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Senior Advisor Eva Rybková, Filmmaking in the Face of War: The Intelligence of Storytelling

Filmmakers depend, sometimes with their lives, on having access to the most reliable information. And the underlying principles of risk intelligence approaches - research, pattern recognition, strategic thinking, and interview techniques – are surprisingly relevant and applicable to the context of creators of both fiction and documentary films. I was struck by this while working with a Ukrainian film crew recently.

In late 2023, I interviewed Ukrainian director Roman Bondarchuk. His second feature film, 'The Editorial Office', was nearing completion, a testament to his team's determination in the midst of the tragic war in Ukraine.

For Roman, filmmaking is his language, a way to unearth truths. He's long been captivated by the underrepresented stories of southern Ukraine.

"It's rarely explored in literature or film, this forgotten stretch between Crimea and the mainland. I grew up there, a child of journalists in the chaotic 90s. News wasn't just reported, it was manufactured. I knew, even then, that I'd make a film about the twisted media landscape of the Ukrainian provinces," Roman told me.

I've followed Roman and his producer (and wife), Dary’a, since their amazing 2015 documentary, 'Ukrainian Sheriffs'. Our paths cross at film festivals and workshops across Europe. And there was that unforgettable trip to Kyiv in 2018 when Dary’a showed me the venues of the film festival Docudays and the Crimean restaurant Mustafir…

The story

'The Editorial Office' is a mirror reflecting Ukrainian society: tradition, ordinary lives, corruption, and the erosion of press freedom. It follows Yura, a young biologist who stumbles upon a case of arson while searching for a supposedly extinct marmot. His quest for justice lands him in the sensationalist world of local news, where truth takes a backseat. As war looms, Yura's idealism crashes against fake news, rigged elections, and bizarre cults.

"It's a film of myths and metaphors," explains Roman, "but it's rooted in real things that happened to real people.  Our cast and crew have deep ties to the region, we all carry the scars of the chaos before the war."


The method

Roman's work stands out because of his meticulous research. He and the script writers spent years digging into local media archives and interviewing journalists – the good, the bad, and the complicated. He collaborated with Kherson-based investigative journalist Dmytro Bahnenko.

They video recorded the visits, captured the atmosphere of their workplaces and apartments. They read archival articles from local newspapers in Oles Honchar Kherson regional library which was destroyed by Russian forces in the autumn of 2023.

“First, Roman asked me to do some research for a future film by interviewing Kherson’s legendary journalists. Despite their questionable biographies, these people were the mammoths that created the image of Kherson journalism in the 1990s to 2000s.”  Dmytro told me over email in late 2023 that some have since passed away, while others have joined forces with the occupation regime.


The main character Yura’s was inspired (and played) by Dmytro and his fight with Kirill Stremousov, one of the most notorious pro-Russian collaborators. A Ukrainian politician and conspiracy theorist who became the second most powerful man in the region after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and occupation of the southern city of Kherson.


The role for risk intelligence

"It was a stark contrast to the turmoil I witnessed driving from Kyiv to Kherson after Maidan in 2014," Roman recalls. "While the capital was in revolution, this province seemed untouched, especially in the media. Everything is paid for, leaving no room for the real story."

For Roman, the distinction between the Donbas war (since 2014) and the full-scale invasion launched in 2022 is vital.

The risks were real, even as they filmed in 2021. Roman captured the tension, the absurd routines that continued even with war on the horizon. He understood the area's strategic importance, the way local media often ignored conflicts brewing in Donbas.

“For me, it was crucial to talk about it and to show that the tanks were close, but they had more important things to do.  Open the imaginary pipeline.  Whatever stupid things they were doing every day. So, for them, nothing had changed until this tornado came.”

Documentary filmmaking relies on the availability of reliable information. On the more obvious level, filmmakers working on historical and political narratives require a complex and nuanced understanding of the environment they are exploring to ensure reliable reporting. Working in turbulent political environments can present tangible risks to the safety of the entire creative team involved. As a research methodology, risk intelligence offers a structured framework to analyse the chosen topics broader socio-political context. Performing a political risk analysis prior to entering the field identifies nuance and layers for the story, as well as allows for the establishment of a risk management plan to improve the security of the creators involved.

The Editorial Office premiered at Berlinale Forum in February 2024.

Eva Rybková is a Senior Advisor at Princeps

Eva is a PR and communication specialist focused on strategic consulting. She also consults filmmakers looking for creative ways of connecting art, politics and business.


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