Volodymyr Kolbasa: Art can boost empathy

You turn around and then you see her. A young lady with pale blue eyes, standing in the middle of ruins. This house once used to be her home, this room would be the kitchen she’d enjoy her morning coffee at. But then it was destroyed by the Russian bombs. She looks straight into your eyes without saying a single word. Still, in that look, there is everything. Sadness. Shock. Terror. A call for help, but a certain expression of ruthlessness too.

The young lady is one of the ten protagonists of the Fresh Memories: The Look project, a 10-minute-long Czech-Ukrainian 360° VR film from the war in Ukraine, now displayed at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art. “This film helped me to break a bubble of an illusion of the war. I felt the need to tell people what was happening in Ukraine,” says Volodymyr Kolbasa, the film’s co-director who comes from the town of Poltava, at the first screening of the movie. Ondřej Moravec, the other director, adds: “It is an important statement about the horrors of war and a symbol of solidarity and the strength of values. It shows the world that there is no place for dictatorial forces, and people must keep this in living memory”.

For Volodymyr, shooting a movie was a way how to tackle war trauma. In the following interview, he shared more about the art piece’s background.

At the beginning of the war on 24 February 2022, you were still in Ukraine. How did your connection to the Czech Republic start?

It was quite unexpected! I studied at the International Film School Cologne and graduated in 2020, a year before the war started. I completed a master’s degree there, specialising in digital narratives. My graduation work was a demo version of a VR project about flooded villages on the Dnipro River called Washed ashore. I submitted it to a film festival East Doc Platform before the full-scale invasion, but I was unable to present it in person as the war started. At that time, I was in Ukraine, working in a volunteer centre. I raised money and organized logistics for tactical medical supplies and some medicaments that were hard to get at that time in Ukraine. In March 2022, I was contacted by the East Doc Platfrom, asking to present my project online. To be honest, I thought that my past, pre-war life would never exist again, but I agreed without expecting anything. I presented the project but explained that it was not relevant at the moment because of the war. Instead, I suggested making a project about the war and telling the stories of people affected by it. At the East Doc Platform, I also met Ondřej Moravec. He liked the idea of a new project and invited me to work on it together. And so we did. We started to work remotely on the project at the end of April 2022.

Fresh Memories is a reference to the performance by Marina Abramović in 2010 called The Artist Is Present. On April 16 2022, Marina Abramović repeated her performance at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York to support Ukraine.

There are ten protagonists in the Fresh Memories movie, all of them captured in their former homes, now destroyed by bombs. Did you know all those people before you started the project?

We didn’t know anyone. But we knew one volunteer n Kharkiv and he helped us find some of the characters. Some of the people we just met on the streets, while we were exploring the shooting locations.

The main shooting locations were in Kharkiv, a city in the north-east of Ukraine, and in Tsyrkuny, a village located 15 km from Kharkiv towards Russia. The Russian invaders arrived to Tsyrkuny already at 5am on 24 February 2022, and the village was instantly occupied. Luckily, everything was calm during the shooting of Fresh Memories and there weren’t any missiles at that time.

The filming started in October 2022 and lasted for 3 days. The team consisted of three people: Volodymyr and two cameramen – Vartan Markarian & Vadym Makhitka.

You are from Ukraine, and many of your close friends are fighting now or are wounded. Was it difficult to film the results of the war from an emotional point of view?

I managed to find some distance. When we were filming, we were working. And when we were working, we were in full concentration. But we were also constantly watching over each other’s safety because it is easy to forget to be careful sometimes while filming.

Where to watch Fresh Memories: The Look?

Can you look into the eyes of those whose homes have been destroyed by war?

Visit the exhibition at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art until June 4 2023 to watch the VR-film Fresh Memories: The Look. It was directed by Ondřej Moravec and Volodymyr Kolbasa and produced by the creative studio Brainz Immersive.

In previous interviews, you mentioned that shooting the movie was a certain form of therapy too.  How did the project help you?

It was a tough but strengthening experience, especially going to cities like Kharkiv. When the conflict began, I was in Poltava, where no explosions were heard at all. A few weeks later, it became less calm, but the city was generally intact. Before I started to shoot the movie, I perceived the war only in relation to the safety of my family and friends. The trip helped me to break this bubble of the illusion of war.

Some might find it emotionally difficult to watch Fresh Memories, including refugees from Ukraine.

There is only one piece of advice – if it’s hard, it’s better not to watch. Our main target audience is not Ukrainians, but the international community. Sound also plays a major role in our film. We specifically decided not to use sirens or explosions, but rather the sounds of calm and peaceful life. This creates a contrast and reduces the trauma of such content for the viewer.

During the shooting of Fresh Memories, many challenges occurred. Volodymyr and the crew had to make sure there were out of the reach of the camera. It covered a 360-degree angle, so the team had to hide behind bushes or other objects to avoid being seen.

Do you think that art in general, and your project in particular, can help people around the world to better understand war and its real consequences?

Visual art is the art of empathy. Our goal in the Fresh Memories project was to boost this empathy. That’s also why we refrained from using dialogues in the film, and only worked with natural sounds. This gives the viewer a chance to grasp the emotion deeply. Generally, art can help people combat trauma. For example, I have a friend who fought in 2015 in Ukraine and is still fighting now. Between 2015 and 2022, he started a successful IT business, but he had severe PTSD. He pulled himself out of this state by painting. Now he paints directly in the war zone, and he plans to sell his artworks to raise some money for the military.

The VR film Fresh Memories: The Look was presented in March 2023 at the prestigious US festival SXSW.

The Fresh Memories project is supposed to raise awareness about the war in Ukraine, aiming primarily at the international audience. But your other projects also targeted the Ukrainian audience.

I cooperated on a project called the Neutralization, which we presented in Poltava at the Jump Centre for Contemporary Art in the autumn of 2022 in collaboration with the Ukrainian part of the team that helped to film Fresh Memories. The Neutralization project had a therapeutic effect for Ukrainians. For example, one of the installations was a life-size model of an inflatable rocket, which we hung and illuminated. This model reacted to sound – when people shouted at the rocket, it deflated. The therapeutic effect was that people felt their power over the rocket.

How do you feel after more than a year of war in your homeland?

I feel the same as most Ukrainians – tired of the war. This does not mean that we will give up, but it is clear to everyone that the war will not end tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. I also feel a sense of emptiness because many of my friends have left or are fighting. Despite all of this, I am very happy that my family is alive and healthy, and that we have a home which is not destroyed. This reassessment of values is especially evident when you see people who have lost everything. Nevertheless, I am positive about the future. The most important thing for me is to find the right use for myself in these circumstances and help my country.

Volodymyr Kolbasa, director and producer, co-author of Fresh Memories: The Look 

Born in Kremenchuk, an industrial city in central Ukraine on the banks of the Dnipro River, Volodymyr studied oil and gas production and worked in this field for 8 years in Poltava. Later, he decided to change his career and enter the Kyiv National I. K. Karpenko-Karyi Theatre, Cinema and Television University to study camera operation. He completed his bachelor’s degree there and worked in the oil and gas industry during his studies too. Later on, Volodymyr worked as a cameraman in Ukraine for about a year, and during that time, he actively applied for grants and scholarships abroad. In early March 2018, the young artist got a German state scholarship thanks to which he studied in Cologne, and a year later, he successfully applied for Erasmus scholarship and became part of a cinematography course that took place in three countries: Ireland, Hungary and Estonia. In each of them, Volodymyr spent a semester. He graduated in 2020 and a few weeks later, he returned to Poltava, where he’s living right now.


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