Filmed in impossibly challenging conditions, Those Who Stayed tells six stories of people who remained in Kyiv after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. DQ speaks to the producers and filmmakers behind the series to find out why and how they did it.
When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, millions of people fled the country to find safety and shelter across Europe. According to the Centre for Research & Analysis of Migration, almost 22 million people have left Ukraine in that time, though more than 13 million have since returned.
Of course, in a country of around 41 million, many more remained and saw their lives changed forever under bombardment of missiles and ground troops.
The experiences of those living in the capital, Kyiv, during the initial days and weeks of the invasion have now informed Those Who Stayed, a six-part fictional anthology series tackling a range of different subjects by a roster of leading Ukrainian talent in front of and behind the camera.
Produced by Ukraine’s Film UA and distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, filming wrapped in May after a six-week shoot – a remarkable feat considering the invasion began just 15 months earlier.
“Now we have completed production, it seems even more magical because the reality is that even in normal times, it’s not often you can do a TV series in a year,” producer Kateryna Vyshnevska, Film UA’s head of development and coproductions, tells DQ. “The war started at the end of February last year and, for at least a month, everyone was in a state of a shock. The whole [television] industry stopped but, on a personal level, each one of us was dealing with our own individual circumstances and trying to get to safety and worrying about families.
“For a month, maybe more, it was not even possible to think in terms of what we would do next. You are in this survival mode.”
But when survival gave way to anger, the team at Film UA harnessed a determination to get back to work and to continue to tell stories – stories that would immediately become more meaningful to people both in Ukraine and around the world.
“The war made everyone realise we are in this together, it is not just in Ukraine. It really does affect every single one of us, at least in Europe,” Vyshnevska continues. “That’s when we started to think, what kinds of stories can we tell and what kinds of stories do we want to tell? Then on the other hand, what kinds of stories can we actually film right now and where do we get the money?”
Before the war, high-end Ukrainian drama productions would often rely on international partners for additional finance, and this continued to be the case after the invasion began. Vyshnevska pitched Those Who Stayed to executives at Red Arrow and the distributor became their first major collaborator.
“Those Who Stayed spoke to them,” she says. “It is about the war but it’s also about more than that. It’s too early to be talking about the war experience. We haven’t processed it yet. It’s not the time. One day it will come. But we also don’t want to be defined by the war. It happened to us, but it’s not all we are.
“We wanted to talk about the humanity of it and what happened to us as people when the war started – the reasons we found inside ourselves and our families and our communities to keep on going. It is ultimately about hope.”
Film UA had already envisioned the format for the series – six different stories told by different writers and directors, with each one inspired by real experiences. Then, when Red Arrow signed on, it fully financed all the scripts. Several Nordic broadcasters then joined as coproducers, namely SVT in Sweden, NRK in Norway and YLE in Finland, Denmark’s DR, Iceland’s RUV, France Télévisions and Lumiere in Benelux also picked up the series.
“There was a huge leap of faith from everyone,” says Vyshnevska. “There was a lot of passion, a lot of belief and then it just happened. The creative team had so little time that I don’t know how they did it. Everyone was giving 200%.”
On the ground, the production was overseen by Vyshnevska and Anna Eliseeva as producers alongside showrunner Anastasiia Lodkina. In making the series, Lodkina felt it was important to talk about not only death in a time of war but also life and the people who live against the backdrop of conflict.
“They stayed with their children and their animals and stayed to do the work that still needs to be done. But the lives of these people are not just all drama,” she says. “There is a place for love, everyday things, minor conflicts, humour and a lot of space for hope that everything will be fine.”
The stories that make up the series include one about Eurovision superstar Verka Serduchka, who stayed alone in the very centre of Kyiv and live-streamed online almost every day. Another is about a friend of Lodkina who had to take shelter with her two children, her husband and her ex-husband.
“I offered a set of stories to the directors and they either chose something from the list or offered their own story,” Lodkina says. “As a result, three directors wrote the stories on their own, and in those cases our showrunning and production intervention was minimal. Our goal was to give them creative freedom to maximise the realisation of their voice. I wrote two stories myself and co-wrote one more. These stories were adapted into films by directors with whom I really wanted to work.”
But while the scripts were being written, Eliseeva wondered whether it would even be possible to produce the series amid the constant stream of attacks on the Ukrainian capital. “There was a lot of stress and responsibility because we had a time limit, budget limit and human resources limit and a huge production plan,” she says. “We had six teams, shooting in two stages, so it was very stressful. I don’t know how we managed really – almost 400 people were involved in the project overall – but we did it.”
The timing of the shoot was particularly important, as the production team wanted to mirror the weather conditions from the time of the real stories. Had they missed their mark, filming would have been delayed by a full year. “But you can’t do that because this story is really topical, it has to be told now,” Vyshnevska says.
Early on in development, there were also discussions about filming Those Who Stayed in Ukraine’s southern neighbour, Moldova. But ultimately, it was important to make the series as authentic as possible. Shooting in Kyiv was the only option, but that threw up numerous logistical questions about just how the series might be shot.
Permission had to be sought from the Ukrainian military and the Kyiv city administration, while every filming location needed to be close to a bomb shelter in the event the city’s air raid sirens would begin suddenly.
“It gave us a lot of challenges to find the places we wanted, but we had four location managers – they’re the best in Kyiv – and we got everything we wanted,” Eliseeva says. “The exception was filming underground. In the case of attacks, people go underground, so we couldn’t shoot there.”
Lodkina picks up: “We were filming in Kyiv, far from the actual war zone, but there were enough challenges, working around wartime restrictions and the curfew. What if the electricity is cut off? What if there are missile attacks during the filming? What if the Russian army starts an offensive on Kyiv from Belarus? What if no one in the world is interested in our series and our stories?
“But we did it. We filmed the series, even though during one of the shooting days the whole group had to sit in a bomb shelter.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most challenging episode was In the Zoo, which was filmed at the XII Months zoo 30 kilometres north of Kyiv.
Artem Lytvinenko (The Sniffer) wrote and directed the episode, which follows what happens when the zoo is cut off from the outside world by Russian troops, putting the animals and workers in grave danger.
“When Anastasiia told me the format, I thought it was a good idea because I didn’t want to shoot a film about the war now. It’s too early,” Lytvinenko says. “We need time to think about it and reflect on it, and after a few years have passed, then we can film about the war. But stories of those who have stayed here are interesting, and I connected with guys from the zoo who told me about how they tried to save the monkeys. It was very relatable and emotional.”
Condensing the story into a 30-minute episode presented a challenge even before filming began on location at the zoo, where one worker who had been there during the real occupation was on hand to guide the production and facilitate their work with the animals, including Archie the Rhino and Lyosha the Camel.
“Once, when we finished shooting in the middle of the night, we had to stay in the zoo until the morning,” Lytvinenko says of the curfew rules. “But it wasn’t a big problem. More of a problem was that I wanted to shoot the Dnieper River. The dam was destroyed and it looks scary and really dramatic, but the military said we couldn’t shoot there because there might be bombs in the water or the lowlands.”
Meanwhile, writer Tala Prystaetska (Love in Chains) made her directorial debut with Moms. Inspired by a real couple she knew, the story introduces a young boy and his two mothers, who must decide what to do once the invasion starts but struggle to answer their son’s questions about the attack.
“All children can feel calm and safe when the adults have answers about what to do. But when the war started, we didn’t have those answers,” she says. “We only had doubts and a lot of fear. As a mother, I can say that you need to stay calm, but you know nothing, about your future or even the next few minutes. You only hear the noise of drones and helicopters, and you don’t know if it’s your last minute with your child or you have the chance to live.”
Filming during a war, Prystaetska says, is “the greatest of challenges.” Of course, safety was the top priority, not least because a child was among the leading actors on her episode, while she also couldn’t shoot scenes from a drone or at a real hospital. Care and attention were also paid to the residents in neighbouring buildings to ensure they weren’t disturbed by the production more than was necessary.
But for Prystaetska, the chance to take part in Those Who Stayed was an opportunity to tell stories about ordinary people in the most astonishing circumstances, and to bring viewers closer to the situation millions of people in Ukraine have faced over recent months.
“It is not about extraordinary people. It’s just about people who can live next to you, and maybe you could be in their place,” she says. “Everyone can understand what it is to feel in danger, to feel uncomfortable or scared. We talk about very understandable emotions. Yes, the reason is war, but it could be anything. That’s why I think it can be relatable for a lot of people.”
“We hope everyone will truly see us, free people of a free country,” adds Lodkina. “They will see that Ukraine is part of the European family, and not the little sister of the abusive neighbour state, as we ourselves and others have been convinced for many years before. They will see that we have great talent – writers, directors, actors. So let’s win first and let’s continue to be friends. Let’s make films, not war, together.”
THE STORIES OF THOSE WHO STAYED
House with the star
Written by Anastasiia Lodkina, directed by Katya Tsarik and starring Vyacheslav Dovzhenko and Viktor Zhdanov
A world-famous singer, known as his drag persona Verka Serduchka, does not run or hide from the war. Instead, he stays home alone in the very centre of Kyiv, where he live-streams every day and becomes the public symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Written by Anastasiia Lodkina, directed by Aleksey Yesakov and starring Kateryna Varchenko, Roman Lutskyi and Taras Tsymbaliuk
Olga, her two kids, her husband and her ex-husband have to live together in a tiny one-room apartment. They try hard to survive and not to kill each other in the process.
Written and directed by Tala Prystaetska and starring Oksana Zhdanova, Antonina Khyzhniak and Oleksandr Ladyka
Seven-year-old Egor lives with his two mothers, one of whom is a surgeon at the children’s hospital. Every time the air raid sirens sound, Egor puts on his bike helmet and hides in the bathroom. He is fighting with rockets, bombs and his own fears with the help of his imaginary friends – animated birds from a computer game.
In the Zoo
Written and directed by Artem Lytvinenko and starring Oleksandr Rudynskyi, Lilia Tsvelikova and Viacheslav Babenkov
Max is a zookeeper at a private zoo on the outskirts of Kyiv. He is not a fan of his job, and February 24 is supposed to be his last day. But when Russian troops surround the area and blow up a bridge, the zoo is left without electricity and food, and the animals are on the verge of death. Max wants to help, but his evacuation plan turns into a suicide mission.
Written by Sergiy Luschik, directed by Valentin Shpakov and starring Fabian Mannel and Maria Stopnik
Klaus is a young German surgeon. When the war starts, he drives to Kyiv to whisk away his Ukrainian girlfriend. But she refuses to flee, so Hans also stays, inspired by the volunteer movement, until one day he finds himself badly wounded.
Biliy (aka The Homeless)
Written and directed by Pavlo Ostrikov and starring Yaroslav Bezkorovainyi and Mykhailo Korzhanivskyi
Yura is homeless and living in his car with his 10-year-old son. He has already fled from the war once, and when it catches up with him again, he decides not to run, but to fight – for his son and for his neighbourhood. He wants to join the territorial defence forces, which proves to be difficult for a homeless person with no documents.
tagged in: Anastasiia Lodkina, Anna Eliseeva, Artem Lytvinenko, DR, Film UA, France Télévisions, Kateryna Vyshnevska, Lumière, NRK, Red Arrow Studios International, RUV, SVT, Tala Prystaetska, Those Who Stayed, YLE