Documentary Filmmaking in a War Zone: Wounded Land
The inherent challenges documentary filmmakers face are magnified in a war zone. Most filmmakers contend with gear limitations, lack of power sources, and recording usable sound. But consider all that while moving through the rubble of a liberated town that was halfway leveled just days before.
Filmmaker Andriy Semenyuk spent part of 2022 traveling through war-torn Ukraine filming Wounded Land, a documentary that shows Ukrainian vintners and farmers keep their entrepreneurial spirit alive in the heat of a Russian invasion.
WOUNDED LAND DOCUMENTARY
Watch the trailer for Wounded Land and discover the brave Ukrainian winemakers and farmers who continue to produce their world-renown wine in the heat of an active warzone.
WOUNDED LAND DIDN’T ORIGINATE AS A WAR DOC
The film’s director, Roman Zajac, first approached Andriy in October of 2021, a couple of months before the war. His vision was to film a feature documentary on the culture of the winemaking regions of Ukraine.
No one expected the ongoing conflict would turn into a major war so they planned to start filming in February. The idea was to film Ukrainian winemakers in the western and southwestern parts of Ukraine as the country is known for its winemaking tradition that spans thousands of years.
When in post-production at the beginning of 2022, they were stunned by the outbreak of the war. At the time, Andriy was in Los Angeles when he received a call from the film’s executive producer, Scott Marshutz. The two had a professional history on a separate documentary project and so they discussed their options for what was to be their next. At the time, there was the feeling that something ought to be done. Many Ukrainians united, some on the battlefield while others supported the cause in their own way.
With that spirit, Andriy then called Roman and they decided to proceed with their project and capture the winemakers amidst the war, and just like that, Wounded Land became its own unique story.
What originally was a short doc grew into a rich and textured feature film. Andriy and his small team traveled through the western and central parts of Ukraine, then to Kyiv, eventually moving south down to the front lines, and around Odesa, making a big loop. Some of the regions were under occupation, other territories were just liberated, and all the while they filmed wine and agricultural producers.
THE CHALLENGES OF FILMING IN A WAR ZONE
On the ground, the crew was small and 100% Ukrainian so they were not necessarily outsiders or required a fixer to take them around. Instead, Andriy recruited his nephew who lives in Kyiv and has a four-wheel drive SUV, and he served as their “fixer.” For the majority of production it was just the three of them: Andriy as the cinematographer, Roman as director, and Andriy’s cousin as their driver.
When operating around a warzone, the filmmakers had to be malleable to their conditions. Overall, planning was unpredictable. They would call their subjects as they were on the way, and confirm whether they were to meet at a certain location.
For instance, there was a moment in the film when they traveled to a warehouse not far from Kyiev that was rented by a major Ukrainian wine importer. A few days earlier, the Russian troops surrounded the entire perimeter — about the size of ten Costcos — and they leveled the structure.
“We came there, literally, when no one was there yet,” recalls Andriy. “It was still smoldering and still all this major destruction.”
They coordinated with the owner and later received entry around the property following their initial coverage of it after the Ukrainians kicked out the Russian troops.
That was just the nature of their production. They would travel to a destination never knowing where they would stay the night. When they went to Mykolaiv (the southern part of Ukraine), they were only a couple of kilometers away from the front line. The Russians took out the water system and so the city had not had water for over a week. Meanwhile, Andriy and his team cramped together in a tiny hostel and only had some plastic water bottles to drink from and wash with.
“You know, they still fixed us breakfasts, then at night the sky was bright from the missiles and you just hope for the best.” —Andriy Semenyuk
CAMERA, GEAR & EQUIPMENT
Andriy and Roman spent three weeks on the ground in production and they frequently circled back for more coverage. Ultimately, the filmmakers had to keep a small footprint.
One of the most difficult decisions when planning production was deciding on what gear to take that would A.) be inconspicuous, and B.) deliver high-quality results. Andriy settled on the Sony FX6 Cinema Camera along with two zoom lenses, a matte box, and a couple of filters. In addition to that, he carried a tripod, some small accessories, and a little drone for aerial cinematography, but that was essentially it.
Andriy even feared a larger monitor would draw too much attention, so he just stuck with the small LCD screen on the camera. This meant Andriy had no room for lighting gear so he had to work with the available natural light.
“I had to utilize what is natural,” says Andriy, “and just naturally have some negative fill and source and key, [and use it whichever way I could]. Of course, this documentary is more forgiving but I still want it to look good.”
Filming Permits in a War Zone
Now, as you can imagine, working in a warzone is especially sensitive and they had to apply for and receive a permit from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. While flying a drone required an extra permit, they took their chances and were able to quickly use it if they were early on the scene of where the Russians had recently occupied. Then, they just filmed the scene as it was and captured the raw and sober destruction.
Since they didn’t have much gear, it was really difficult to watch dailies and know if what they had was usable. Andriy brought a small laptop that wasn’t the most reliable. They did their best to review the footage and see if anything was missing and as they circled back around they would pick up any additional coverage they needed.
In the face of artillery fire and explosions, the sound was a big challenge. They recorded sound with a Zoom recorder as well as in-camera with an onboard mic. Luckily, they worked with an amazing post-production house out of Krakow, Poland that worked its magic to fix the sound quality.
THE IMPACT OF FILMMAKERS ACADEMY
Andriy Semenyuk has been a Filmmakers Academy member for two years. Before he was a member, he had heard about Filmmakers Academy but didn’t realize the depth and the treasure trove of knowledge that we offer.
“I started digging a little bit deeper after I saw incredible content and educational resources that you would not be able to get anywhere else. I think there’s no exaggeration because I don’t know any other platform that offers essential information for cinematographers, directors, and camera assistants. Yeah, of course, you can browse YouTube but it doesn’t have the structure and authority of tried and tested techniques for professional results.”
What is particularly interesting to Andriy is how hands-on the content feels and how we now offer our members networking calls and group coaching sessions with mentors.
In fact, Andriy feels like a kid in a candy store when it comes to Shane Hurlbut, ASC’s lighting content. It helped inform his lighting decisions and how he shaped the natural light to his advantage. He notes that like anything else you have to practice but then if you forget, it’s an integral resource to have at your fingertips.
What Andriy likes about the lighting is how it serves as a solid starting point for your project. Whether you are filming a horror movie or a high or low-key commercial, you can simply navigate to the Lighting category to find training videos to do just that.
Even if you don’t have a professional crew like Shane’s, Andriy notes that you can take what you learn and apply it on a smaller scale. “It’s a safety precaution, too,” explains Andriy. “Filmmakers Academy provides a backbone of industry-tested approaches that you can continue to build from. If you’re not sure about something, you can ask questions which is super important.”
Andriy keeps a notepad from the notes he takes during the courses and highlights aspects of diffusion, lenses, filters, and the myriad of insights he learns from camera, lens, and filter tests. “I’m really addicted to Shane’s ways of digital diffusions. I use it personally, actually, in this film in Ukraine.”
LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS
Andriy was one of the lucky Filmmakers Academy members selected to help Shane Hurlbut, ASC on the Creating LUTs: RED V-Raptor livestream. “It was mesmerizing and beautiful because we tested the LUTs in different environments,” Andriy recalls.
Cinematographers often deal with a catch-22 scenario if they want representation. If you’re not busy, they’re not looking for you. But how do you get busy enough so they look at you? And to Andriy, it’s all about utilizing the right resources, constantly considering your next step, networking for opportunities, and even creating your own projects.
One of the things that really stands out to Andriy about Filmmakers Academy is our open and welcoming environment. Especially, when it comes to the approach of cinematography mentor, Shane Hurlbut, ASC. “He’s just this chill guy who offers all his experience on the table. You can ask him whatever stupid question you think up, but he will answer authentically and without judgment. It’s really good.”
SUPPORT THE PROJECT
Wounded Land was picked up by a distributor at the beginning of 2023 and details about the film’s global release and, most importantly, how you can view it, will be released later this year.
That said, Andriy and Roman have screened the film at Harvard University and are preparing for their Los Angeles premiere this coming week. If you are in the Los Angeles area and want to attend, please find the details below:
- Location: UCLA in the James Bridges Theater
- Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2023
- Time: 7:00 PM
The filmmakers are also considering screenings in San Francisco and Seattle. So, if you reside in those areas, reach out to Andriy Semenyuk (@andriy.fm on Instagram) and show your interest and support.
“It will be great to see people come and have a discussion. Filmmaking is a powerful way to tell a story and once the story is on screen, it will have an impact and an effect. And then, we can not just promote it but explain the importance of the story and why it actually affects not just people in Ukraine but the global community.” —Andriy Semenyuk
If you are interested in donating to Andriy’s project, you can scan the QR code below: