Ukraine’s Babylon’13 Collective: An Interview with Volodymyr Tykhyy

Masha Shpolberg

In the winter of 2013-2014, a protest movement broke out in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had refused to sign an association agreement that promised closer ties between Ukraine and the European Union. Protesters occupied the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, for three cold months, demanding an end to corruption, genuine democracy, and that Ukraine be allowed to choose its own future. What started as a peaceful encampment, however, turned into a battlefield when the government ordered snipers to shoot into the crowd. The movement was ultimately successful in ousting Yanukovych and holding new elections, but that victory came at a cost: later that year, Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimea and invaded the eastern Donbass region in retaliation. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this past February is understood by many Ukrainians as continued punishment for the events of the Maidan.

Several documentary film crews were present in the crowd to record these extraordinary events. Sergei Loznitsa’s festival-winning Maidan (2014) stands out as a structurally rigorous, dispassionate study of the way a revolution unfolds, while Evgeny Afineevsky’s Netflix-distributed Winter on Fire (2015) strives to engage viewers on a more emotional level. However, both films were produced primarily with Western audiences in mind. The short films shot by Babylon’13, an anonymous filmmakers’ collective, on the Maidan are fascinating precisely because they were aimed at a domestic audience instead and demonstrate a young nation speaking to itself about itself.

Babylon’13 was founded on November 30, 2013, just one week after the protests erupted, by Yulia Gontaruk, Yuriy Gruzinov, Andrei Rogachev, Yulia Shashkova, and Volodymyr Tykhyy. More people with filmmaking experience—film students, but also film industry workers, advertising executives, and brand managers—joined in the days that followed, bringing the total size of the collective to some fifty members. In a manifesto published on their website, they described documentary as “a tool that is able to change people’s perception of reality” and their goal as “memorializing and showcasing the birth and first decisive steps of civil society in Ukraine.”

The films, ranging from one to fifteen minutes in length were produced anonymously to ensure that no one received too much credit or too much criticism. They were distributed on the collective’s YouTube channel as well as their Facebook account. It was not long before Babylon’13 became known for a certain “house style,” consisting of observational, you-are-there footage with people occasionally addressing the camera directly to speak about their experience. There was no commentary of any kind, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Very quickly, the collective realized they were producing an audiovisual archive of Ukrainian history. In 2018, they donated 300 hours of footage to the recently established Maidan Museum, and in 2021 they developed a “historical series” on their YouTube channel, inviting a young historian to select clips from, and comment on, their videos.

In the time since the Maidan, members have ventured, at great personal risk, into both the Crimea and the Donbass on filmmaking expeditions. Of the founding members, Tykhyy has remained the most active throughout, coordinating the collective’s efforts. He explains in this interview, however, that when full-scale war broke out on February 24, 2022, most of the Babylon’13 members that had drifted away returned immediately. The core of the team is based in Kyiv, but it has antennae throughout the country and beyond.

In the first days of the war, when events were nigh impossible to predict, Babylon’13 found itself sourcing footage through personal networks. They would add text directly to the images, in a sort of Instagram Stories aesthetic, and cross-post them to YouTube and their social media accounts (on Facebook and Instagram, and occasionally Twitter, TikTok, and VKontakte, the Russian-language version of Facebook). As the military situation has stabilized, however, they have been able to return to the carefully composed, in-depth stories they became known for during the time of the Maidan.

Videos tend to address a wide variety of topics. Some recurring subjects include portraits of exceptionally brave people, ranging from train conductors to artists, using their professional skills to help the war effort; conversations with overlooked populations, such as Roma refugees contending with discrimination, and the workers of the Kyiv zoo, who have chosen to stay behind to care for the animals; testimonies by volunteers preparing cities for bombings or invasion; and documentation of the destruction in places like Borodyanka, Bucha, and Irpin.

A father dials his wounded son to prove Roma serve in the Army in “We Stole a Tank, We Can Steal Putin, Too!”

In a region where national narratives have been re-written all too often, where whole populations have been wiped out, such audiovisual documents are of extreme importance. Babylon’13 videos are aimed at both future generations of Ukrainians and several other overlapping audiences, including Russians looking for information beyond their state’s propaganda machine and people around the world eager for a sense of what the war feels and looks like on the ground.

As a film scholar originally from Ukraine, I had long followed the efforts of Babylon’13 from afar. The war finally impelled me to contact them. I reached out to Tykhyy on Facebook, and he graciously gave me an interview on Zoom. Tykhyy has been based in Kyiv throughout the war. We spoke on March 30, 2022, in the very first days of hope and release, as the Russian army was beginning to pull back from the city, and before the renewed attacks.

MASHA SHPOLBERG: What is the production model within Babylon’13? Do directors both shoot and edit their own work or are there members who work exclusively as editors and producers?

VOLODYMYR TYKHYY: It varies quite a bit. Some people shoot and edit their own films. This happens most often when people who usually work as editors end up shooting something of their own. At the same time, we also have a number of film students who are happy to edit others’ work. A whole other category of members are interested primarily in thinking through best approaches to exhibition… It does feel like a film school much of the time! Anonymity ensures, however, that no one gets too much of the glory.

SHPOLBERG: How do you decide what to film? Or what to post?

TYKHYY: We have always had very clear goals. Our goal during the Maidan was to defeat the Yanukovych regime. Our goal now is to defeat Russia. Of course, individual members of the collective have their own ambitions. One of our founding members, Yulia Gontaruk, for example, has been working on a film about the Azov battalion for the past seven years that promises to be very interesting. Yet we all continue to contribute to common goals.

A number of different factors determine which stories we are able to tell.  Much of it has to do with where we have the right to film, what we are able to access. We try to document everyday life in these extraordinary conditions as well as to present portraits of people doing exceptional things, from the foreigners who have come to fight in Ukraine to the icon painter who has recast his saints and angels as soldiers and who sends his icons as protection to soldiers at the front.

More often, though, the stories find you. Just the other day, someone asked us to help a Japanese photographer who wanted to go to Irpin. Even though the Army has retaken it, it is still very dangerous to go there because there are mines and fighting nearby. We realized, though, that we could shoot a film about the Japanese photographer and his encounter with this devastated place, about what he brings to this moment in terms of his own cultural legacy and how he looks at what is happening in our country.

An icon painter sends special works to protect soldiers at the front in “Icons of War”

SHPOLBERG:Since its inception nine years ago, has the composition of the collective stayed the same or evolved?

TYKHYY: The make-up of the collective has remained mostly the same. In the past month, everyone who was active during the time of the Maidan has come back, with a few exceptions—people who have chosen to get involved more directly in various volunteer organizations tied to the war effort. Some people also ended up going abroad to work or study in the intervening years and are helping from there. For example, Tetyana Khodakivska in New York helped us source videos in the first days of the war. Maria Ponomareva in Denmark is finding translators to help with the texts and subtitles. I would say that there are some eighty people participating now in total, with various degrees of involvement. Only 10-15 of those would identify as directors, however. Many more help with logistics.

SHPOLBERG: How much of your experience on the Maidan carries over into this new wartime situation? Are there any parallels between the two?

TYKHYY: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Now, as we’re speaking, the war has been going on for over a month. By one month’s time on the Maidan, you could see certain types of characters over and over again who became archetypes. Both Ukrainians and viewers from around the world could find “characters” they could identify with [and] there was a sense of familiarity—a sense that you could come out on any given day and know whom you would find there. With this war, everything is much more complicated. It seems to me there are no clear archetypes.

We know now that this is going to go on for a long time and that we can never go back to the way we lived before. Our aim, therefore, is two-fold. First, we need to help people—Ukrainians, Russians, and the international audience—take stock of what is happening. And second, we need to counter Russian propaganda. They have far more resources than we do. The narratives they offer are basic, crude even, but they know how to fill the space. One of the things we’re trying to do is to expose their viewers to the truth.

SHPOLBERG: What have been some of your greatest challenges since the start of the war?

TYKHYY: War is difficult by definition. The first few weeks it was impossible to secure permission to film the armed forces. On the one hand, the Army was very worried about accidentally revealing any information to the enemy. On the other hand, it needed to show the world that Ukraine was not exaggerating the threat, so it had to prioritize foreign correspondents.

Regular people were also very scared of having any information—their names, their locations—revealed through our videos. We would promise not to post anything until they had shifted location. For example, we were shooting in a zoo. Everything was going great, the director of the zoo was letting us film whatever we wanted. The staff had moved their families to the zoo because it is very close to the front line and they did not want to have to cross the dangerous zone in order to see them. They had settled into these construction trailers, but they asked us not to show their trailers. They were afraid that if we showed them, they might get bombed.

At the beginning, it was also impossible to know in advance what would be happening where, so we had to source the footage through our networks. Our main task then was to fill the lacuna, not so much of news, as of visuals, to allow people to visualize what was happening. Visuals are far more impactful than information on its own. As the war has drawn on, we have been continuously searching for striking visuals, surreal visuals.  We had been filming previously in the Donbass, and we were surprised by how quickly people became accustomed to the standard imagery of the war there. That is why it seems so important to us now not to fall into any kind of clichés, to seek out imagery that will keep people engaged.

Workers stayed behind to care for the animals in “The Kyiv Zoo in Wartime

SHPOLBERG: The first videos of the war do look very different from those posted more recently. They seem to have been shot primarily using phone cameras, with a great deal of superimposed text, as in an Instagram aesthetic. More recent videos feel like a return to the observer-participant practices you became known for during the Maidan.

TYKHYY: Yes, at the beginning of the war, we had to reach out to our friends and acquaintances to locate footage. Much of it was also sourced through Telegram. Now that things have stabilized a bit, the videos are almost all shot by Babylon’13 members. We operate across a number of video sharing and social media platforms. During the Maidan, our main social media channel was Facebook. Now it is Telegram.

At the beginning of the war, our greatest challenge, as you put it, was a dearth of images. Now, it is a surplus of images. There are so many people filming and sharing what they see. If we’re going to contribute in a meaningful way, we have to be very intentional about the message we are sending. This is why we’ve switched from editing footage shot by others to shooting all the footage ourselves again. And why we are trying to tell increasingly more in-depth stories.

SHPOLBERG: What is your funding structure? How do you support the activities of the collective?

TYKHYY: Most participants have another professional activity that allows them to support themselves. We get occasional grants, and we are resourceful. Since the start of the war, for example, we have been sharing an office with a territorial defense unit, which has helped us immensely with transportation and logistics. But with modern technologies, our overhead costs are low. And we have been very moved by fundraising efforts on our behalf in the West.

SHPOLBERG: How do you decide when and how much to publish?

TYKHYY: You can’t produce content constantly. If you do, it becomes devalued. We try to post one video a day. But we have such a backlog of footage that we have to edit, to wade and think our way through… In the first days of the war, the situation was very dynamic. We had to be nimble, to react to it. Now that things have stalled, we can afford to be a bit more reflective.

A destroyed house in “Irpin and Bucha: A Minute of Silence

SHPOLBERG: I’m curious about your use of social media to distribute the films. Do you adjust your approach at all based on the platform you are using? And, if so, how do you make sure there is some amount of stylistic consistency between platforms?

TYKHYY:  We realized early on that different publics will watch our films through different channels. Facebook represents one demographic, Instagram, another. The platform that interests me the most, personally, is TikTok because it allows us to tap into a whole new generation. I would love to spend more time just learning how to work with it, because each platform is specific—you can’t just repost a video from YouTube to TikTok. The expectations with regard to form are just too different. On Facebook, for example, we can allow ourselves to show the former minister of culture reading poems by Shevchenko in front of a destroyed building in Irpin, something that lyrical. On platforms that call for shorter videos, we wouldn’t do it. We’re still in the process of figuring it out, though.

SHPOLBERG: Do different platforms also allow you to access different national audiences?

TYKHYY: Yes. I read the comments under our videos assiduously, and that allows me to see who our viewers are. If I had to guess, I would say that roughly 15% of our viewers on YouTube come from within Ukraine, 30% from Russia, and the remaining 65%—from all over the world. Ukrainians, as I mentioned before, are now primarily using Telegram to access information. Facebook allows us to tap into the diaspora more.

A destroyed restaurant and housing complex in “Borodyanka—A City of Ruined Buildings

SHPOLBERG: Which of these would you consider to be your primary audience, the one you care about reaching the most?

TYKHYY: Our first concern, of course, is always the Ukrainian audience. But the way in which Ukraine communicates with the outside world allows it to develop a stronger sense of self.  It articulates itself in this dialogue.

You have to understand: this is not just about conveying information, it’s about survival. To survive a situation, to overcome it, you need to be able to grasp it intellectually. We want to show not just what is happening, but what it means. During the Maidan, there was a huge leap in consciousness in Ukraine. Now there is a similar leap, and we want to be a part of that consciousness-shifting process.

That said, I am also heartened to see Russians watching and commenting under our videos. The Maidan coincided with the opening up of bot farms in Russia. These weren’t always bots in the strict sense of the term. More often, it would be real people who would be paid to make a certain number of disparaging comments per hour. We’re used to seeing them, and we can identify them quickly. Now, we are still seeing some bots, but also a huge increase in authentic comments by confused Russians trying to grasp the situation.

What’s interesting, too, is that they are not just watching the latest videos. They are going back through the archive and watching our videos about the annexation of Crimea, about the war in the Donbass, videos that were shot in 2015… It seems they are trying to understand who is fighting against them, why things aren’t going the way Putin said they would. It’s inspired us to go back through our hard drives. In the past, we would go on a mission to film in Crimea, to film in the cities and villages of the Donbass. We would film for a few hours and put out five minutes of what we filmed. Now we are going back to those rushes to see what else we might publish.

SHPOLBERG: What else do you want an international audience to know?

TYKHYY: It gives us strength to know that the international community is watching. If our videos can help people understand what is happening in our country, to care and not to look away, we’ve done our job.

Please also see the pieces on Babylon ’13 by Dale Hudson, Patricia Zimmermann, and Masha Shpolberg that appeared at Docalogue this week.

Those interested in supporting Babylon’13 can do so through their Patreon account.

Header image: A playground in Borodyanka.

Masha Shpolberg is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is currently co-editing two volumes, Cinema and the Environment in Eastern Europe (Berghahn Books) and Contemporary Russian Documentary (Edinburgh University Press).

This entry was posted in: Quorum