Exclusive: Ukraine One Year On – The fight to keep the cameras rolling

One contestant on ‘The Voice Of The Country’ received permission to leave the battlefield to take part

One year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mark Layton investigates how producers and broadcasters in the country have kept cameras rolling and what the global industry can do to support them.

Today marks one year since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since February 2022, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been displaced, while the damage to lives and infrastructure has been staggering.

While Ukrainians are fighting tooth and nail to defend their country, its media and entertainment industry is similarly clinging to existence, creating and broadcasting new programming – not only to give viewers a distraction from the conflict, but to share the reality of the war with the rest of the world.

We did not pack our bags and stop, but continue to work in brave Kyiv and produce Ukrainian content

Volodymyr Zavadiuk, 1+1 Media

As Oleksandr Bohutskyi, CEO of Kyiv-based broadcast group Starlight Media, tells TBI: “The victory of Ukraine is a goal that unites everyone now: the government, businesses, past competitors, people within media companies and our viewers, Ukraine itself and our allies. We know that our army is doing its best at the front to bring the victory closer and we have to work, create and inform every day to support them and the country on this path.”

Starlight Media is the biggest broadcast group in Ukraine, with holdings including STB, the comcaster that broadcasts local versions of global formats such as MasterChef, Got Talent and The Bachelor.

It has so far survived the conflict, but not all businesses have. In the early days of the invasion, broadcaster funding was suspended – with no advertising, came no possibility of commissioning new content – not to mention the disruption caused by the more immediate threat of missile attacks.

Among the casualties was Media Group Ukraine, once one of the country’s biggest media holdings, which by July 2022 had completely shut down, ceasing broadcast of more than 10 channels, including FTA network Ukrayina and OTT platform OLL.TV.

Detective drama ‘The Trace’ recently debuted 20 new episodes and is filming its next season

Balancing content & combat

However, some broadcasters have now returned to a position that just months ago seemed almost unthinkable – they are able to commission new content, albeit on much smaller budgets.

STB has resumed production on titles including culinary format MasterChef as well as detective drama The Trace. A new series of the latter, ordered in Autumn 2022, is currently filming for debut later this year, while 20 episodes commissioned prior to the invasion premiered on the channel this month.

The Trace is produced by Space Production, which is also behind the STB docudrama series The Blind. The firm’s founder and producer Daria Leygonie-Fialko tells TBI that limited budgets have been far from Space’s most-pressing concerns. Almost all of the firm’s 2022 shoots coincided with the beginning of attacks on the Ukrainian energy infrastructure, forcing them to film under a partial blackout.

“We started to get to grips with all kinds of generators. Sirens were sounding all the time, which meant that right in the middle of filming [we] stopped and ran to the bomb shelter.”

Meanwhile, many of the cast and crew on productions industry-wide have fled the country or headed to the frontlines: “We have found a way to combine service with filming. Our actor Ruslan Koval, who serves in ZSU (the Armed Forces of Ukraine), came to Kyiv the other day to shoot The Trace. After that he will be back to the front to defend Ukraine.”

Filming on The Blind further highlights the security concerns that production companies currently face in Ukraine, with Space requiring bomb squads to inspect one of the show’s primary woodland shooting locations. “We had to check if the forest was booby-trapped,” reveals Leygonie-Fialko.

Space is also behind Art Of War, a documentary co-production with Germany’s Broadview and the Organisation of Ukrainian Producers (OUP), which debuted on French-German broadcaster Arte in February.

The OUP was founded in March 2022 to support both scripted and documentary projects about the invasion and to spread personal stories about the conflict worldwide. Initially funded by investment from its founders – one of which is Space – proceeds are re-invested into the creation of new films, while co-production partners are sought for more complex projects, such as Art Of War.

The ‘Mariupol’ series of documentary films explore life in the Ukrainian city while under Russian occupation

Documenting the conflict

Ukraine’s former minister of culture, Volodymyr Borodyansky, another co-founder of the OUP, tells TBI its mission is “to document and open the eyes of the world to the truth about the war in Ukraine” and its documentary output has been impressive.

“In 10 months, we have made 12 films, including one feature film,” reveals Borodyansky. “In the coming months, as a producer, I hope to finish five documentaries, six months later another, Evolution Of Propaganda, and launch several new shows.”

Borodyansky says the OUP has focused on documentaries both for being “more in tune with the times” and cheaper to produce than feature films. However, some adjustment was required for many producers and creative professionals more used to working on features or TV series.

Reception to these projects has been encouraging, says Borodyansky: “We showed Mariupol: Unlost Hope, a film testimony from Mariupol residents about the first month of the war, in 50+ countries. What we saw and heard from the audience, ordinary people in prosperous countries who have never experienced war, showed us that we are on the right track.”

Alla Lypovetska, founder and producer for Mamas Film Production, another OUP co-founder, tells TBI that the past year has been “the worst of our lives.”

Issues that would normally take hours to resolve can now take days or weeks, slowing down production considerably, but Mamas has nevertheless adapted. At the time of writing, the firm was completing final post-production on the feature Stay Online, while its documentaries 9 Lives and HopeBahnhof. Berlin, about the stories of Ukrainian refugees and European volunteers, have been acquired by more than 20 countries.

“We set up three teams to make our films, two making documentaries and one making a full-length feature. Our projects were shot simultaneously in Ukraine, Germany, Sweden and Poland. A number of our colleagues were not in Kyiv and it complicated the process. But the general desire to keep shooting was very stimulating for the team.”

Filming on docudrama ‘The Blind’ required bomb squads to check for booby-traps

A light in the darkness

For Volodymyr Zavadiuk, head of big shows at broadcast group 1+1 Media, bringing The Voice Of The Country, the Ukrainian version of ITV Studios music competition format The Voice, back to screens was “more than just a project… [but] a certain mission.”

With the season 12 finale interrupted in spring because of the invasion and having received “an incredible number of requests from viewers [for its] return”, Zavadiuk and his team set out to complete the season, ultimately bringing the show back for a live performance in November, broadcast on 1+1 Media’s TET channel.

Powered by generators, shooting took place in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station, which Zavadiuk explains was a symbolic location as “during the first days of the full-scale war, this station was used as a shelter for thousands of Kyiv natives who were hiding from Russian missile attacks” – many of whom would sing to keep spirits high.

Show presenter Katya Osadcha, who had left Ukraine, agreed to return to film the finale, while the team tracked down participants and showcased how their lives had changed since viewers last saw them.

“It was a big challenge because many of them were also scattered across the globe. The war changed their lives, some lost their homes. All this was done so that both the participants and the audience would not lose faith that light would definitely defeat darkness,” says Zavadiuk.

As has been oft repeated over the past 12 months, what Ukrainian producers need is for distributors to pick up their shows, buyers to order and acquire them, and international companies to strike co-production deals. In short, they want business.

“Ukrainians don’t want just to get money or to participate for free somewhere, Ukrainians want to work and be a fully-fledged part of the international process, and such an opportunity is the most important thing for Ukrainians right now,” says Space Production’s Leygonie-Fialko.

Showing Russian content means tolerating the killing of civilians and the destruction of our cities

Oleksandr Bohutskyi, Starlight Media

Starlight Media CEO Bohutskyi, adds that “discounts for the purchase of content for Ukrainian broadcasters are very important now.” He explains: “Obviously, our production capacity is currently reduced, while audience demand for artistic and entertainment content is only increasing.

“For people, it’s not about entertainment but about a chance to be distracted at least for a few hours, to plunge into a world where the main background is not war. This content now has a new, humanitarian role – psychological and emotional support.”

Bohutskyi also calls for “the rejection of everything Russian.”

He is unequivocal in his stance on anyone still distributing and acquiring Russian content. “All Russians who did not directly oppose the war are complicit in this crime. Continuing co-operation and showing Russian content means tolerating the killing of civilians and the destruction of our cities.”

Meanwhile, the war continues. Just as President Zelenskyy seeks support from international allies, local media leaders look for the same from their counterparts. For the time being, they are going nowhere. As 1+1 Media’s Zavadiuk stirringly puts it: “Despite the war, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities continue to live and develop. They do everything possible for themselves and for victory. But at the same time, they try to relax, fall in love and start new businesses.

“New coffee shops are opening, where people come in-between rocket attacks to drink and chat with each other. [It is] very important for us to show by our own example that during the war we did not pack our bags and stop, but continue to work in brave Kyiv and produce Ukrainian content.”

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