Connecting with Ukrainian creativity one portrait at a time

"How can I help?" Swiss expatriate Marc Wilkins asked himself when war broke out in Ukraine. The answer was obvious. He did what he does best: making films. zVg

Filmmaker Marc Wilkins is one of the few Swiss expatriates still living in Ukraine. He is raising funds with his film portraits of Ukrainians.

This content was published on April 21, 2022 - 09:00

Wilkins and his Ukrainian wife fled to Berlin on the first day of the Russian invasion. Once there, however, they found the inactivity and uncertainty hard to bear and decided to return to Ukraine. After five weeks in Lviv, the couple is now back in their house in the countryside south of Kyiv. They felt too homesick when they were away. 

“We were in a state of shock,” Wilkins says of their first few days back in Ukraine. At first he was ready to do anything and everything to help his wife’s motherland and his adopted home in the war effort. “I wanted to join the army, evacuate people from Kharkiv with my car and do a lot of social media – but mostly I felt lost and didn’t know what to do.”

Marc Wilkins in his countryside home south of Kyiv zVG

Opportunity beckons

A few days later he was contacted by his Swiss production company and they wanted to do something. And so #u4Ukraine was born – a project which aims not just to appeal for donations, but also to create a personal link between donors and civil society in Ukraine.

Through short films, Wilkins introduces individuals “who have been unable to go about their normal business since the beginning of the war but who are now doing incredible things”. The idea is to help people to help themselves – through direct donations and not through second-hand clothes or cans of food.

“I’ve never been in a war before,” the Swiss expatriate says. But he has received numerous comments about how extraordinary it is to see so many initiatives emerging from within Ukraine to help fellow citizens. “The conditions must be created so that people can stay in Ukraine,” he says.

Small but significant

The protagonists in Wilkins's films are almost all friends. So far he has collected nearly CHF25,000 ($26,800). This may not seem a huge amount compared with what a Swiss relief organisation might receive, but in Ukraine it is the equivalent of two years’ salary. “The money has already gone a long way.”

For example, there is Kseniia, who used to run her own flower and coffee shop in the centre of Kyiv. While Wilkins and his wife fled when war broke out, she stayed in the Ukrainian capital. Kseniia wanted to defend her city. 

Kseniia lends a hand and organises everything from washing machines to clothes in Kyiv zVg

She immediately started collecting donations, equipped volunteer defenders with warm clothes and shoes and bought gas burners at the hardware store to set up kitchens in the metro stations. “Within 48 hours after her portrait was published, Kseniia was able to buy urgently needed washing machines for a hospital, with funds raised through #u4Ukraine.”

Then there is the make-up artist Khatia, who as a Georgian is already experiencing her third war with Russia. She is currently in Khust, in the far west of Ukraine. There she discovered a former student residence that is overcrowded with refugees from the east of the country. However, the building is in such a dilapidated state it is almost uninhabitable. So Khatia is collecting funds for repairs and refurbishment in order to make it more comfortable.

“In Khust I spoke for the first time with people who had been hiding from bombs in their basements for days. It was incredibly moving,” Wilkins says.

There is also Misha, who runs four hip Asian restaurants in Kyiv. He and his employees now cook for the army, hospitals and nursing homes. When the war broke out, he phoned his father, who lives in Russia, and told him what was happening in Ukraine. His father contradicted him, saying the Russians were on a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine.

Misha realised then that he had to launch an awareness campaign for Ukrainians with Russian relatives. The “Papa, believe” campaign aims to help refute Russian propaganda. “If they know the truth, we can stop the war,” Misha is convinced.

Resisting by carrying on  

Wilkins describes Ukrainians as a creative, young and strong-willed people. “As a form of protest, they are trying to keep up their daily routines as far as possible.”

For his part, he says he feels safe south of Kyiv and is now going about his usual work again. Last weekend, he and his wife even travelled to the capital to check on their apartments in the heart of the city. 

"But we wouldn’t spend the night there,” he says. They would be far too exposed in their attic apartment right next to St Sophia’s Cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Adapted from German by Julia Bassam

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