'See it with my own eyes': Canadian teen in war-torn Ukraine to film documentary
There were tearful goodbyes from Max Khomenko's friends and family as they watched him head off to Ukraine's capital, a dangerous destination due to frequent air bombings from Russia.
The 19-year-old who lives in Winnipeg is a filmmaker and has set out to document the realities of the war in his homeland. The project is called "Stand Free or Submit," and will follow the story of Yaroslava, a young Ukrainian who continues her life in Kyiv amid the war.
Khomenko’s trip was planned for more than a year and is a project he holds dear.
"The day after the war started, I couldn't control myself. There were so many emotions and feelings that were going on inside my head and frankly, I didn't know how to communicate that," Khomenko told CTVNews.ca in an interview. "I realized that the best way for me to communicate and display my emotions was to turn that into my passion of filmmaking."
The Ukrainian-Canadian is the first member of his family born outside of Ukraine, which has driven him to learn more about his heritage and help others understand the impact the war is having on Ukrainians around the world.
Khomenko discovered filmmaking at the age of 15, and headed to Vancouver Film School in 2021 for a year-long program. Around the time of his graduation, Russia invaded Ukraine.
Khomenko spoke to CTVNews.ca 36 hours before he left for Kyiv, one of the hardest-hit cities in Ukraine.
DANGERS OF THE WAR ZONE
On June 6, more than 30 Russian cruise missiles and drones were shot down by Ukrainian counter-offences. It was the sixth attack in as many days on Kyiv.
The capital has been under relentless pressure since the start of the war, with officials reporting thousands of casualties and injuries over the course of more than a year across the country.
"If I were to tell you that, 'No, I'm not nervous. I'm not scared of this,' I would be lying. Frankly, I am," Khomenko said before he left. "But there's some sort of gut instinct in me. There's some sort of feeling that everything is going to be OK."
Many structures in Kyiv and across parts of Ukraine have been damaged by the fighting, including Khomenko's grandparents' home.
"My house that's in Ukraine where I grew up, it got bombed. There's no more house left," he said. "I've seen it over video, but I need to see that in reality and see it with my own eyes."
Due to safety requirements for entering a war zone, none of the 12 other crew members working on the film were able to enter Ukraine with Khomenko. He is conducting the interviews and capturing the destruction of Kyiv on his own.
Although bombings have become the new normal for many still residing in Ukraine, the dangers of travelling across the country are present in the minds of Khomenko's parents.
He told his mom just before entering the country that he may have the opportunity to film on the front lines.
"The conversation with my mom today was quite emotional when I mentioned that I was thinking about going there even just for a few hours," Khomenko said. "It was something that I see could kind of just break her heart."
But if the opportunity pans out, Khomenko says, he could not pass it up.
"Ukrainians are doing more than that."
MORE THAN A FILM
For him, the documentary project does not only represent a chance to see his homeland and the realities of the war, but also to help the people in Ukraine.
Khomenko has partnered with Zemliachky and other Ukrainian organizations to bring medical supplies, warm clothing and feminine hygiene products to soldiers.
Some soldiers, particularly women, do not have proper equipment – for example, some are wearing helmets that are too big. Running water, internet and ways to warm up are almost non-existent on the front lines as people from non-military backgrounds fight side-by-side with trained soldiers.
When the project is completed, a portion of the documentary's proceeds will also be donated back to charities working to help people across Ukraine, Khomenko said.
"I couldn't just sit back in Vancouver and live a peaceful, non-stressful life, while my friends and my family are fighting and suffering in this horrible situation," he said. "So it got to that point: I just realized that I had to do more when it comes to this situation."
DETAILS OF THE DOCUMENTARY
Although Khomenko is filming the portions inside Ukraine on his own, he has a team of 12 others who will help make the documentary a reality.
The majority of the team stayed in Vancouver, but a small crew of five – made up of producers, directors and sound engineers – travelled to Europe with Khomenko.
The crew secured funding for the project from various grants and private investors.
"It kind of feels surreal," he said. "There's no chance that I can make a project like this without the help of my team. They're so supportive, they're always willing to help me, they go out of their way consistently to make sure that this project happens."
Despite the documentary’s focus on one particular story, Khomenko says the crew has filmed people from across Canada, the U.K., Georgia and Slovakia as well, in an effort to capture the broader effects of the war.
"We also want the Western world to understand: why does this actually matter to us? Why is this war relevant?" Khomenko said. "Primarily, we're going to focus on Ukrainian life, and how that has spread beyond Ukraine's borders and affected the whole world."
A 'LIFE-CHANGING' TRIP
Although he is there to work, Khomenko cannot help but bring emotions into the situation. He believes the trip will be life-changing.
Khomenko knows how "crazy" of an idea it is for a 19-year-old to budget, shoot and create a documentary about an ongoing war.
"Like why would I leave Vancouver and do this? It doesn't make sense," he said. "Even when I tell people now, they look at me like I'm crazy. And you know, obviously, I am. But it's a crazy kind of passion."
Khomenko entered Ukraine on May 31 and stopped in Lviv, where he planned to conduct interviews with military hospital workers, journalists and people who have fled eastern Ukraine. He has budgeted for about six to eight weeks in the country as a whole to gather the material needed.
He planned to go to Kyiv next, capturing video that will and showcase the shelling happening, as well as the damage already caused. From there, he planned to head to the rural parts of Ukraine to capture how the war has impacted smaller communities.
"There have been mass graves that are found there and have been terrible war crimes committed in these towns," he said.
Finally, he plans to make his way to the bombed house his grandparents own.
"I am nervous to see it because it's one thing to hear what's happened there, it's one thing to see a few photos, (but) actually to be in that environment and to see those mass graves to see the destruction of the houses… That's what's going to make this trip very emotional, and life-changing, because we can't compare that to anything in Canada," he said.