Special project 16:36 11 Dec 2023

Raped in occupation: Ukrainian producer creates documentary about the consequences of three wars

Three completely different wars, but the common pain is sexual violence in the occupation. Oksana Ivantsiv, the producer and founder of the non-governmental organization ArtsRights, decided to draw attention to this problem and show healing through the documentary film "Women Occupied." She told Rubryka about the idea of the movie, the work on it, and the storyline.

"I had a heavy heart"

Oksana Ivantsiv, a human rights activist and producer of documentaries, felt the consequences of the war with Russia back in 2014 when hostilities began in Ukraine's east. Then, she initiated projects that helped veterans adapt to a peaceful life. Psychological and legal assistance was provided to them and their families.

On February 24, 2022, Ivantsiv and her 3-year-old daughter were at her parents' house in the Ternopil region. She came to them to celebrate her mother's birthday. The human rights defender learned about the events of that morning from the news.

"Then I woke up at 4.45 a.m. for some reason. I saw strange posts on social networks about the last moments of peace. I had a heavy heart, and somewhere in my subconscious, I felt something was happening. I started looking for news, and I read about the shelling of all the regional centers of Ukraine. That's how I learned about the beginning of a full-scale invasion," Ivantsiv recalls.

In a few days, she and her child came to a friend in Poland, and then she received a scholarship from the Artists at Risk program. Within its limits, Ivantsiv got an internship at the ZKM-Center of Contemporary Art and Media — a well-known art institution in Europe. In the spring of 2022, she left for Karlsruhe in Germany, where she still lives.

"One of the reasons I agreed to this scholarship and temporary move to Germany is because I work in the field of culture. I decided I could be useful by telling foreigners about Ukraine, passing on our experience, and spreading Ukrainian culture," explains the producer.

Документальні фільми про війну в Україні

Oksana Ivantsiv with her daughter at the Red Dot award ceremony in Berlin in 2022 for the project "What is it to remember," dedicated to the memory of the Ukrainian military. Photo from the heroine's archive

What is the problem?
Misunderstanding of all the realities of the war in Ukraine

Finding herself in Germany in the first months of the full-scale invasion, Ivantsiv constantly told the locals about the war in Ukraine and its consequences. She noticed their confused look: "I understood that what I say to them does not resonate because they do not have similar historical experience to understand what we feel."

According to her observations, much attention was paid abroad to pacifism (the ideology of condemnation of any war, — ed.) and the consequences of World War II. This caused a panicked fear of war among foreigners. Despite this, most people abroad perceive it only as military action.

"I felt how important it is to talk about our experience, finding some bridges of history that will explain our context and realities. After drawing parallels between the German occupation and Ukrainian realities, I saw how it is possible to convey the truth about the events in Ukraine on a deeper level and help foreigners understand us," the producer emphasizes.

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Oksana Ivantsiv with a poster calling to end support for Russia. Photo from the Internet

What is the solution?
Show the war through the experience of women

During her internship, the producer began working on the documentary "Women Occupied," which explains that war is not only combat operations. She decided to reveal the topic through the stories of three women who survived sexual violence in the occupation during three different wars.

"We can show that war is also about vulnerable and unprotected people in the occupied territories. Their traumatic experiences are often simply silenced. In the film, the problem is depicted through sexual violence against Ukrainian, Bosnian, and German heroines. The main goal is to show their healing after a year, 30 years, and more than 70," says the producer.

Ivantsiv started making documentaries in 2017. In 2020, she founded the non-governmental organization ArtsRights, which, even before Russia's full-scale invasion, highlighted topics important to society and carried out advocacy campaigns through documentary projects.

So far, Ivantsiv, as an executive producer, has managed to create two movies — "Invisible Battalion" (2017) and "There are no obvious manifestations" (2018). She is also finishing work on the television project "Millennium War" about historical Russian-Ukrainian relations, the documentary film "Above All" about a veteran Mykola Mykytenko, who died after self-immolation on the Independence Square in 2020, and the film "Not at All Scary film" about palliative patients in Ukraine. Currently, Ivantsiv continues to work on the documentary "Women Occupied," which is still being filmed.

Документальні фільми про війну в Україні

Oksana Ivantsiv. Photo from the heroine's archive

"I'm doing what I was doing before February 24. It's just that I'm not physically in Ukraine at the moment. This does not prevent me from doing what I am good at and love," the producer emphasizes.

Ivantsiv is sure that "Women Occupied" will not only depict occupation and violence. In addition, the film destigmatizes women who went through sexual violence and, using the examples of heroines, will show ways to overcome a traumatic experience.

"Already closer to finishing the work on the film, we are also thinking of making an impact campaign in support of women who have experienced sexual violence. It's clear that they face numerous problems that need to be spoken out in society and shown to support them and help these women recover," the producer adds.

Tetiana Hanzha, co-director of the documentary film "Women Occupied," says that now society has a misunderstanding of why women were in captivity. They can be stigmatized and treated with disrespect. They may ask why they did not leave the occupied territory. However, this is not a guarantee of avoiding war-related sexual violence. Forced exposure and inspection often take place at checkpoints. Such questions trigger and hurt women as if they are to blame for what happened to them. Therefore, the planned impact campaign for wider circles will highlight the problems and explain how to talk to the traumatized about their experiences.

The book inspired the movie idea

On the eve of the full-scale invasion, Ivantsiv started reading the book "Woman in Berlin" and took it to her parents. The plot revolved around German women who survived violence by the Soviet army. The producer recalls that the book made a strong impact on her.

Документальні фільми про війну в Україні

The book "Woman in Berlin". Photo from the Internet

"The author of the book describes some terrible events — shelling, sitting in basements, lack of food, and rape. Despite all this, she desperately wants to live. She makes a plan in her head about how she should survive in these completely wild circumstances. Despite the terrible events around her, the heroine rejoices in simple things, like a green tree. A book describes terrible things, but at the same time, it was life-affirming for me," explains the human rights activist.

Documentary director Tetiana Hanzha also read this book. She was inspired and called Ivantsiv with an idea for a documentary performance, where a Ukrainian actress would read the testimony of a German woman during the occupation, and the German actress would read the testimony of a Ukrainian woman. The project was transformed through joint efforts into the documentary film "Women Occupied," which depicts different wars and stories of women united by a common traumatic experience.

"Ivantsiv has experience working with projects on socially important topics. For our project, it is important to create a dialogue on the topic of sensitivity, perception, and comprehensive support of women with experience of war-related violence", Hanzha emphasizes.

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Documentary director and co-director of "Women Occupied" Tetiana Hanzha. Photo from the Internet

The work on the movie

Work on the tape "Women Occupied" began from the first days of the war and continues to this day. Before filming, Ivantsiv and the team spent about a year researching various wars and looking for heroines.

"Unfortunately, there have been many wars worldwide, even in the last 100 years. We studied the history of wartime sex crimes in different countries. It helped us understand how to build a plot for the film. In the end, we stopped at our Ukrainian-Russian, German-Soviet, and Yugoslav wars," the producer notes.

After that, the search for heroines who would agree to talk about their experience of sexual violence began. The producer recalls that it was not easy to find heroines for two reasons.

"First of all, most women do not want to talk about it. Secondly, the heroines are afraid of re-traumatization, which often happens due to the unscrupulous work of journalists who pursue sensations," the human rights activist emphasizes.

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Screenshot from the video appeal of the directors of "Women Occupied" regarding the search for heroines for the film.

Organizations that help women after sexual violence do not share the contacts of their clients. Therefore, Ivantsiv and her team searched for future heroines through appeals and open online forms. The Ukrainian heroine was found thanks to the organization SEMA Ukraine, which fights against sexual violence during the war.

"There were various interviews on their page, and when we saw Lyudmyla, we realized that she was our heroine. She is such an open person you want to watch, winning attention and trust. We managed to get in touch with her, and she agreed to participate," says the producer.

Filming of the heroine began in the summer of 2023, as the heroine spent a year undergoing psychotherapy sessions for recovery. Ivantsiv recalls that they waited until the filming would be safe for Lyudmyla and she would feel enough strength to discuss her experiences.

Lyudmyla is an activist and the protagonist of the film. She spent three years in captivity for her pro-Ukrainian activities in the occupied territory. Now, the heroine is recovering and, with her lawyer, is taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights. With her family, Lyudmyla starts life in a new city, fights for the liberation and rights of civilian women in captivity, and actively works in the organization SEMA Ukraine, which unites women who have experienced war-related sexual violence.

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Still shot from the teaser for the movie "Women Occupied."

Finding a German heroine was also not easy. Ivantsiv admits that since the events are very old, the women are either dead or old. Eliza was eventually found in Stuttgart. Her two aunts had survived sexual abuse after the end of World War II when Germany was under the control of the Allies and their armies. And although this topic was kept quiet in the family, after the death of one aunt, Eliza found her diaries, from which she learned about the rape she had experienced. In the film, Eliza talks about her observations about the impact of sexual violence on her aunt's life.

"We haven't filmed our Bosnian heroine yet, but I think we will soon. We are in contact with one organization that helped us to find three women, but we haven't met them yet," Ivantsiv explained.

Movie presentation

On November 13, a "Women Occupied" chamber screening took place in Kyiv. Then, the audience was shown individual scenes and frames from the film, as it was still unfinished. After the presentation, there was an expert discussion, "Occupied: women who have survived sexual violence regain their dignity and justice."

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Presentation of footage from the film "Women Occupied" in Kyiv. Photo: Facebook/Arts&Rights

"This is such a first meeting with the audience, so we made a small show. After the screening, there was a discussion about the restoration of justice and the psychological state of women who experienced sexual violence. We also discussed the problem that women often do not turn to justice in this case," explains the producer.

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Discussion after viewing. Photo: Facebook/Arts&Rights

In particular, on the page of the Tribunal for Putin initiative, more than 57,000 war crimes have been recorded, and only 23 are related to rape, Ivantsiv notes. She emphasizes that these are not real numbers. In fact, there must be many more cases.

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Screenshot from the page Tribunal for Putin with statistics on war crimes.

"We understand that the justice process can be traumatic for them. Now, changes to the legislation are being developed to make the process more rational. For our impact campaign, this event showed what we should work on. Most women are simply afraid to ask for help," emphasizes Ivantsiv.

One of the tasks of the film "Women Occupied" is to show that raped women should not be ashamed of what happened to them because it is not their fault, explains the producer. She emphasizes that you must be very strong to overcome what you have experienced.

"The movie is currently in early production. That is, we have already collected some material. We will watch the heroines for at least a year because their lives will somehow develop. We will watch how they change," shares the human rights activist.

As a producer, Ivantsiv promotes the film, looks for financing and partners, and deals with the entire team's coordinated work. Currently, one of her main tasks at this stage is to present the film at various art workshops.

Документальні фільми про війну в Україні

Oksana Ivantsiv at the Ukrainian-German conference for City4City mayors in Stuttgart. Photo from open sources

"It is important for us now that this film is known in the professional community because this way, we get the attention, reviews, and consultations that we need. When I come to industrial events, it is important for me to show what is special about this project and why it deserves attention among competitors," the producer emphasizes.

It is planned to complete work on the film at the end of 2024 and to present it to the general public already in 2025, says the producer. "Women Occupied" is initially planned to be shown at an international film festival and later broadcast on television and put online. So far, the film has already been financed by the Institute of Human Science, the Ukrainian Cultural Fund, and the German TV channel SWR. "Women Occupied" is also one of the 12 projects selected by ARTE and the Ukrainian Institute to participate in the Generation Ukraine program.

Documentary after the victory

Ivantsiv is already thinking about returning to Ukraine soon. She believes in Ukraine's victory and is convinced that after the cessation of hostilities, films will be made more specifically about the consequences of the war.

"We will live with all that we have had to experience over the years. I think talking it all out and fixing it will be very important. There will be people with very different experiences. Someone was serving, someone volunteered, someone was in captivity, someone lost relatives, and someone moved abroad. It will be very important for all those people to learn to hear each other," says Ivantsiv.

Документальні фільми про війну в Україні

Oksana Ivantsiv. Photo of the heroine

Although she has not yet made specific plans for a documentary after the victory, the producer is sure it will be about the mutual understanding of people with different war experiences.

Ivantsiv is convinced that documentary films allow the viewer to live, feel, and get to know an experience that could not be available to them on a rational and emotional level:

"That's why I love documentaries; they are very true," the producer emphasizes.


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