School Number 3, a documentary film from Ukraine, won the Grand Prix of the Berlinale festival in the category 14plus. It tells the story of Donbas teenagers who experienced warfare between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists in 2014. However, there is a larger story to the film – it illustrates how caring for somebody else’s troubles changes life for the better.
The story behind the film began in late 2014, when a group of volunteers came to Mykolayivka, a town in Donetsk Oblast. After combat between the Russian-backed forces who hid in the town and the Ukrainian Army, the local secondary (K-12) school was damaged. The volunteers came to rebuilt the school, but, more importantly, to support the local people, especially the kids.
Film directors and playwrights were among the volunteers. One of them was German theater director Georg Genoux, who became a director of the School Number 3. In that volunteer mission, he played the role of St. Nicholas for local school students. Yelizaveta Smith was another volunteer – she is also a director of the film. During her mission, she helped the kids to organize the play for St. Nicolas’ Day. Both of them fell in love with the kids. And so the desire to do something more for them was born.
The film School Number 3 had a predecessor – the theater play My Mykolayivka by Genoux and Ukrainian playwright Nataliya Vorozhbyt who also was among the volunteers. After the mission, Genoux and Vorozhbyt came to the school again and asked the students to write about something that touched them. That is how the play appeared.
“We didn’t have a clue what it would be like. We didn’t have clear plans and ideas. Georg and I just looked at each other and understood that we have to create a play. Because we thought that to come once to organize a festivity is not enough, it will be forgotten soon. The systematic work with kids is needed. So, without saying a word, we decided that we need to do a play. We did it at our own expenses. We didn’t know there would be a film. At some point we thought that it will be good to make a video version of it, because the kids will grow older. And in a mysterious way it has happened so that Yelizaveta [Smith] and Khrystyna [Khrystyna Lyzohub, the camera women on School Number 3] also fell in love with this story, and were helping us and were shooting the film. Everything intertwined so much. There are so many authors to this story,” tells Vorozhbyt.
She also recalls how the perception of volunteers by the teenagers changed since their first trip in December 2014:
“We felt that the kids were not open to us at first. We did not become friends at first. The trust appeared when we started to work on the play.”
“We started to open to you,” adds Vlad Chumak, one of the film’s heroes.
Vorozhbyt goes on:
“They became our children. They are open and funny. If some of them had traumas they overcame it. Maybe not by 100%, but now they see the world in a more friendly way than it was when we came in 2014. At that time they all were traumatized. Now they see that there is a future and that they can influence it.”
In the play, the kids tell their personal stories. Some of them are related to war, but the red thread running through the scenario are stories about kids from a provincial town becoming mature, about their first love, relationships, and friends. The stories were so sincere that the children were even shy to perform the play in their own town, in front of their parents, although they performed it in other cities for several times.
The play was developed into the film. It made the stories even more personal because the scenes were shot in the kids’ native places – the classrooms and halls of the school, the streets of Mykolayivka, near the river. And after the awards at Berlinale, the sincere stories of 13 kids from the Donbas town will have an even larger audience. Maybe even among those to whom they would not tell their stories.
In the film, Oleksandr Babakov told about the girls he used to love and the pain it caused, which made him start drinking.
“Then I did not realize what it [the play] is for. But I took a risk and made this small step – I told my story. I just wanted them [Genoux and Vorozhbyt] to help other youth to not repeat my mistakes. I decided to share. Then, everything was strange and unclear. Now, I understand that it was a big job,” says Babakov.
The teenagers changed a lot in the two years since the movie was produced.
“This film changed my whole life dramatically. Now I am standing here, I was in Germany. If not for my participation in the film I would have never come here. I would live in Mykolayivka my entire life and wouldn’t go anywhere,” says Chumak.
And the volunteers played a significant role in the kids’ transformations.
“If we look at it from the large scale, first came the war, then the volunteers came, we got acquainted with different people, then – the play, the film and the festival. I think if you didn’t come, nothing would have happened,” says Alina Kobernik, the participant of the play.
“We talk with our friends [volunteers] like with real friends. I can call them anytime and they will help me,” adds Chumak.
However, after becoming acquainted with the teenagers, the lives of the adults changed as well. These kids became friends for them or even more.
The trip to the festival was a special event for the kids. Some of the volunteers came with them to Berlin to support them, while some came to meet them in Kyiv on their way back to Mykolayivka. Also, a bunch of journalists came to meet them. After the film won the prize, news about it appeared in the programs of the largest Ukrainian media.
In Berlin, School Number 3 not only revealed the small town of Mykolayivka to the world but showed an unexpected aspect of the otherwise dismal situation from a place near the frontline of the Russo-Ukrainian war. It is not about the warfare itself, but about ordinary children who like millions of teenagers in the world experience their own difficulties on the way to becoming adults. The war only accelerated the process of maturation.
“We showed [to the international audience] that the war goes on, but we take our minds off it. Because life also goes on,” explains Babakov.
He says that some journalists asked them what language do people speak in eastern Ukraine – Ukrainian or Russian:
“I didn’t tell them anything and now regret it. Now I would say that it’s not important which language you speak. I know that there are many countries where people speak 2-3-4 languages. The most important thing is to love the place where you were born and to respect your choice. If you do not respect your choice, you do not respect yourself.”
“The film showed that the country has a future because it has these wonderful children. They are bright, sincere, smart and talented. They are the future of this country and it is worth to help it. And it can’t be ignored. That was the message. Here we have special kids. In any moment it [the war] can go renew and it can come back to them. And we can’t let the war come back to these kids,” says Vorozhbyt.
After the warm welcome in Kyiv, the teenagers went back home. Some of them are still students at the school, some have already become students of Ukrainian universities. But they are coming back as people whom their native Mykolayivka and the whole Ukraine can be proud of.