Filming in Ukraine
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th of 2022, like much of the world, I felt helpless to do anything but watch. However, this conflict was distinctly different in coverage. In Ukraine almost everyone has a smart phone and a social media account, and videos of fighting or atrocities spread like wildfire to tens of millions of online followers.
Personally, I was following dozens of accounts on Twitter, and I nightly spent hours before bed reading updates from volunteers: from people running supplies, to those evacuating civilians from battle zones, to medics treating wounded, to soldiers on the front lines. It was a wealth of near-real-time information and disinformation as the world had never before been privy to. Then when reports of atrocities started popping up along with accusations and denials, there were organizations like Bellingcat to cut through the BS and provide analysis and evidence.
As the one-year anniversary of the invasion approached, and western media predicted a massive event by the Russian forces to coincide with the occasion, I could no longer stand on the sidelines.
I rented a camera package, borrowed some body armor, and I set off to help.
At 2 in the morning, on the 23rd of February, 2023, I crossed into Ukraine and arrived at the
Lviv train station.
In Lviv, I became friends with Western filmmakers and YouTube Influencers.
I also interviewed the founders of https://dzygaspaw.com/
I then took a three-hour train ride to Rivne.
Here I spent a few weeks building relationships with members of the Emergency Services, filming training exercises and providing their departments with cinematic videos for their official social media pages.
There were some delays while waiting for bureaucratic authorizations, and I spent
some time in limbo.
On the bright side, an Emergency Services Officer introduced me to his friends and together
we had dinner or went on an adventure once a week... it kept me sane.
Heading east I spent a few days in Kyiv, where I met an independent journalist named Dylan Burns.
He had been reporting from hot zones in Ukraine for the past year and since we were both interested in telling stories about the de-mining efforts, we linked up. Together, we traveled to Kharkiv by sleeper train.
Arriving in Kharkiv at 06:00, we decided to walk the five blocks to the hotel I'd booked on Priceline.
Unfortunately, the blocks are large and it turned out to be about a mile journey with heavy gear.
We discovered that the front of the hotel was boarded up (a common sight in a city which is regularly struck by missiles.) However, there was a side entrance and even though the room
reminded me of a pay by the hour establishment, we were happy to drop our gear and get a few hours of sleep.
The next day we got a ride down to Balakliya, which is about 70 miles southeast of Kharkiv.
It was the first town liberated from Russian occupation in September of 2022, and the area is heavily mined. Here we rented an apartment for about 25 USD per person, per day.
In the mornings we'd meet up with the Deminers, get coffee and then travel with them to their
area of operation for the day. Much of the work was focused on critical
infrastructure, such as power lines.
Many stores and buildings in Balakliya had suffered missile and artillery strikes, but even more devastated were the little villages that had been shelled, mined, and cut off from power and water.
Ukraine is now the most mined country in the world, and a rule of thumb is
to stay to hard surfaces. Unexploded ordnance is a daily killer of civilians and a plague to farmers.
If the war stopped today, it would still take the better part of a century to clear the country of mines and ordnance. However, emerging tech is being utilized in clever ways. For the final two weeks of my twelve-week trip, I filmed Deminers working with tech specialists in the realm of detection. Together they used autonomous drones with advanced camera systems to 3D map suspected minefields.
Drone cameras can't detect mines subsurface, so it is important to map as much as possible in the time before vegetation and soil obscures mine locations. That way Explosive Ordnance Disposal
can focus clearance efforts more efficiently in the future.
In five days of field work they mapped nine million square meters and located 1566 anti-tank mines.
I currently can't share that footage for security reasons, but I intend to return to Ukraine and continue the story of the men and women who are harnessing cutting-edge technology
to save civilian lives.