Captive Audience: In Kyiv's Bomb Shelters, Films Are Helping People Get Through The Nights

“For the last two weeks, Ukrainians have been going through hell,” said Yana Barinova, the director of the Kyiv municipal Department of Culture. “Kyiv has become a war zone.”

The Ukrainian capital -- with a prewar population of nearly 3 million, making it the seventh-largest city in Europe -- has been a strategic target of the Russian military from the first moments of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of February 24.

In recent days, fighting in the immediate vicinity of Kyiv has intensified as Russian forces draw ever closer in an apparent effort to encircle it. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on March 11 that about 2 million people had left the city and its environs since the war began.

Those who remain spend long hours huddled in subway stations, waiting out the alarms and praying. Images from the bomb shelters shocked Maria Hlazunova, who works for the Dovzhenko Center state film archive.

“I was looking through photographs from the shelters in the subway and I saw young parents and small children who are away from home, in the night, sheltering from terror, from explosions,” she told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “It seemed to me that all of it was hard even for adults to bear, to say nothing of children…. So I thought the Dovzhenko Center could become a sort of morale shelter for the people of Kyiv.”

Together with the city administration, the archive began organizing screenings of films in the subway shelters.

“At first, we gathered together a collection of animated films that could be shown without sound,” Hlazunova explained. “So that we could show them at night when some people are sleeping, while others are unable to sleep from fear.

“These screenings are helping us stand these trying times,” she added.

Later, the archive contributed other films that could be shown with sound during the day, as well as classic Ukrainian films from the era of silent films that would be more interesting for adults during the nighttime screenings.

Barinova said her office was glad to assist with the initiative in order to help the people of Kyiv break away, at least for a while, from the “constant doom-scrolling of news feeds.”

“Our mission, as workers in the sphere of culture,” Barinova said, “is not only to save culture itself from destruction, but to save those who value it.”

“Barinova moved heaven and Earth to find us equipment that we could install in the stations,” Hlazunova recalled. “And everything got moving quickly.”

The films have been shown so far in five subway stations, with plans to expand the project to 14 more in the coming days. In some stations, film projectors and screens have been set up, while in others residents watch the films on televisions.

“Every station sets up its own program and timetable,” Hlazunova said.

The Dovzhenko Center has also compiled a list of the 20 most important Ukrainian films of the post-Soviet period in order to help foreigners come to grips with what is happening in the country now.

Since the war began, Hlazunova has spent most of her days working at a volunteer center, preparing food for civilians and soldiers alike.

“I simply go there and help out where I can,” she said. “When you are doing something with your hands, you are less afraid.”