BABYLON’13—As It Is
Editors’ note: Ukraine became an independent country through a democratic vote in 1991. Ukraine remained a democracy because, as historian Serhii Plokhy writes, regionalism, rooted in political and cultural differences, made parliamentary democracy the system best suited to govern the country. Ukrainians successfully defended democracy twice against would-be autocrats in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2013–14. Substantiating Tocqueville’s observation that the essence of democracy is tax authority at the community level, democracy in Ukraine became irreversibly entrenched through decentralization after 2014, which devolved key fiscal responsibilities to communities and led to a marked improvement of public services and infrastructure. Ukraine’s resilience in the face of Russian aggression is that of self-government in a fight against autocracy, of a robust civil society fending off an attempt at neo-imperialist subjugation. Babylon’13 is the cinema of that civil society: a democratic movement of filmmakers who have been documenting the fight for democracy since 2013, and in films which focus on ordinary citizens and their actions rather than on heroic leadership figures. In the process, they have compiled a growing archive of short films, a cinematic resource for self-governance, which exemplifies the political affordances of digital platforms and image and sound technologies, which can also be described as an accidental archive whose structure and composition reflects Ukraine’s democracy: self-governed, decentralized, open, and accessible. The following text is a presentation by the collective’s coordinator Ivanna Khitsinska.
Babylon’13 is a kino, a cinematic chronicle of civil society, telling the stories of the people and events of the past nine years that have fundamentally transformed the Ukrainian nation.
Aware of the power of cinematographic arts and guided by civic and patriotic sensibilities, Ukrainian filmmakers founded the Babylon’13 kino-rukh (cinematic movement) immediately after the bloody dispersal of the Kyiv students’ demonstration in support of Ukraine’s European choice at the end of November 2013. Over the next nine years the movement came to harness the creative powers of hundreds of filmmakers from all professions from all over the country.
In this time, Babylon’13 participants have created hundreds of short films that were made available to viewers around the world through the Internet. Thousands of hours of videos documenting people and events, first during the revolution, and then during the war, were made and provided to other filmmakers, television channels, and independent productions. Babylon’13 films on YouTube have garnered millions of views, and the collective’s web audience, numbering in the tens of thousands of subscribers, spans the globe. News networks like CNN, Al Jazeera, ITN, etc., have shown Babylon’13 films, and Babylon’13 collaborated with the 1+1 television channel in Ukraine to produce and broadcast the TV and web series Zyma shcho nas zminyla (eng. The Winter That Changed Us, 2014).
During the Revolution of Dignity the Babylonian cameramen often risked their lives and incurred injuries, including from stun grenades, rubber bullets, and shrapnel.
When Russia annexed Crimea in response to the Revolution of Dignitiy, two Babylon’13 cameramen, Yaroslav Pilunksy and Yuri Gruzinov, were kidnapped on the peninsula. Threatening him with his pistol, Pilunsky’s kidnapper yelled at him: “Do you know that your camera is stronger than army weapons?!”
Following that, the Babylonians edited a film by the same name—“Stronger Than Weapons”—a full-length documentary that takes us back to the Ukrainian revolutionary winter of 2013–2014 and which was released in theaters in November 2014. It returns to the events that changed our lives forever, and most importantly, to the people, thanks to whose sacrifice and dedication a new Ukraine is emerging in fire and hope. The film is based on materials shot by the Babylon’13 creative association, the Maidan’s cinematographic hundred, during the revolution and the Ukrainian-Russian war. This is a heart-warming story…
Since 2014 the cine-Babylonians have held thousands of screenings, attended festivals around the world, and won awards for their cinematographic and civic achievements, including the 44th Kyiv International Film Festival “Molodist” Prize for Babylon’13’s contribution “to the development of Ukrainian cinematography.”
Over time, the creators have crystallized an understanding of what they are doing. This is not television aesthetics, this is not an elementary recording of a news event, but an attempt to make sense of events through cinematic means—to convey the very spirit of the protest, to record the images of resistance and, perhaps above all, their human dimension, which is exactly what documentary cinema should strive for. In the end, an important moment happened for Ukrainian cinema—it found contact with a thirsty audience, which had not happened for decades.
Since December 2013, screenwriter and director Volodymyr Tykhi has been the head of Babylon’13 as a creative producer. Right from the beginning, more than 50 people took part in the project, creatively and organizationally, driven primarily by their enthusiasm: directors, producers, cameramen, and audio and video editors. Most of those who have joined and support Babylon’13 were in their twenties, a few were still students. They included screenwriter Valeriy Puzik, screenwriter-directors Yulia Hontaruk, Yulia Shashkova, Maria Ponomaryova, Dmytro Sukholytktkyy-Sobchuk, Ivan Sautkin, Kristian Zheregi, Roman Lyubyy, Kostyantin Klyatskin, Denis Vorontsov, and Dmytro Starodumov; cameramen Yuri Gruzinov, Yuri Dunai, Slava Pilunsky, Ihor Ivanko, Andriy Kotliar, Ivan Bannikov, Serhiy Stetsenko, Andriy Lyseckyy, Volodymyr Usik, Dmytro Rybakov, composers Mykyta Moyseyev and Anton Baibakov, audio directors Andriy Rohachov, Maria Nesterenko, Andriy Nidzelesky, editor directors Serhiy Klepach, Ivan Bannikov, Pavlo Lypa, Maksym Vasyanovych, producers Marko Suprun, Oleksandr Bratyshchenko, Hanna Kapustina, Ivanna Khitsinska…
During the three hottest months of the revolutionary events of 2013–2014 and until today, the Babylonians have recorded and are recording the evolution of civil protest in Kyiv and beyond, working to comprehend the Ukrainian people in their war against the Russian invader in the dramatic space where, right beside the Joy of Life Death tragically breathes.
Thus, the work created by the participants of Babylon’13 is a recording and film interpretation of the popular uprising and the Revolution of Dignity, it is an analysis of the insidious annexation of Crimea and the lands of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, as well as the beginnings and dramatic progress of the Russian-Ukrainian war from 2014 to 2022, but it is also an exposure of the corruption that has permeated society, it is a mockery of common vices. And the genres of Babylon’13 film work are as diverse as the community of filmmakers themselves, ranging from dramas and lyrical dramas to portraits, tragicomedy, tragedy, and satire.
The National Union of Cinematographers of Ukraine provided the premises for the work of Babylon’13 during the most troubling times of the Maidan—the Small Hall of the House of Cinema. Later, space was rented from various Kyiv organizations that supported civic activism.
Cinematography is the most technologically advanced modern artform, and the Babylonians have faced important organizational challenges. These were overcome in a spirit of solidarity. We shared our personal equipment with friends in the filmmaking community. Ihor Savychenko, who was just starting out as a producer, also provided help, and we received further assistance from the “Izolyatsiya” (eng. isolation) Cultural Initiative Platform of Donetsk.
The projects are primarily self-financed, sometimes aided by voluntary donations. Tens of thousands of hryvnia were raised through the “Spilnokosht” crowdfunding platform. Babylon’13 also enjoyed the tacit financial support of Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest Ukrainian, and support from fellow cinematographers, including sound editor Artem Mostovoy, film critic Serhiy Trymbach, and director and producer Dmytro Tomashpolsky.
From the beginning of the civil protest the Babylonians filmed Ukrainian reality and showed what is happening here and now through the prism of a cinematic understanding of society. They recorded the formation of a political nation, the birth of a civil society that answers the call to the life of the polity on a daily basis. In Babylon’13, filmmakers were united by the belief that people’s perception of the reality that surrounds them and the state of social affairs can be changed through documentary cinema. And, striving to change the world around them, they changed themselves, feeling and understanding the community’s need for truth.
Gepper, Olena. 2020. Internationale Hilfe für die Unterstützung der Dezentralisierungsreform in der Ukraine. Master Thesis, Department of Human Geography, Goethe Universität Frankfurt.
Higgins, Mike. 2023. “Serhii Plokhy: ‘Russia Thought It Was Invading the Ukraine of 2014.’” The World Today, June 2. Accessed June 11, 2023. https://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/the-world-today/2023-06/serhii-plokhy-russia-thought-it-was-invading-ukraine-2014.
Plohky, Serhii. 2023. The Russo-Ukrainian War. The Return of History. New York: W.W. Norton.
Shpolberg, Masha. 2022. Ukraine’s Babylon’13 Collective. An Interview with Volodymyr Tykhyy. Film Quarterly, May 3. Accessed June 11, 2023. https://filmquarterly.org/2022/05/03/ukraines-babylon13-collective-an-interview-with-volodymyr-tykhyy.
Tocqueville, Alexis. 2002. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.