Taisiia Kutuzova is a Ukrainian filmmaker, born in Crimea and based in Kyiv. Since 2014, she has been working as a videographer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and started learning documentary. Meanwhile, Taisiia filmed and directed two short documentaries: Alive and Undefeated (2016) and Youth 1927 (2017). In 2017, she started to film Serhiy, the main protagonist of her feature-length debut documentary « Shut the Fuck Up!« . In the fall of 2020, she became the only Ukrainian director to receive an IDFA Bertha Fund grant in Amsterdam to develop the project.
Euro Créative: Last December, you won the prestigious Human Rights Prize « Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité » from the French Republic for your documentary « Shut the Fuck up!« Congratulations! You will officially receive it on February 5th at the French Residence in Kyiv. Could you please tell us the story behind your documentary « Shut the Fuck up!« ?
Taisiia Kutuzova: “Shut the fuck up!” is a typical phrase our officials use against activists in Ukraine. One of the officials in Hatne – the small town of my protagonist Serhiy Chagarov – said it to Serhiy when he protested against turning on the Ukrainian anthem before the City Council meeting. Why did Serhiy oppose it? Because for him it is hypocritical to listen to the national anthem before a meeting during which the officials will steal lands from the community. Serhiy refuses to put up with it while officials refuse to think wider than their pockets.
Our officials often believe that power belongs to them, but it belongs to the people who have delegated officials the power. Unfortunately, in Ukraine it is very difficult to recall a politician and it is very easy to threaten and even attack an activist who does not have a mandate and no police or courts behind his back. We live in a reality turned inside out. But activists will put everything in the right place.
Euro Créative: You mentioned the main character of the documentary, Serhiy. When you started your movie he was a teenager fighting against local corrupted politicians in his home village called Hatne (in the outskirts of Kyiv). He is now a 20 years-old who ran for local elections last October. How would you describe Serhiy’s evolution these past few years?
Taisiia: Serhiy is growing up. He is facing who he is. When I met Serhiy, he was just starting to write materials for local media and to expose the problems of his community on Facebook. He became the youngest whistleblower for his community. After a couple of years, his investigation was published in Ukrainska Pravda – one of the most respected media in Ukraine.
« Serhiy conquers his fears all the time. He was threatened, he was attacked but he just became stronger. »
Now Serhiy is a Law student and he is working as an assistant to the famous Ukrainian lawyer Yevheniya Zakrevskaya. She is the lawyer of the families of Maidan victims as well as the lawyer of Kateryna Handzyuk’s family. Kateryna was an activist from the Kherson region who was killed in 2018. The very same year, somebody threw a bomb in Serhiy’s backyard. But, Serhiy conquers his fears all the time. He was threatened, he was attacked but he just became stronger. Last year during the local elections, Serhiy ran for office and took his first step into politics, becoming an assistant to an opposition group in his city.
Euro Créative: You told us Serhiy has experienced violence and severe intimidations. You had similar problems as you get assaulted by a Police officer this Autumn… How difficult is your job as the Director of a documentary on corruption?
Taisiia: Four years ago, a deputy attacked Serhiy right in the city council meeting. Three years ago, somebody threw the bomb into his backyard. During these past four years, Serhiy has been trying to bring his attackers to Justice, but the law enforcement sabotages the process. It is disgusting to deal with police officers who do not understand why it is important to investigate attacks on civil activists. Every law enforcement officer should know the name of the civil activist Kateryna Handziuk, who was killed three years ago in Kherson. The failure in investigating these cases shows the failure of law enforcement reform in Ukraine.
The situation I faced in Hatne just confirms this. On the night of October 6th 2020, I was filming Serhiy during the election campaign, when I was attacked by plainclothes policemen. They attacked me for shooting them on video – which is absolutely legal. They wrung my arms, took away my camera and damaged the microphone. Moreover, other officers were watching this crime and none of them helped me. I wrote statements to the police and to the State Investigation Bureau, but they did not recognize me as a victim for a long time. After I posted a video of the attack on Facebook, they finally did it and opened the case. However, the investigation has been ongoing for the past few months although I have the video of all the events, and most importantly – their faces are recognizable on the video.
So we hit the same swamp with Serhiy. The name of this city ‘Hatne’ comes from the word ‘hatka’ – a wooden walkway made for passing through a swamp. Something has happened to this walkway, we all have fallen into a swamp of greed and indifference, but it is in our hands to climb out and re-lay the walkway respecting the rule of law.
Euro Créative: You worked previously as a journalist, you probably experienced some similar problems when you were investigating some affairs, especially when it has something to do with corruption. Corruption appears to be a widespread phenomenon in Ukraine which exists particularly at the local level. Is Hatne a symbolic example of such problems?
Taisiia: Hatne is Ukraine in miniature, because corruption here mirrors corruption all around the country and attacks on activists happen too. Hatne is located in the suburbs of Kyiv, it is a very tasty morsel for greedy people. That is why in those places we could see brighter the struggle of activists for a better future. Unfortunately, over the past two years, the number of attacks on activists has only grown. In 2019, 83 attacks on activists were committed, last year – 101… Total impunity increases the amount of violence.
Euro Créative: In the trailer of your documentary, it seems that Serhiy’s actions have attracted a lot of attention from the local community. We can see some people protesting with him while some other appear to be very critical commenting on his actions. If corruption affects everyone, not everybody seems to perceive it as a problem, right? How to explain such thing? Also, should we distinguish attitudes from elder people and those from younger generations as well in this context?
Taisiia: Unfortunately, a lot of people from the older generation are accustomed to live according to the old principle: they are waiting for a strong Soviet economic planner, for “a strong hand of Stalin” which will bring the order. They absolutely do not want to take responsibility for their own lives. That is what the activists in Hatne are struggling with – the power is not their goal, their goal is to build the civil society. So everyone will ask themselves, why their authorities want to build a national stadium in their small town at the moment when there is no centralized sewerage system, kindergartens or schools yet.
« Serhiy was born in 2000s. He is clean of cultural and political remnants of Soviet Union past, so I believe that such people will grow up, gain experience and change our society. »
Serhiy was born in the 2000s. He is clean of cultural and political remnants of the Soviet Union past, so I believe that such people will grow up, gain experience and change our society. This people will destroy the pyramid of “godfathers, matchmakers and brothers”, breaking off the esprit de corps and joining hands, not elbows.
Euro Créative: We know however that corruption not only involves local politicians but also national ones. Several high-ranked officials have been involved in several corruption cases these past few years. Still, both Poroshenko and Zelenskyy have presented themselves as anti-corruption leaders. But despite implementation of some anti-corruption mechanisms, both politicians have been and still are very much criticized in this regard. Have you seen any improvement since 2014?
Taisiia: Petro Poroshenko came to power after the Revolution on Maidan and I had a hope that from those days everything would change fast and successfully. I was wrong. Though, we have achieved a key thing on Maidan – the European vector of development. Another key requirement of Maidan was lustration. Petro Poroshenko announced the beginning of reforms and for the first – or even the first two years – we could really feel it. One visible example was that new people were recruited to the reformed departments.
But now it is clear that everything goes back to square one. People who were in politics and other government services before Maidan came back in place. For instant, let’s have a look at law enforcement reform. People from our old Militsiya remained in the posts of chiefs and young ideological people who went to the police on after Maidan simply quit because the idea for which they went to serve vanished. Re-certification was announced and many of the old law enforcement officers were fired, but all of them easily recovered through the courts. Total corruption.
« Even if as activists and journalists in Ukraine we are attacked, this does not stop us, we are only becoming stronger and we’ll continue to break silence. »
Let’s take a look at the police officers who attacked me – two of them had served in the Militsiya before the reform. So should we be surprised that they attack people with cameras? One of these policemen was caught on with a bribe of 500.000 hryvnias the next day after he attacked me. He was sent to a pre-trial detention center and fired from the police. Guess what he did after that? On the same day, he filed a lawsuit for restoration. I tried to get into the open session of his court, but I was not allowed inside. This is inconceivable… Only transparency will be able to change this course of things, but using « quarantine » or anything else make that law enforcement officers, courts and officials are still closed from us under any pretext.
For reforms, we need courageous people who will stop oligarch’s influence on politics, but this is not happening still. And still, yes, we have improvements and the international community is playing an important role here. Unfortunately, our government is thinking about reforms again just before the IMF tranche. But first of all, our changes are being implemented by such activists as Serhiy Chagarov. In addition, after Maidan, a lot of talented and strong journalists were raised in Ukraine and are currently investigating corruption schemes and informing the public about the problems.
Hatne is just an example of a small community in the suburbs of Kyiv, where activists united creating civil society and their own media. In the time of our ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, the majority of people were so afraid to loudly declare their position, then after 7 years after him our courage to fight for our rights has been tempered in us, a new generation is growing up. And even if as activists and journalists in Ukraine we are attacked, this does not stop us, we are only becoming stronger and we’ll continue to break silence.
Euro Créative: Maidan was called the “Revolution of dignity” but ordinary citizens are still suffering from indignities created by corruption as the “Hatne case” perfectly illustrates. Are Serhiy and yourself the examples of a highly engaged generation? A generation building a more and more structured civil society able to shape its own (hopefully bright) future in Ukraine.
Taisiia: After Maidan, we were overwhelmed by the hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine. Yesterday’s Maidan’s protesters left for the army as volunteers. Now the military actions are not so active and we have time to concentrate on building our civil society, but people are still dying in this war, because Russia cannot recognize our independence. Nevertheless, we go our own way and fight for the laws has to be fulfilled.
My generation is the generation of Maidan and most of us continue to work on change. 20 years old Serhiy continues his underground Maidan. Other people are inspired by his example. Most of these people are not his age, yet, they are much older than him, but they just cannot watch and stay aside from a 16-year-old guy fighting for his rights and the rights of their community. All my friends admire Serhiy’s example. Supporting each other, we do everything by virtue of our knowledge and creativity.
Euro Créative: We discussed corruption a lot but your documentary is also showing two other essential dimensions of Serhiy’s fight: the defence of the environment and of the Human rights. Are these two topics important for civil society in Ukraine?
Taisiia: These two topics are directly related to corruption. Environmental pollution and human rights violations are a direct consequence of corruption schemes in Ukraine and around the world. Big companies are constructing high-rise buildings without a centralized sewage system, that is the reason why the lake of shit is blowing in Hatne. But when an official thinks about his pocket, he overlooks such simple things. Why did the officials start attacking and threatening Serhiy? Because he fought for his right for a clear lake. Serhiy demanded from officials to save the community, but they tried to shut him up. For several years, activists in Kyiv have been defending the green zone on the territory of Protasov Yar from the developer who wants to transform Kyiv into a stone. These activists are also threatened but continue to pound this rock.
Euro Créative: How do citizens generally react to your work in Ukraine? What about the authorities? Your documentary was not financed by the national authorities and was also excluded from a competition without any explanation. How should these actions be understood?
Taisiia: Ukrainians are reacting positively. Young people all over Ukraine and the world deserve to influence changes in their communities. I get a lot of letters from people in Ukrainian regions who were inspired by Serhiy and want to screen the film with him in their community, want to share their experience with him and to learn the new legal instruments in fighting against corruption and for a better future.
« You asked me about the authorities? They don’t like me… »
You asked me about the authorities? they don’t like me… Once, the Head of Hatne ordered his subordinate to admit Serhiy to the city council and blocked me from coming inside with him. Last year, we submitted a project for Derzhkino pitching (National film fund) and were glad the expert committee rated our project as one of the strongest – we were included in the top five projects in this rating. But at the last moment, the Supervisory Board of Derzhkino struck our project off the list of the winners. It’s completely opaque.
If we want to get international funding – and we want – the project often requires support at home. But if participants in the international market understand that there are no clear rules for financing in Ukraine, then this may affect the entire Ukrainian movie industry. Unfortunately, our project was not the only one that Derzhkino deleted from the list of winners, and this trend is alarming.
Euro Créative: In the meantime, you received several prizes from international movie festivals. Is international (and professional) recognition important for you?
Taisiia: Definitely. Recognition gives confidence. But this is not only recognition, I’m growing up with my project by sharing experience with the international community. Participation in international pitches opens up a broader view to the world for me. I’m a pretty young director and this is all new to me. Behind this, my victories also give confidence to my protagonist Serhiy, symbolically, all these victories belong to him.
Euro Créative: Let us mention once again the Human Rights Prize you received from France. More than a filmmaker or a journalist, do you consider yourself an activist?
Taisiia: An activist is working for changing the community, making his surroundings a better place. That what I am actually doing. But the community is not ready for it everywhere, as we see. Last year me and my friend planted a tree in front of my window. I admired it so much, went out to water it, but just in a month someone stole it. But still, I hope that the thief planted it somewhere.
Euro Créative team would like to warmly thank Director Taisiia Kutuzova for her time and availability as well as Stéphane Siohan, the Producer, for his help. We strongly encourage you to support Taisiia and her team’s work through Shut the Fuck up crowdfunding scheme available via this link.
This interview was conducted by Romain Le Quiniou.