takes the viewers to the township of Romodan; here, parents of children at the local school are attempting to prevent officials from closing it. If they cannot block the closure their children would have to take a dangerous route over the railway line to another school. The many parental enquiries lead to some successes, which are welcomed with delightful disbelief: ‘Long live the most human people’s court!’ But the system is resistant to change, and defends itself through informal practices whilst being shielded by institutional authority.‘He is probably crazy, this man,’ the head of Myrhorod district council, Natalia Dudnyk, interjects as she dismisses a journalist’s query about the alleged administrative pressure on the people protecting the school. The main character Oleksandr Korshak pinpoints the absurdity of the situation when he talks about the representatives of the local administration: ‘You see they actually do anything to find a way to evade the law and close the school.’ He concludes: ‘Of course, you can close your eyes to everything. Completely…. But, excuse me, then why do we live?'

Challenging urban development in Kyiv

The next story,'House with chimeras', brings us back to Kyiv where Oleksandr Glukhov, an associate professor, enquires about the planned reconstruction of the neighbouring Murashko house. It is a building of historical and cultural value, located on the territory of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, a World Heritage-listed site. The artefacts and monuments are an obstacle to urban development, which might be financially lucrative for some unidentified individuals with influence over the administrative process. The house in question burns down leaving it desolate, but Oleksandr follows the matter through the courts, and initiates a public inquiry into the running of Kyiv State Council. The more a person goes to court, the less he believes that there is some logic, and that something can be predicted,’ complains Oleksandr. Nevertheless, he does not want to stop in his endeavour to raise awareness about values, neglected by officials because they cannot be measured in administrative kickbacks. He refuses to follow the unwritten instruction in Ukraine to, ‘Live by yourself quietly at home, do not stretch your head out, watch TV, and don’t annoy us;’ choosing instead to create his own path. 

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Journalist Sergii Leshchenko has written extensively for oDR about the corruption surrounding Yanukovych's former residence. Photo cc: youtube

Villagers demand a public bus and a tarmac road

The final story begins on the top of a horse-drawn cart that is passing through the beautiful countryside surrounding Panasivka, a village of 50 inhabitants. Zoya Shul’ha introduces the viewers to a place where public transport was suspended: ‘We live well but we need a road.’ One of her neighbours bitterly explains that without a bus, there will never be a road. The administrative process, however, is time-consuming; and Zoya’s efforts at bringing the bus service back to the village are not appreciated. ‘Why should I struggle for it? I have a car!’ She repeatedly highlights the need for self-dependency, which she herself has achieved. Yet she also wishes the same for the others, and continues to bring people together despite their scepticism.

In the most powerful scene of the whole documentary, we watch as Zoya writes her letters, while her husband watches the news on TV. Quoting the film director Tarkovsky, a reporter is holding up a microphone, and asking: ‘How to fix the current spiritual environment of humanity?’ It seems right that 'Open Access' should finish with Zoya’s story, for she tellingly answers its underlying question: why did these people in the film decide to tilt at windmills; and was there ever a chance for improvement? ‘If you knock, somebody will open. If you don’t write a letter, they will ride on your back.’

Open Access will have its UK premiere on 21 June 2014 as part of the Open City Docs festival in London. Saturday 21 June 2014, 18:30, Bloomsbury Theatre. Get tickets here.

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