Ukraine One Year On: Daria Leygonie-Fialko, founder of ‘The Trace’ firm Space Production

The Trace

Twelve months since the Russian invasion, TBI talks to Ukrainian media organisations about how they have kept cameras rolling in a country in the midst of conflict.

Running all through this week, we’ll be publishing extended interviews from our recent article on Ukrainain production (which you can read here), beginning with Daria Leygonie-Fialko, producer & founder of Space Production, the firm behind detective drama The Trace, and co-founder of the Organisation of Ukrainian Producers (OUP).

Leygonie-Fialko’s credits also include the detective shows The Water Police and Detective Anna, the comedy The Ivanovs vs. The Ivanovs, sports drama The Last Axel and docudrama The Blind. She also co-created the dance show Maidan’s.

From 2011 to 2019, she served as the general director of two entertainment TV channels, TV-3 and СТС and prior to that she was the producer-in-chief of TV projects for the Ukrainian Star Media film company. She also served as the programme director of TV channel 1+1.

Daria Leygonie-Fialko

What have been your main challenges to production in the past 12 months?

Continuing operations during the first months of the war was almost impossible, especially during the occupation of parts of Kyiv region. During the first days of the war, many specialists left for neighbouring countries or the west of Ukraine. When at the end of March or beginning of April, we began gathering the first teams to make OUP documentaries, it turned out that someone was fighting at the front, someone was volunteering in Lviv, someone was touring refugee camps as part of a cultural front, someone was in Germany or Poland, someone had spent all that time in Kyiv, or even under occupation in Bucha.

Conditionally, all the directors were at war, the actresses had left with their children, and the lighting crews were at the Territorial Defence Forces checkpoints in Kyiv, so how could you make a film here? Thank God, it was a bit easier in the news segment, as a single news marathon was launched on all Ukrainian TV channels. It was a big market segment which they were able to provide with work, and this is very important.

For the creative staff (writers, showrunners, directors, actors, etc) things were much more difficult. They had to face the fact that they had no prospects for work in Ukraine. But everyone started looking for different opportunities for self-realisation, both within the country, mostly in the genre of documentary film, and abroad, where they applied for grants, received training and even found work on film sets in other countries. I know that our actresses have even starred in Bollywood movies.

The Ukrainian production and creative industry has proven to be mega-flexible and resilient, considering that none of us were ready for such challenges.

If I talk about my personal experiences as a producer and owner of a media business in Ukraine, I would divide those 12 months into two halves. The first half, about 6-7 months, when everything froze up and we did not understand how to plan not only our work but also our lives. During that period, my fellow producers and I had an important initiative – to document this war by making documentaries about what was happening. We set up OUP and took on the mission of speaking to the world about the war in Ukraine, even though our main profile before that was artistic production.

The Ukrainian production and creative industry has proven to be mega-flexible and resilient, considering that none of us were ready for such challenges.

And the second half of this year, apart from continuing to develop documentary production, is the emergence of very tidy, highly unstable, but first steps towards restoring artistic production in Ukraine. We, as Space Production, at the beginning of winter 2022, restored the shooting of our most popular series, which we had filmed before the war – docudrama The Blind and detective series The Trace. This was a very important step, because when there is a lot of content about the war around, entertainment programmes give the viewer a chance to escape from everything that is going on, at least for a while.

What have you done to overcome these challenges to continue or return to production?

We found a way to shoot on a very limited budget so as not to stop the business, not to stop the market, and most importantly, to give people work. We had to work hard to be able to organise the filming process – and it is not just about budgets.

During the organisation of the shooting, the main challenges turned out to be production-related, because almost all of our shoots in Ukraine coincided with the beginning of active terrorist attacks on the Ukrainian energy structure. We were forced to shoot, under conditions of a partial blackout. We started to get to grips with all kinds of generators, we bought a Starlink. Sirens were sounding all the time, which meant that right in the middle of filming we stopped and ran to the bomb shelter.

When there is a lot of content about the war around, entertainment programmes give the viewer a chance to escape from everything that is going on, at least for a while.

For example, when we were launching The Blind, we were discussing the main character’s primary location – the cabin she lives in is in the woods. The very first and most important thing to do was to send bomb squads in there – we had to check if the forest was booby-trapped.

Another facet of organising the production process is working with the team. As some have been scattered all over the world and others are now at the front in the hottest spots. But with those who are at war, for example, we have found a way to combine service with filming. So our actor Ruslan Koval, who serves in ZSU, came to Kiev the other day to shoot The Trace. And after that he will be back to the front to defend Ukraine. Now, we have a total of about 140 people involved in the projects, and each of them has a different story, and we had to take all of this into account, find a way to adjust, and so on.

An important point is security – for example, we rented new office for Space Production. It’s now on the ground floor, and we have a bomb shelter downstairs in the semi-basement.

The production processes have become much more complex. We have to take into account all the realities of war, which is not cheap either. For example, gasoline for a generator. The overall costs have to be reduced by several times, compared to the pre-war period.

The Blind

What do you expect the upcoming months to look like for you and your company?

It’s hard to say. To be honest, we are not planning anything. We only live for today. We have no planning horizon whatsoever. Yes, we do a lot of things, we develop a huge number of projects, we negotiate about co-productions. At the end of February or the beginning of March, for example, the big premiere of our film Art Of War on the French-German television channel Arte will take place. It’s an important story for us. We are also planning to shoot a feature film in early spring, but by our Ukrainian standards it is a long time away.

What support have you received from the wider international TV industry?

The Ukrainian media market has received a lot of support from the international media industry this year. We have received a lot of attention from both the press and our foreign colleagues. There have been many initiatives to involve Ukrainians in various programmes, from educational programmes to co-productions. And the main thing, I personally am very glad that it was a win-win situation. That is, on the one hand, it helps us, because we need work and, on the other hand, our foreign colleagues got high-level creative staff, which is also important and good for them. Financially we were very much supported by the conferences, which gave Ukrainians the opportunity to participate either for free or offered some very substantial discount.

Overall, we see that after the Ukrainians have shown themselves to be so brave, so incredibly determined on the battlefield, it is as if Europe and the world have their eyes opened: wow, it turns out there is a lot of interesting stuff out there. Now almost all cities in the world have exhibitions of Ukrainian art in museums, and not always the themes are connected with the war, for example, there are exhibitions of our avant-garde artists of the 60s. And this attention, when the spotlight is turned towards Ukrainian art and hence towards the television industry as its part, surely helps our professionals to find work, develop projects and make great films.

And from the point of view of cinema: our Ukrainian filmmakers have long been recognised in the international community, they won all sorts of prizes at film festivals. We will see, but I really believe that all that is happening now will help us to become a full-fledged participant in European co-productions.

How best can the global industry support Ukrainian productions in the months ahead?

To summarise, in my opinion the most important and the most significant thing that the international industry can give Ukraine now is the development of co-production. Because Ukrainians don’t want just to get money or to participate for free somewhere, Ukrainians want to work and be a full-fledged part of the international process, and such an opportunity is the most important thing for Ukrainians right now. Let’s launch cool co-production projects, which we will shoot for you in a very cool way.

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