UKRAINE: Child coal mining film banned at Kyiv festival

[30 March 2012] - After scooping 10 awards at international festivals, a Ukrainian-Estonian documentary on child labour in abandoned mines finally made it home to Ukraine.

It was scheduled to premiere at an international documentary festival on March 24. But instead, in a bizarre and unprecedented turn of events, “Pit Number 8” was banned by its own Ukrainian producer.

“This film is deceitful and staged. It has nothing to do with documentaries and human rights issues,” said Interfilm production studio, the Ukrainian co-producers of the film, in a letter sent to Docudays Festival organisers, just an hour before the premiere was scheduled for screeing.

“Your festival would violate copyright if the film is shown at the festival,” the letter read.

The ban outraged festival organisers and heroes of the film that came to Kyiv for the premiere.

“We’re shocked,” said Yura Sykanov, a 19 year-old with a childish face, who was the central character in the documentary. He said the film took 1.5 years to make, and the Ukrainian producer, Olena Fetisova, was only taking part in the production at the early stages.

“How can she say that it was staged?” he asked.

The film is set around the Sykanov family, and shows the tragic demise of Ukraine’s coal mining in Donetsk region in the 1990-2000s, when the desperate residents of the town of Snezhnoe started digging for coal illegally and just about everywhere.

They dug under the basements of demolished buildings, in old dilapidated mines and even in their own back yards to get some coal and sell it to survive. Child labour was not uncommon then.

Since the film was shown for the first time in 2010, Yura Sykanov’s mother was deprived of parental rights for neglecting her children, and his younger sister was sent to an orphanage. Criminal cases were opened against some owners of illegal mines.

Talking to the Kyiv Post on March 26, Sykanov indeed looked like a person whose childhood was troubled, and who received very little formal education. He told his story calmly. His father died when he was 11. His mother remarried, but was a heavy drinker and often left himself and two of his sisters surviving on bread and water.

“I had a choice – to steal or work, and decided to work,” he says with pride.

He was 15 at the time, and dreamed about opening his own cafe. He worked in abandoned mines, and that’s where he met Marianna Kaat, an Estonian film director who was looking for a hero for her new documentary.

The scene of her meeting Yura for the first time, where he guides her to the illegal mines, was filmed and later also used in the movie.

Kaat, who came to Kyiv to present the film at Docudays Festival, decided to screen it despite the ban. She came on stage and said she would take personal responsibility for it.
“I’ve decided to let the public judge the film,” she explained.

“Moreover, they [Interfilm] do not have the exclusive right for the festival screenings of the film,” she said. She also said the accusations in the letter were lies.

Interfilm could not comment on the situation by the time Kyiv Post went to press.

The documentary was funded by the Estonian Film Foundation and Ministry of Culture. It also received some financial assistance from the European Visual Art Support Foundation, and a US-based non-profit organisation.

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