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20 April, 2018  ▪  Roman Malko

Ukraine, like you’ve never seen it before

How a volunteer project explores and transforms the country

Over a year and a half, they have travelled around half of Ukraine and collected hundreds of unique stories. Their subjects are authentic beehives, ferries, narrow-gauge railways and, of course, ordinary but special people who inspire others. Tourists are already following the routes of these expeditions while the characters shown in their vlogs encourage people to be active and make a change.

The original idea was to show Ukraine to the world. With time, it has transformed into something much more important. "People have already sent us dozens of messages saying that they've decided not to emigrate from Ukraine because of us,” Ukraїner’s team says. Some have said that they want to be featured in a story themselves, so they started to do something interesting, while others suddenly realised the true value of things they have been living next to for their whole lives after watching a video. The greatest significance of the project turned out to be the fact that it can bring together the country and people in it, as it unobtrusively and slowly but surely stitches together Zakarpattia and the Azov Sea coast, Poltava region and Polissya.

A story in every corner

The idea of ​​the Ukraïner media project came from an impulse to show Ukraine to the world and tell some stories that may be interesting in a global context. In the process, it became clear that Ukrainians themselves need to see Ukraine. “When we started to gather volunteers we were shocked with how many people came forward,” says Bohdan Lohvynenko, one of the initiators of Ukraïner. “I've worked a lot in the media and thought that it was impossible to launch a media project with volunteers alone. So, to be honest, I didn't really believe in it. It seemed that most of the work would be done by me and a few more driving forces that were there at the start.”

Now, Ukraїner is available on its online platform in seven languages. The original one is Ukrainian from which the material is translated into other languages. For each language, from 2 to 10-15 translators write texts and make subtitles for videos.

Generally, there is little information about Ukraine beyond politics and sports. Therefore, it is necessary to translate these stories. This is a kind of investment that allows foreigners interested in the country to explore what it’s really like. In 2017, the project won a grant from Google and now advertises its materials in six foreign languages ​​for free. In fact, Ukraïner is one of the first platforms found by a person searching for something about travelling to Ukraine. This is good because it is high-quality information. It does not yet cooperate with foreign media but the project team is working on it.  

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Ukraїner produces four or six new stories every month. Over 100 have been recorded by now, and about 40 have been released. This is because the project is made by volunteers who only work on it when they have time and opportunities, and because of limited resources.

Many ideas for new projects, subprojects are still waiting to be brought to life. Meanwhile, new formats are coming up. Some things are only posted on Facebook, others on YouTube, others still on the website. The team did not think everything through when making the website (there is no space to add anything else), so it will be redesigned, content will be added. Videos that are on Facebook will be added to the website. In addition, special sections will be developed. One is of the narrow-gauge railways in Ukraine. The inspiration came when the team was filming a narrow-gauge railway in Zakarpattia. The Polissya, Carpathian and Zakarpattian ones have already been filmed, so only Podilia remains. Another section the team is working on is river ferries across the country. Expeditions to Tavria, the Black Sea coast, Halychyna, Volyn, Dnipro Ukraine, Sloboda Ukraine and Zaporizhzhia are planned for the near future. This cycle will be complete, but the project will not come to an end.

The team has spotted enough interesting locations to film for several lifetimes. Meanwhile, the team is thinking about launching a crowdfunding campaign to try to raise money, because they want to do more, better and faster.

At the beginning, the volunteers managed to bring in four partners who immediately became part of the team. They were companies that understood the importance of such a project and did not require any super performance figures, particular quantities or deadlines. They did not say that there should be a certain amount of videos or a certain duration of a video in a certain format. Thanks to this freedom, the team had an opportunity not only to create a unique product, but also to polish it and experiment in the process. When the crew went on the first expedition, it had no clue of the future format. By the third expedition it had changed a lot and is still changing. The current one includes a basic story (about somebody or several people, a phenomenon or area), vlogs (backstage scenes) about the journey, meeting the character, first impressions about each other, the main video and a 360-degree video.

Behind the scenes

To date, about 200 volunteers from Ukraine and abroad have been involved in the project. Some work more actively, others less so, depending on their own possibilities. Everyone has their own motivation, but the main reason why they do it, according to Bohdan Lohvynenko, is the desire to explore and tell people something about Ukraine. “This is the primary desire of anyone who has ever travelled.” Some like the material they get to work with. When the text about wild-honey harvesters in Polissya came out, there was a real battle between translators to take it. The editors who usually work in news or production companies get some creative freedom with this project. Plus the material is optimistic. This also attracts many people, because there is a lot of negativity elsewhere in the media.

A volunteer project struggles to compete with commercial publications and advertising agencies. It is hard to find a camera operator who will be interested in travelling and filming without the chance to make any money. Indeed, an expedition is not a holiday, as some might think, but rather exhausting work that lasts several weeks. You can truly relax emotionally, the volunteers say – several locations and a few characters a day, constantly meeting people is fantastic, but not for everyone.

The wake-up call is at 4am. The crew gets ready and travels to the location to film the sunrise. In Besarabia, an area in Odesa Oblast, the team had to get up at 3:30am. And back to base when it's already dark, at 10 or 11pm. Before going to bed, the camera operator still needs to download all the footage and sort it. This leaves four hours of sleep at best, and sometimes none at all.

Every expedition is planned very carefully. At the time of departure, everything should be scheduled by the day, if not by the hour. First, a route is drawn up, locations and characters are found. To do this, the crew speaks to government institutions, sifts through local media and gets friends involved. Plus the site has a permanent form where anyone can recommend a place.

When everything is more or less clear, the team posts an approximate map of the trip on the internet and people can write about some of the things that they wish to see about the region. Then the crew chooses the 20 most interesting from the 100-200 locations and characters to put together a three-week expedition plan. The region should be shown in a balanced way, from different angles.

The team does not only talk about authentic apiaries or ferrymen. It does other things too, like small cities and education. The expeditions are deliberately planned to jump from one end of the country to another – from Zakarpattia to the Azov Sea. Thanks to this, people who follow materials about their region automatically turn their attention to others. In the time it takes to get from Uzhhorod to Mariupol, the crew could actually already be in Madrid. It is very far away mentally, not to mention infrastructure and the media – the project works to efface that distance. There are already examples of people who are active in different regions and have met through Ukraïner to create new interregional projects.

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Chain reaction

On the whole, there are already quite a few examples of positive impact from Ukraïner. The volunteers understand that they hold a powerful tool in their hands. It seems like nothing special – you just tell someone else's story, but it has already encouraged some people to action. Also, the projects helps change the focus in Ukraine’s media environment. This is quite a big thing. When people understand the value of the land on which they live, the value of places nearby, then that land and those places have much higher chances of surviving and prospering. When the story of the narrow-gauge railway came out, people wrote: “I've lived next to it all my life, but didn't think it had such a background.” Due to ignorance and misunderstanding, many valuable objects in Ukraine have been lost irretrievably.

Perhaps the most important point to realise is that in this way a record is being made of professions and crafts that are on their last legs, possibly for the last time. The same applies to disappearing villages. Ukraïner is basically archiving and documenting the current era. These materials will eventually be worth their weight in gold and they can be used in museums and libraries where visitors will be able to put on some goggles and see how Ukrainians lived 100 years ago.

This is not at all a level for volunteers. This work should be performed by the state, because it has more opportunities for that. But it is customary that the officials who are supposed to do this and are paid money for it are not too concerned with such trifling matters. Volunteers, in essence, are currently performing the functions of the state, and no officials have offered any kind of support during the last year and a half. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Information Policy have made posts about the project on Facebook, but no specific cooperation with Ukraïner has come about yet.

Across borders

When this article was written, Ukraïner was on one of its most unique expeditions – to Greece. It’s a special story that goes beyond the project, but begins with it. During a trip to Poltava region, volunteers met Valeriy Yermakov, an interesting village sculptor and artist who makes strange sculptures, paints and lives in Panasivka, a village of 20 cottages. He does not sell his creations because he believes that would be too small-minded, so he simply gives them to schools and museums, and has many sculptures in the middle of his own backyard.

The man has no degree in art and learned to draw from magazines – he had no chance to find models in the village to understand the proportions of the body. He is fascinated by the characters of Mykola Gogol, Greek mythology and planes – his dream was to look at the Earth from the sky. When he saw the quadcopter, volunteers say, his eyes lit up.

The meeting with Valeriy led to the idea of ​​arranging his dream trip to Greece and making a film about it, but no travel agencies wanted to sponsor the venture. When the material was released someone wrote in the comments that the man had died. Subsequently, it turned out that this was a mistake and the sculptor was alive, so the volunteers decided to finish what they started. A post on social media with a proposal to support the project and take Valeriy to Greece worked miracles. Within three hours the minimum necessary amount of UAH 40,000 (US $1,500) was raised, and UAH 100,000 (US $3,800) somewhat later. By March 13, the artist was in Greece.

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