The Ukrainian filmmaker fighting on the cultural front line

For comedy screenwriter Sergiy Kulybyshev, making films in a time of war is critical to defending his country’s cultural identity.

A photo of Sergej in a green suit and orange shirt.
Comedy filmmaker Sergiy Kulybyshev in September 2022. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly eight months ago, Kulybyshev has been immersed in three projects centring the experiences of everyday Ukrainians [Photo courtesy of Julia Weber]

Sergiy Kulybyshev, a 45-year-old Ukrainian screenwriter and director, is serving his country in the way he knows best.

From a modest studio apartment located in a picturesque city in western Ukraine, Kulybyshev has been churning out film and television scripts with frenetic determination since late February, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country.

Amid the world’s focus on the violent battles raging across swaths of the country and air attacks on cities, Kulybyshev is anxious to highlight an often forgotten “cultural war” being waged by Russia. He says Russia aims to destroy Ukraine’s cultural identity, the existence of which Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric has often questioned. Ukraine “must defeat the enemy on all battlefields – both physical and cultural”, Kulybyshev says.

After a day spent immersed in the creative fervour of scriptwriting, Kulybyshev heads out into the brisk autumn weather to work as a volunteer for an organisation that distributes equipment to the Ukrainian military. It is around midnight when he returns home and takes off his black puffer jacket, sitting down to speak over Zoom, his thick curly hair dishevelled after a long day.

His ramshackle apartment in a building constructed during the period of Austro-Hungarian rule (1867-1918) and lent to him by a friend is draughty and a tour over Zoom reveals a mix of cheap fittings, linoleum flooring and elegant antique furnishings. Kulybyshev was forced to leave his Kyiv apartment, filled with bookshelves containing well-worn copies of his favourite literature, during the Russian siege of the city. Many Kyiv residents have since returned home after occupied areas around the capital were liberated in April, but Kulybyshev’s volunteer work requires him to stay in western Ukraine.

The comedy filmmaker exudes humility. Despite a successful career and a number of high-profile friends, he prefers to avoid the limelight and most enjoys discussing football or Ukrainian revolutionary history with his friends.

Kulybyshev, a longtime fan of Liverpool FC, is eager to begin the conversation by discussing the team’s recent lacklustre performances. Despite his busy war-time schedule, he tries to watch as many games as possible, although he admits he could have skipped watching their embarrassing Champions League defeat the previous night.

His peaceful disposition and gregarious manner contrast with the situation he finds himself in today – displaced and physically separated from his loved ones.

Kulybyshev misses his friends, many of whom are now in Kyiv, abroad, internally displaced, fighting or dead. “That is why I can be sad now,” he says solemnly. “But in my new life, I met many good people whom I would not have met without the war.”

A photo of Sergej on set talking to another person.
Kulybyshev on a film set in 2021. The upheaval of this year has drawn him away from his usual genre, comedy [Photo courtesy of Sergiy Kulybyshev]

Extraordinary stories

The upheaval of this year has drawn Kulybyshev away from his usual genre as have the extraordinary stories of people he has encountered over the past eight months while volunteering and exploring his new home.

The three projects he is working on are inspired by the “common war-time experiences” of Ukrainians and accounts of resistance. These include a short film – his first that is not a comedy – set in the occupied territories in Luhansk about everyday Ukrainians resisting mobilisation orders by separatist forces. The film’s central character, a music teacher, was inspired by an article Kulybyshev read during the early months of war about a violinist from the Donetsk Philharmonic Orchestra who was forcibly mobilised and sent to fight against Ukrainian forces in Mariupol. He is also co-writing a television series with a writer in Hollywood about the partisan movement in Russian-occupied territories.

The third project is a “tragicomedy” film about the chaotic first days of the invasion with characters based on the stories of real people he met in the early phases of the war, including a woman whose income came from producing adult content on the subscription-based platform OnlyFans. She fled the occupied territory terrified that she would be targeted by Russian soldiers due to her work. A UN commission recently concluded that war crimes, including rape, have been committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.

Kulybyshev, who is of Jewish and Tatar descent – both minorities in Ukraine – grew up in Crimea in a Russian-speaking home. He established a career as a screenwriter for a number of Russian productions but after Russia annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatists seized territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Kulybyshev, who was then based in Kyiv, dedicated himself to the burgeoning Ukrainian film and television industry.

In recent years, his reputation has grown due to his involvement with a number of popular television shows, including Servant of the People (2015) which cast Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a schoolteacher-turned-accidental head of state. For Kulybyshev, the election of Zelenskyy, an actor and comedian, as the real-life president of Ukraine, speaks of the power of television as a medium. “People saw the show and thought maybe this would be a good idea in real life,” he says.

Today, Kulybyshev hopes to harness the power of film and television to galvanise the public to fight on what he describes as the “cultural front line” with Russia.

A photo of Sergej at university in a tank top and jeans, reading a piece of paper/book, with a person standing in front of them.
While studying aeronautical engineering at the National Aerospace University in Kharkiv in the 1990s, Kulybyshev started to get into performing comedy [Photo courtesy of Sergiy Kulybyshev]

The KVN generation

Kulybyshev describes his childhood in the city of Kerch, once an ancient Greek colony located in eastern Crimea, as a happy one, filled with days spent on the sandy beaches that were popular with tourists from all over the Soviet Union. His grandmother would mostly look after him at home due to his parents’ busy work schedules. A Holocaust survivor and history teacher, she encouraged him to challenge authority and to think independently.

As a child, he also discovered just how important television could be in shaping political change.

From the age of nine, Kulybyshev, his parents and grandparents would pull up chairs to watch the popular Klub Vesyólykh i Nakhódchivykh (KVN), meaning “Club of the Merry and Resourceful”, and discuss their favourite sketches afterwards. The popular live comedy show aired approximately once a month and featured teams of college students competing in a yearlong league system by performing sketches and formulating witty responses to questions. The show was launched in 1962 and banned in 1971 by Soviet sensors who considered the jokes, which frequently made fun of Soviet life and ideology, offensive, only to be aired again in 1986 as part of the Perestroika, a series of reforms that allowed greater transparency of government institutions and lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The jokes were often preprepared but included impromptu interaction with the audience and improvisation, which Kulybyshev explains were especially popular with Soviet audiences used to heavily redacted and curated broadcasts.

“I am not exaggerating when I say this show destroyed the Soviet Union,” Kulybyshev states emphatically. He lists a number of factors that led to the union’s demise including a costly 10-year war in Afghanistan and the subsequent tightening of sanctions placed on it by the United States. However, Kulybyshev believes, “in people’s minds, the revolution was formed by KVN; humour destroyed the political construction of the Communist Party”.

He recalls one of the last episodes when he was about 12, before the fall of the Soviet Union, when the losing team resorted to making jokes in the “Aesopian language”, a way of conveying subversive or critical material, through metaphors or indirect language for example, and often used in literature, to circumvent Soviet censors.

The joke as he recalls, went, “What do you dream about, young people?” “Party, let me drive!”

“The Party is our driver,” was once a popular Communist Party slogan, but by the late eighties, this was no longer the case – although, he says, “No one dared say it”.

The opposing team then joined in with another allegorical response. The joke is “largely untranslatable”, but Kulybyshev says it referred to then-American President Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and that although the term was “known by many” it had never been publicly broadcast before. He describes the moment as a “big bomb” in the industry, shattering the culture of fear that surrounded criticism of the Soviet Union.

Kulybyshev found comfort in KVN’s use of humour to express what people were really thinking. It taught him the “basics of how to write humour” even if he believes the standard was not as high as shows such as Monty Python which later inspired his work.

A photo of a group of people standing side by side wearing uniforms.
In 2003, Kulybyshev (third from the right) stands with a KVN comic team representing Kharkiv [Photo courtesy of Sergiy Kulybyshev]

Russia’s cultural dominance

At school, Kulybyshev found his classes creatively under-stimulating and preferred to while away the hours drawing funny comic-book characters, earning him the nickname “the cartoon director” during his secondary education. He only applied himself during maths because he was afraid of a “strict and terrifying” teacher. Nevertheless, he ended up excelling in the subject, eventually earning a place at the prestigious National Aerospace University in Kharkiv.

After starting his studies in aeronautical engineering, Kulybyshev began participating in KVN, which was still popular in post-Soviet nations, becoming a prominent figure on the comedy circuit. The show now included non-student participants and its format grew from two teams to six in the 1990s and eventually to eight in the 2000s.

The show has since produced some of Ukraine’s greatest comedic talents, as well as the nation’s most prominent politicians, including Zelenskyy – whose team Kvartal 95 ran from 1997 to 2003 and would later become a television entertainment company under the same name.

Zelenskyy’s team represented his home city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine. Another team from Khmelnytsky, in western Ukraine, included Ruslan Stefanchuk, who went on to become chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada.

In 2006, Kulybyshev led his team ‘Real Kharkiv’ to victory in the show’s final in Belarus. But it was two years earlier that his performances had caught the attention of Russian television producers who gave him his first big break as a writer for the Russian adaptation of the American sitcom The Nanny. “Back then, Ukraine didn’t have the resources, but Russia had oil, gas and money and invited American directors and showrunners,” he says.

Kulybyshev continued to live in Kharkiv and later Kyiv but worked for Russian productions, where he would earn up to seven times what he could with Ukrainian ones. “Russian companies would often film Russian-language series in Ukraine as it was cheaper with a Russian lead actor, but a Ukrainian cast and actors,” he says.

The post-2014 landscape for Ukrainian productions

Then in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and fighting against Russian-backed separatists broke out in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine, and Kulybyshev says this collaboration briefly ceased.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in an internationally rejected referendum saw Kulybyshev separated from his parents and cherished grandmother, who all still live there.

Kulybyshev took an active pro-Ukrainian position and has been vocally critical of the Russian regime since it occupied his home city, making it dangerous for him to return. Human rights groups have recorded multiple cases of arbitrary detentions and the enforced disappearances of pro-Ukrainian activists in the Crimean Peninsula since 2014.

Although the separation from his family has been emotionally difficult, Kulybyshev prefers not to dwell on it. Still, he displays a distinct tenderness when talking about his grandmother, who he says “made me who I am”. Kulybyshev’s grandmother, who is partially deaf and blind, has not been told about the full-scale invasion by her family.

Kulybyshev ended all contact with his Russian colleagues who either avoided talking about or supported Russia’s actions in Crimea. He terminated his contracts and embarked on a new career in Ukraine. He had no connections in Kyiv and earned far less than he had before. “But my principles are my principles,” he says firmly.

He even stopped watching KVN, the show that had given him his first break. Produced in Russia, Kulybyshev claims that he had noticed a creeping “anti-Ukrainian” sentiment before 2014 among the KVN hierarchy.

He vividly recalls the first time he watched KVN after Russia annexed Crimea. “The first team came to the stage and made a joke about Crimea,” he says. “I simply turned off the TV and never watched KVN again. It was an important part of my life, but now I hate it.”

The show, he says, which had started as “democratic in the 90s and early 2000s, like much of Russia, had been affected by Putin’s propaganda, and was now being used to justify the war on Ukraine”.

It was a clean break for Kulybyshev, but in Ukraine, he says joint Ukrainian-Russian productions started up again “silently” in 2015, eventually becoming a “new normal”. He recalls arguing with producers who would call him “hot-headed” and accuse him of oversimplifying the business relationships between the two nations.

In 2017, the Ukrainian government, then led by Petro Poroshenko, introduced a minimum 75 percent quota for Ukrainian-language content on television. At the time, Kulybyshev was working on Kyiv Day and Night, an adaptation of a German reality soap opera, which follows a group of young friends who share an apartment. After four seasons in Russian, it switched to the Ukrainian language. “Its popularity dropped a lot in that fifth season,” he says. “The Russian-language actors sounded unprofessional in Ukrainian and the changes jarred with the viewers.”

However, Kulybyshev, whose mother tongue is Russian, approves of the law, saying that the protection of the Ukrainian language, suppressed during the Soviet Union, was natural in “the process of nation formation”.

“The Ukrainian nation is not static; since independence [in 1991], it is constantly forming, and the language laws were a natural reaction to the invasion of the Donbas and Crimea in 2014,” he says.

Since 2014, Kulybyshev has been writing his own scripts in Ukrainian, and after February 24, he also switched to using Ukrainian in his personal life “out of principle”, including with his parents in Crimea, who are Russian speakers.

A photo of a group of people sitting together.
The 2020 documentary film The Earth is Blue as an Orange follows a single mother and her children living in the front-line city of Krasnohorivka in eastern Ukraine [Photo courtesy of Albatross Media]

Ukrainian cinema – repression and resistance

The Ukrainian film industry faced a long history of political repression during the Soviet era with films that depicted a distinct Ukrainian cultural identity being censored. Those that did make it to the big screen became icons of cultural resistance. This happened in particular during the “Khrushchev Thaw”, a period named after the leader of the Communist Party between the mid-1950s and mid-60s when repressive policies towards the cultures of the republics which made up the Soviet Union were relaxed.

One such film was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), a Ukrainian-language romantic tragedy set in the Carpathian Mountains. Kulybyshev highlights the production as a classic example of Ukrainian magical realist cinema, a genre created by Armenian-born film director Sergei Parajanov that broke from socialist realism, the sanctioned art style in the Soviet Union. Parajanov had refused to dub the movie into the Russian language. After its release, the film became a symbol of protest against political repression among the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Soviet authorities banned almost all of Parajanov’s projects after 1965 and arrested him in 1973 on the pretext of homosexuality, which was illegal in the Soviet Union.

Since independence, several critically acclaimed Ukrainian films have grappled with notions of nationhood and identity. Kulybyshev’s favourite from Ukraine’s modern cinema is My Thoughts are Silent (2019), which is about a sound engineer who must record the sound of a rare bird in the Carpathian Mountains before he can emigrate to Canada. The film explores the relationship of a single mother and her son, the protagonist, and explores a number of issues prevalent in Ukrainian society, including a desire by many young Ukrainians to emigrate in search of a more comfortable life abroad. The warm, tough and protective mother was a character he was particularly drawn to, and one he believes many Ukrainians could relate to. “The film shows that Ukrainians never give up, especially Ukrainian mothers,” he says.

After 2014, he says many films focused on the ongoing conflict with Russia, including Atlantis (2019). This post-apocalyptic science fiction film, performed by veterans, volunteers, and soldiers, was declared the best film in the Horizons category at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. Set in 2025, it presents an uninhabitable eastern Ukraine devastated by years of all-out war. Others like the 2020 documentary film The Earth is Blue as an Orange follow the everyday life of a single mother and her four children living in the front-line city of Krasnohorivka in eastern Ukraine, and capture their refusal to give up “despite the horror around them”.

In 2015, Kulybyshev started working as a writer on Servant of the People, where Zelenskyy’s teacher character becomes head of state after a video of him ranting against corruption secretly recorded by his pupils goes viral. He remains frustrated with what he describes as a great concept for a show that was “superficial” in its execution and that failed to “show what Ukraine should become in the future”, instead offering only “populist simple solutions”.

Still, the show was immensely popular, which he attributes to its ability to articulate Ukrainians’ frustrations with a traditional political elite they perceived as corrupt. Since independence, Ukraine has been blighted by systematic corruption. Despite progress in recent years after a series of anti-corruption reforms, the country was still ranked the second most corrupt in Europe in Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, after Russia.

When he became president in 2019, Zelenskyy had run for office with a political party named after the show and a campaign built on similar anti-corruption rhetoric as his television character.

‘Our culture now’

Two hours have passed since Kulybyshev sat down on a worn-out chair, but he shows no signs of weariness. “Since February 24, Ukrainian society has changed a lot,” he says. “There has been over half a year of unity which is a relatively unique phenomenon.”

He is convinced there will be a “big art boom” after the war but that it is vital “now, in the vortex of history, that artists and filmmakers must create”.

“If we don’t find time for our culture now, Russia will achieve its goal. Our culture makes us who we are; therefore, in the time of war, we have to make the culture,” he says.

When it comes to film and television, Kulybyshev highlights a lack of money and the distressing fact that many actors and members of his usual film crew keep heading to the front line. Kulybyshev recently reached out to a fellow screenwriter serving on the front line and asked if he had been working on any scripts recently. He responded, “No. I have no energy for writing.” Kulybyshev has lost three friends from the industry since the start of the war, including Pasha Lee, a well-known 33-year-old Korean-Ukrainian actor and television presenter killed by Russian shelling outside Kyiv in early March. Originally from Crimea, Lee had signed up for the Territorial Defence Forces during the first days of the war.

These tragedies have strengthened Kulybyshev’s resolve. His short film, Teacher, a drama, wrestles with the issue of how Ukrainians who remained in occupied territories since 2014 and were mobilised by Russian forces in recent months should be treated after the war. He says many Ukrainians living in occupied territories were able to exist “in a bubble” for eight years positioning themselves as apathetic to the conflict, but mobilisation this year forced them to make a choice between fighting against Ukrainians or resisting. After the war, Kulybyshev says, “we will have to live in a common state with these people, or their families”, creating a number of ethical dilemmas that he wants society to consider now.

The film’s protagonist, a music teacher, is forced to confront the reality of fighting against fellow Ukrainians after his 16-year-old student is shot by a Russian officer for asking if he could refuse to fight. It is an incident that “wakes up the protagonist” and gives him the courage to choose not to fight, eventually performing traditional Ukrainian music as a “form of resistance”.

Kulybyshev has cobbled together a cast and is currently applying for funding. He has already won a small grant from the House of Europe, a European Union-funded creative exchange programme, and the Goethe-Institut, but he says it will not be enough.

“There are talents, there are stories, but there is no money,” he says. Artists and filmmakers need to receive financial support from the countries supporting the Ukrainian war effort, he believes. “The money has to come from the West,” he says.

Kulybyshev aims eventually to present Teacher as a wartime Ukrainian film at a European film festival.

“The world helps the Ukrainian army to defeat evil on the battlefield and the Ukrainian army surprised the whole world,” he says. “The world should also help the Ukrainian cultural front and you will see how we will pleasantly surprise you.”

Source: Al Jazeera