“Small Media of Urgent Utility”
Dale Hudson (NYU, Abu Dhabi) and Patricia R. Zimmermann (Ithaca College)
As the Russian war in Ukraine enters its third month, international media continuously devours scenes of bombed-out buildings, refugees crowded on trains, Ukrainian soldiers propped on burned-out Russian tanks, and interviews with retired military and intelligence community pundits in round-the-clock coverage.
But alongside these grand narratives, Babylon’13, a collective of anonymous professional and amateur media makers, chronicles the war from the ground up in short videos produced across Ukraine. The collective formed during the 2013–2014 Maidan uprisings, called the Revolution of Dignity, wherein more than 800,000 people in Kyiv demonstrated for months against government corruption and then-President Yanukovich’s refusal to sign a European Union trade agreement.
Media activists criticized feature-length documentaries such as Maidan (Sergey Loznitza, 2014) and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Evgeny Afineev, 2015) for their focus on massive demonstrations and spectacles rather than the smaller actions of everyday people. Named after a 1929 Soviet film about the 1871 Paris Commune, Babylon’13’s YouTube channel hosts over 700 videos grouped into playlists. Its plurality of locations, approaches, styles, and content counters the univocal nationalism of mainstream transnational media and auteurist art documentary with participatory horizontal practices.
IDFA, Sundance, Arte, Amazon, and Netflix have defined contemporary Western documentary in a particular way, distinguishing themselves from normative television documentary by importing narrative art cinema styles. Since December 2013, as Russia began its occupation of Crimea, Babylon’13 has offered short videos that map a quite different documentary practice.
Western news media’s focus on Ukraine is both encouraging and disheartening. It criticizes Russian propaganda framing the brutal invasion as a defense against “Nazis” yet was complicit with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in search of “weapons of mass destruction” with journalists embedded with the military. An estimated half million Iraqi civilians died; millions became refugees.
Rather than making connections with other large-scale human-rights violations, Western media signals Russian aggression in Ukraine as exceptional. It minimizes how actions in Ukraine replicate Russia’s tactics in Syria since 2015. Racism flows as commentators contend that war and genocide are unimaginable in twenty-first century middle Europe, rendering war and genocide in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen invisible.
As small, scalable, low-tech media, Babylon’13 images and testimonies counter big Western media, where reporters often do not speak Ukrainian or Russian. Rather than single films—products for audience consumption—the Babylon’13 documentary project is a process of file sharing across platforms.
With over 91,000 subscribers, Babylon’13 archives short, user-uploaded videos on a YouTube channel organized around playlists such as Maidan, Crimea, Donbass, Friends, Celestial Hundred, Songs of Ukraine, Winter, and War. These one-to-ten-minute microdocumentaries circulate across social media. Since the start of the Russian attack on February 24, over 150 videos about the war have been uploaded, featuring music videos, testimonies, scenes of everyday life, and chronicles of soldiers, refugees, volunteer militias, and cooks. Some videos are shot in smartphone vertical format with nondiegetic music added, a form now mainly associated with TikTok. Others employ the horizonal format associated with film and cinema.
Published on April 3, 2022, the video “Ірпінь і Буча. Хвилина мовчання” (Irpen and Bucha: A Moment of Silence) captures the eerie calm following battles. Images of daily life interrupted offer poignant glimpses into private homes likely never to be reclaimed. Fruit shrivels and potted plants wilt inside a kitchen. The sunlight refracts through a broken window. The rising and setting sun offers condolences to a war-devastated landscape. A somber piano solo accompanies images of broken glass, smoldering embers, and shoes, toys, and clothing of Ukrainians who may no longer be alive. The video documents crimes and honors the dead and dispossessed with a pledge to rebuild. In contrast to news stories, these images contain no bodies of the dead.
Because of its participatory aggregation and circulation, an understanding of Babylon’13 requires a shift away from considering documentary as individual, aesthetically complex texts to a documentary practice of use value and circulatory systems. These small videos counter outsider professional journalist media representations. Disavowing Russian misinformation and Western voyeurism, they create community, build up a polyphony of voices from multiple regions, and share ground-up stories of survival, resistance, and resilience in the face of war.
Babylon’13 constitutes a vast counternarrative to any unified representation of Ukrainian nationalism, adding counterpoint to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Zoom presentations to parliaments and congresses across the globe which have fascinated the West. Aligning with international participatory community media documentary projects, Babylon’13 presents videos produced by the subjects themselves, a cinema of urgent utility about people beyond the speeches of leaders.
Babylon’13 expands documentary to include unfinished projects on file-sharing platforms, offering access to perspectives that film festivals and subscription streaming services ignore. This enlarged documentary landscape aggregates activist media, citizen journalism, amateur videos, and eye-witness reports, evoking longitudinal documentary practices rather than live news coverage. The anonymous collective Abounaddara’s Syrian civil war videos and the Asia-Pacific nonprofit EngageMedia‘s portal for media on human rights, democracy, and environmentalism are similar conflict and post-conflict zone media aggregator projects.
Small independent documentary forms like those found through Babylon’13’s online portal provide access to information not filtered through state soft diplomacy strategies or profit-driven corporate strategies. Moreover, such portals necessitate reconceptualization of archives to include polyphonic user-generated videos posted by historical agents in micro-territories. These unofficial, people-generated archives mix professional and amateur work. An archive-from-below, Babylon’13 is endlessly open and expanding, mobilizing aggregation and playlists rather than curatorial taste.
Babylon’13’s harrowing, informative, and inspiring videos of the war insist on people-centered small stories rather than grand narratives. Stories of Roma, Kyiv Zoo animals, pizza delivery in Kharkiv, territorial defense unit volunteers, citizens in Bucha, refugee evacuations on trains, citizens protecting monuments, and a music school show that war is more than tanks, guns, and bombs.
Furthermore, this archive-from-below cannot be contained or disciplined. Babylon’13 videos migrate across their Facebook page, Instagram, Twitter, and Patreon. And beyond Ukraine itself, videos of international musicians in solidarity with Ukraine have circulated on social media, featuring orchestras, Yo Yo Ma, and Pink Floyd playing the Ukrainian national anthem or folk songs. Despite the ways in which social media memes damage democracy, these videos’ diffusion amplifies the affordances of social media to create unprecedented global solidarities.
These small cellphone-produced stories move away from the distancing tropes of CNN and BBC maps of troop movements to invite closer proximity to the people experiencing this brutal invasion.
For more links, resources, reading lists, and small media on Ukraine, see the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival project on War on Ukraine:
Histories of Ukraine; Ukranian Films; Ukranian Literature; Solidarity and Protest Music
“Forging a Nation Under Fire”
Masha Shpolberg (University of North Carolina, Wilmington)
In the 1920s, Soviet filmmakers were instrumental in defining documentary as it was coming into being. Among the most famous Soviet films of this period is Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera produced in 1929 for the Ukrainian film studio VUFKU. Though the film features some images of Moscow, most of it was shot in Kyiv and Odesa. It was an experiment in collective filmmaking on the scale of the family unit and presented a kind of collective vision. It featured no protagonists beyond the eponymous cameraman. Instead, it strove to present a mosaic of the new Soviet society as it, too, was coming into being in the wake of a revolution and a bloody civil war.
Nearly one hundred years later, Ukraine is once again the site of both political and documentary experimentation. There is consensus among historians, journalists, and regular Ukrainian citizens that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this past February is largely punishment for the events of the Maidan, a mass uprising that started as a student protest in November 2013 in Kyiv’s main square and quickly grew into a nationwide anti-corruption, pro-democracy movement. Despite the government’s use of violence against the peaceful protesters (including snipers firing into the crowd), the movement succeeded in ousting the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and vocalizing Ukraine’s right to determine its own future, free of its imperialist neighbor’s interference.
The events of the Maidan spawned a number of documentary projects, from Sergei Loznitsa’s award-winning Maidan (2014) to Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire (2015). Among the most compelling and original, however, was the work of Babylon’13, an anonymous filmmakers’ collective founded by Yulia Gontaruk, Yuriy Gruzinov, Andrei Rogachev, Yulia Shashkova, and Volodymyr Tykhy. Within a matter of weeks, the collective had grown to fifty members actively documenting a revolution in the making. In their manifesto, they defined their goal as “memorializing and showcasing the birth and first decisive steps of civil society in Ukraine” and expressed their faith in documentary as “a tool that is able to change people’s perception of reality.”
The films themselves were comprised primarily of observational footage and people speaking directly to the camera about their experience. There was no commentary of any kind, leaving viewers free to interpret the images at will. The aim was twofold: to offer a detail-rich, “you-are-there” alternative to the evening news and to record Ukrainian history as it happened. Indeed, Babylon’13 has been so aware of their role as chroniclers that in 2018 they handed over 300 hours of footage to the recently founded Maidan Museum, and in 2021, they released a “historical series” on their YouTube channel, with a young historian explaining how the Maidan unfolded using clips from the group’s videos.
Since the time of the Maidan, Babylon’13 has documented the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass. While many of its members fell away in the intervening years, founder Volodymyr Tykhyy reported to me in an interview that most came back immediately following the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. In the fifty days since the war began, approximately eighty members have produced over one hundred films, each between one and ten minutes in length. Since events were so difficult to predict in the first few days of the war, the collective found itself obliged to source video, shot primarily on phones, through their personal networks. They then uploaded the images with on-screen commentary onto their YouTube channel and social media accounts. With the relative stabilization of the military situation, they have been able to return to more in-depth, carefully observed stories shot by their own members.
As film scholar Anastasia Kostina noted at the 2017 IAMHIST conference, since its beginnings on the Maidan, the collective makes no attempt to give an impartial view of events. Its stance is necessarily engage. The early phone videos are characterized by an urgent need to gather evidence of the Russian attack and to move the rest of the world to action. The more composed films that have followed fall into four categories.
The first can be described as profiles of regular people using their professional skills to help the war effort, from a woman who has been working as a conductor on evacuation trains to sculptors making portable heaters for the army and an icon painter who recasts his saints and angels as soldiers and sends the finished works to protect those at the front. The second category draws attention to all the labor that goes into war. These videos show citizens preparing for bombing or invasion by covering monuments in sandbags and padding stained glass windows; the Lviv Philharmonic being used as a sorting center for humanitarian aid; and groups of volunteers cleaning up recently liberated towns. A third category draws attention to frequently overlooked populations. Particularly poignant is an acknowledgment of the racism faced by Roma refugees within Ukraine (provocatively titled “We stole a tank, we can steal Putin, too!”), an interview with children evacuated from Luhansk to Western Ukraine, and a paean to the courageous workers of the Kyiv zoo. Finally, the fourth category serves as documentation of war crimes. Wide shots allow viewers to take stock of the damage in Borodyanka, Bucha, and Irpin, to look on with horror, knowing what we now know, on people evacuating Bucha and taking shelter in the Mariupol Theater. On April 9, Babylon’13 was also finally able to post their first video shot with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In it, a reconnaissance team jokes around as they monitor a Russian military column, waiting for the right moment to strike. Suddenly, the team shifts into action, someone congratulates Yuriy on an effective strike, and we see a title card announcing that the film is dedicated to “the memory of Yuriy Oleynik.”
Where the Maidan videos were shot primarily for a domestic audience, the war films on YouTube are clearly meant for three distinct audiences. Individual playlists appeal to viewers looking for content in Ukrainian, subtitled in Russian, or subtitled in English. Indeed, the collective has made a concerted effort to pierce through the Russian state’s propaganda apparatus. In addition to their “The War in Russian” playlist, they also offer bilingual posts on VKontakte, the Russian-language version of Facebook. Finally, in a bid to reach different demographics (younger people, the Ukrainian diaspora), they also cross-post to Facebook and Instagram and have experimented with Twitter and TikTok. Such a multi-lingual, multi-platform approach seems appropriate for a group whose name recalls the myth of how humanity started speaking in different tongues. It also adds a whole new dimension to Vertov’s idea of holding collectively-produced documentary up as a mirror to the masses. Vertov famously bookended his film with shots of crowds pouring in and out of the movie theater. In the comments underneath the videos distributed by Babylon’13 online, we get a glimmer of the conversations they might have had on the way.