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The Battle for Kyiv: ‘An Extraordinary Story of Resistance That Must be Remembered and had to be Told’

Journalist and filmmaker Oz Katerji talks about the importance of the Ukraine conflict, the courage of the people and how the war changed his life, ahead of the release of his documentary

British-Lebanese conflict journalist Oz Katerji in Ukraine
Journalist Oz Katerji in Sumy Oblast, northeast Ukraine in March 2024. Photo: @arnauddedecker

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The resistance Ukrainians put up, and continue to put up, in the face of brutal and relentless attacks by Russia is “extraordinary”, journalist Oz Katerji says – and that’s exactly why he had to document it.

“It’s something that should be remembered and talked about and taught in history classes for generations to come,” Oz told Byline Times of Ukraine’s fight to expel Russia from Kyiv and its ongoing battle against the invaders.

With the support of Byline Media, the British-Lebanese reporter is set to release, The Battle of Kyiv, which premiers at Prince Charles Cinema, London, on April 29. Tickets are available here. It will soon be available on Byline.TV

It was filmed in Kyiv during the first few months of the invasion that began on 24 February 2022 – in what was the largest attack on a European country since World War II – and tells the story of Sviatoslav Yurash, the youngest parliamentarian in Ukraine’s history, and a group of volunteers, including his parliamentary assistants Kateryna and Yurii, as they take up arms to repel the Russian invaders and defend their city.

In a Q&A with the filmmaker below, he explains he came across Yurash, “a sort of cross between a Shoreditch hipster and an Islington goth” who was “armed to the teeth” and how he had to put aside his opposing political views, to follow him, and in doing so formed an indescribable bond: “We nearly died together. We survived together.”

The Battle of Kyiv documents the entire fight for the Ukrainian capital, from the days leading up to the invasion until its final liberation on 2 April 2022. As the Russians begin to circle the city, on 25 February 2022, Sviatoslav and his team hastily gather aid and deliver it to the embattled areas surrounding the capital, crossing active frontlines, and witnessing ordinary life descend into chaos.

When Russian troops are finally expelled, the volunteers discover the devastation left in its wake and the full horror of their crimes against humanity.

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Oz explains below what life is really like in Ukraine and how he went about making the documentary as hundreds of thousands of people died around him. More than half a million people have been killed or seriously injured as the war reached the two-year mark in February, according to Western intelligence estimates

US officials, in August, put the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at 70,000, and as many as 120,000 injured. Russia is said to have lost 180,000 soldiers and tens of thousands more have been injured.

Q: What is the situation in Ukraine at the moment?

A still from the documentary, showing a Ukrainian tank. Photo: Oz Katerji

“I just got back off the frontline. I was on the Eastern Front for a few days, seeing the Ukrainians digging a new trench line, seeing the morgues, the fresh soldiers and the soldiers’ corpses that have been brought off the frontline. And I got to understand some of the ammunition shortages. Ukraine is in a bad state at the moment, and it’s in a bad state for one reason, it’s not because they’re prosecuting the war badly or because their soldiers lack the will to fight or because they lack manpower, it’s because they’re being starved of ammunition by Western political issues that have nothing to do with Ukraine.

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This is all domestic stuff happening, particularly in the United States. That lack of ammunition coming here is costing Ukrainian lives. And this is happening because Russia is not having these problems with ammunition. They’re relying on North Korea and Iran, places that they can find all of the ammunition for their ex-Soviet equipment. Whereas Ukraine is struggling to get both ex-Soviet shells and NATO standard shells. So it’s not going great for Ukraine. That said, they may lose some territory, but I don’ think there’s an imminent danger of what happened in Kyiv at the beginning happening again in terms of the Russians getting so close.

“What happened in Kyiv is really a once in a lifetime scenario, which is why I’m hoping that the film will go some way to telling that story for people and to remind people just how extraordinary the the resistance that the Ukrainians put up here really was. It’s something that should be remembered and talked about and taught in history classes for generations to come”

Oz Katerji

(Over the weekend the US House of Representatives finally approved more than $61 billion worth of military assistance to help Ukraine fight Russia. The Senate is set to begin considering the bill this week and final passage is expected next week, which would clear the way for Joe Biden to sign it into law.)

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Q: Tell me about what happened during those early days of the war in Kyiv, and the process of documenting it

“I’ve made films before, much smaller films, I’ve done packages and VTEs for broadcast channels, I’ve made mini documentaries for Vice. But I’d never done anything at full feature length before. So I was I was going into this quite green as a filmmaker, even though I’ve been a journalist for 15 years. And when I came to Ukraine before the full-scale invasion, I was expecting there to be a war. I know that a lot of people did not expect a war. And even the people that did expect a war, they did not expect Russia to try and take Kyiv the way they did.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine after launching his full-scale invasion. Photo: The Battle for Kyiv

I had no illusions of what was about to happen. I fully expected the Russians to target Kyiv and to try and capture the city because it was fundamental to toppling the Ukrainian government and decapitating the Ukrainian state. So I just wanted to bring my camera and film alongside the other work that I was doing, which was mainly writing broadcast radio, that sort of thing. So I took my camera with me everywhere I went.

“The story of what happened in this beautiful city is well known. The horrors that were inflicted on the people here are also well-known. But in February 2022, we had no idea how this was going to unfold. We had no idea what was going to happen next. So we had no way of really preparing for it – how do you prepare for a major land invasion?

“It’s something that we haven’t really seen for most of the last century, so it really felt like something from another century. So, we didn’t know what each day would hold”

Oz Katerji

“Every day, I would wake up in the morning, I’d look out my window and see that I was still there, and the buildings around me were still there, and that Kyiv remained strong and unconquered. 

“Each day, I would go out in the morning, and I’d spend all day out on the road, talking to people shooting what I could, some days were better than others, some days were bad. Some days, we had good, really good access, and we could get right up to wherever we wanted to go. And some days, we would spend six hours in the car driving somewhere, only to be told that we weren’t allowed to go there and then drive him back. One of the interesting aspects of it is, I would judge the day based on whether I had something to report at the end of it normally, in the form of an article, the articles I published for New Lines Magazine and Rolling Stone are a good example of those.

The Battle of Kyiv premiers at Prince Charles Cinema, London, on April 29.

Tickets are available here. It will soon be available on Byline.TV

But in the process of making the film, some of those days where we got nothing really of any importance to me, personally speaking, were some of the really strong material that we ended up using in the film, because what they displayed were the really human moments. The emotions and reactions on people’s faces. The kinds of thing that I wasn’t prepared to try and film at the time, because as a newbie filmmaker, all I was carrying about was the big stuff, you know. Now, I don’t consider it little stuff at all, the more human element of the war, the way people are living through this reacting and surviving all this horror around them. Those ended up being particularly powerful bits that I’m so glad they are in the film.

“Looking back, I don’t consider those days where we travelled six hours and didn’t get somewhere a waste because if I managed to get one shot of someone’s face that tells the story better than a narrator could… then we’ve done what we’ve set out to do”

Oz Katerji

“I didn’t go into this, trying to make a documentary, which made the process of making the documentary harder because we had to craft a narrative afterwards that I hadn’t planned in advance when I was filming it all. But hopefully, when the audience sits down and watches it, they see that there is a strong narrative there that follows the Battle of Kyiv from the beginning of the war to now, and I hope that people can take away from that some of what it was like to experience one of the worst conflicts of the 21st century.”

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Q: A lot of the film centres around Sviatoslav Yurash and his team, tell me about them. 

“I didn’t know who Sviatoslav was when I arrived in Ukraine. One of the first days when the war began, the Airbnb that I was staying at was quite close to a police station. And as I was walking around in the morning, I saw this really tall blond man wearing a trench coat. He was holding an AK-47. He looked like a sort of cross between a Shoreditch hipster and an Islington goth. But he was armed to the teeth and he had a crew with him and I just thought, Who is this guy? So I went up to him and I asked him, who are you? He’s like, ‘my name is Sviatoslav Yurash. I’m a member of parliament. I serve in Zelensky’s party and I’m just bringing my team down to the police station so they can pick up their rifles and guns because we’re going to the frontlines’. As a British person, this was crazy to me. That’s a Member of Parliament. And to be arming themselves and heading towards a frontline. I can’t even imagine it happening in Britain. But it was happening here in Ukraine. So I said to him, look, I’m a journalist. I don’t have great access, at the moment, we’re all under curfew. But if you are going places, and you wouldn’t mind having a journalist with you, give me a shout.

“I saw this really tall blond man wearing a trench coat. He was holding an AK-47. He looked like a sort of cross between a Shoreditch hipster and an Islington goth. But he was armed to the teeth and he had a crew with him and I just thought, Who is this guy?”

Oz Katerji

“I didn’t think much of it after that point. I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. But within a day or so he called me and said, ‘Where are you, we’re coming to pick you up, we’re going to the frontline’. That was really the start of the relationship that we had together. As I briefly mentioned in the film… once I met Sviatoslav, I Googled him, I saw some of the political positions that he holds on things like gay marriage, things that I completely disagree with. I’m very socially liberal. So outside of this conflict, Sviatoslave is probably someone who I would consider a political opponent. But in this conflict, suddenly I’m there with these Ukrainian men and women who are risking everything to defend their homes. You grow a real respect for people in that position.

“If you survive a war with someone, you form a kind of bond with them that is difficult to describe to an outsider. You know, we nearly died together. We survived together”

Oz Katerji

It was an honour to be able to tell at least part of Sviatoslave’s story. He is the main character in the film, and most of the other characters are members of his team who were going forward to the frontline doing humanitarian missions, getting food to people, getting soldiers equipment, whatever they could think of to do. They were doing it. As a parliamentarian, he could go beyond checkpoints that lots of people were struggling to get beyond. So yeah, that’s why he became a main character in the film and I hope that people can judge him fairly by the words that he says and the actions that he takes, rather than you know, what he represents as a politician. For the film, I’m not so much interested in the domestic politician but a young man in one of the most extraordinary situations that can ever happen to someone.

Q: How do you think the defence of Kyiv so early on in the conflict informed the way the war has gone since?

A Ukrainian soldier is pictured next to damaged Russian tanks in Ukraine in September 2022. Photo: CTK/ Alamy

“It showed the world just how remarkable the Ukrainian people were. Just what they were made of. Their bravery, their defiance, their courage, the audacity, they had to resist a global power. To take on one of the largest armies in the world to push them back into a fight for their lives. I think it showed that spirit. I also think that once the danger towards Kyiv had passed, and it didn’t pass by accident, it passed because of the sacrifice of lives made by Ukrainian men and women, but some of the West lost interest. They thought Kyiv’s no longer under threat so I couldn’t care less about Donetsk. It’s that attitude. I think that part has been damaging, I think people have started to pay less and less attention to Ukraine, because they think that the war is confined to the east and that the east is this sort of grey no man’s land that’s basically part Russian anyway. These ideas couldn’t be further from the reality on the ground here.

“It showed the world just how remarkable the Ukrainian people were. Just what they were made of. Their bravery, their defiance, their courage, the audacity, they had to resist a global power”

Oz Katerji

But these are still misconceptions that some people have. And I think that the the joy and triumph of the victory here in Kyiv, will will be remembered for generations. But at the same time, it’s allowed some people in Western countries to think, why does this matter? It matters because Ukraine can fight because it’s being patronised by Western countries, they provide it with arms it needs to fight a much larger power. So why do voices in Western countries matter? Because those are democracies and the politicians they elect dictate those policies going forward. So I do think that there is an element that the victory and Kyiv made people think that the danger was was alleviated somewhat here in Ukraine. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. Ukrainians are still fighting for their lives out here right now and and I really hope that this film really centres the Ukrainian people, and just what is happening here.

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Q: What do you hope the audience will take away from this film?

“A line at the end of the film that really resonated with me was Yuri, one of the main characters, saying that if more heroes aren’t being sent to heaven, that Ukraine will be occupied by Russia, and puts it in really stark terms. What’s happening here is a catastrophe. It’s a disaster. And it’s a horror, and it’s a tragedy. The courage and the defiance of the Ukrainian people defending their homes is a lesson that I think the entire world would benefit from. But the need for a Ukrainian victory in this war cannot be understated either.

“This is a war for Europe. It’s a war for democracy. It’s a war for our shared principles and values. And it’s a war to oppose fascism. This is an anti-fascist war”

Oz Katerji

“Really I want people to see the bravery of the Ukrainian people. This film is dedicated to them. They’ve taught me so much that I could never have known that I needed to learn. I’m learning every single day from the courage of these incredible people. So yeah, that would be what I would hope people would take away from this. I hope they will take away the courage and bravery of the Ukrainian people. how important this victory is for the future of not just Ukraine but for Europe and the rest of the liberal democratic world.”

The Battle of Kyiv premiers at Prince Charles Cinema, London, on April 29.

Tickets are available here. It will soon be available on Byline.TV

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