Stefan Bugryn on travelling to Ukraine to shoot doco ‘War Mothers’

‘War mothers’ preparing vareneky (potato dumplings) for the people of Zaporizhia to raise money for those on the frontlines. (Photo: Stefan Bugryn)

As the grandson of Ukrainian migrants, Melbourne filmmaker Stefan Bugryn has spent the last few years playing close attention to the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

One story he read online – about a woman whose son had passed away in the conflict, motivating her to join the resistance herself – struck a particular chord.

“At that point, I decided I had to go over there and find out for myself what’s happening,” he told IF.

In July, Bugryn went over to Ukraine on a 10 day fact-finding mission to see what was happening on the ground. Due to a language mixup, he inadvertently ended up at the frontline for a night.

“Thank god it was a very quiet time when I went there, I think there was next to no fighting at all. But I had that one night – it was quite rattling because their enemies were only a kilometre away.”

Bugryn, whose previous work includes short doco Driven, returned to Ukraine in late October to begin shooting his latest project, War Mothers. The project has been backed by private investors, including those in the Ukrainian community in Australia, as well as via crowd-funding.

The documentary centres on women from three different Ukrainian cities – Zaporizhia, Lviv and Dnipro – exploring their different circumstances and experiences of the conflict. The stories from each city will then be packaged as separate shorts as well as a standalone feature. Many of the film’s subjects are those he met in his initial trip.

“I wanted to discover how motherhood was being affected by war. I thought by covering that angle, it’s more universal rather than taking a political stance,” he told IF over Skype from Zaporizhia.

So far he has captured a range of stories, often incredibly tragic.

“It is incredibly difficult. I sometimes feel I carry a large weight; a large emotional weight. It gets heavier the longer I go,” said Bugryn. “But there’s comfort that is brought to these women; people appreciate that there are people like me coming here and telling their stories.”

One woman to be featured in the film, Svetlana, didn’t know her son was even fighting in the conflict until she received a phone call to say he had died. Then his body was unable to be located. After a week of searching, Svetlana eventually found images of his remains posted as a trophy on a separatist website.

Another, Galina, lost her son in a missile attack two years ago. Motivated by trauma, Galina joined the volunteer movement who supply the soldiers with a large proportion of their food, shelter and supplies. She established one of the largest shelters in Ukraine and visits the frontline every week to deliver materials.

“People like Galina are very inspiring; they’re using their trauma to give back. There’s a mixture of stories of tragedy and inspiration.”

War Mothers will take Bugryn back to the frontline, something he concedes is dangerous. However he is inspired by the courage of the women he has met – “Like Galina: she’s quite brave. She does that on a weekly basis; she faces that fighting all the time.”

Overall, Bugryn said he wants to bring more attention to the conflict, especially as the general perception within Ukraine is that the outside world doesn’t care about what is happening.

Back in June, the filmmaker shot some vox-pops at the State Library of Victoria, asking people what they knew about the conflict in the Donbass region.

“They all knew about Crimea and about MH17, but most people don’t even know that there are people dying every day on the frontline. There’s an active war,” he said.

“The main goal was awareness; just to remind people that there is a war in Europe. It’s deadly, and it’s been going on for over two years now.”

Bugryn aims to wrap filming in the new year, after which he will head back to Melbourne for post.

“It has been an incredibly heavy experience, but I have to admit it’s the most rewarding experience of my life. Nothing I’ve done has been as important as this. Nothing I’ve done has been as confronting as this either,” he said. “It’s a personal thing for me.”