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by Flo Dwek

WOMEN OF MAIDAN, screening at 7 pm on March 8 at Sweetbay Yoga, 545 Westbard Ave, Bethesda, tells the story of the women’s life-supporting force, unity, courage and sacrifice during the 2013-2014 Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity.  — Sometimes standing behind the cause takes as much courage as dying for it. — For a complete list of upcoming screenings, visit Olia’s website at www.womenofmaidan.com

 

In 2002, Olha Onyshko, (or Olia, as friends call her) left her home in Kyiv, Ukraine, for Washington, DC, with her American husband, Darrin, and their one-year-old son. Darrin had just been promoted to a new position in Washington at the World Bank Group and Olia thought of the relocation as a temporary stay in the US, lasting only 3 or 4 years, at most. That thought made it easier for her to leave behind a career in broadcast journalism, marketing and communications, along with a passion for politics and grassroots organizing.

 

She was also thinking of using her time abroad to find a different way to make her voice heard back home – not through politics, but through films. As Olia adjusted to work and family life in Washington, the realities of raising two small children intervened, and it took her some time to switch to a new career in film.

 

Undaunted, Olia pursued her passion for filmmaking.  In 2009, she received an MFA in Film and Video from the American University; and in 2010, she released a feature length documentary called THREE STORIES OF GALICIA. Begun as a student thesis, it was made in collaboration with Lebanese filmmaker Sarah Farhat. The film told the story of Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish relations during World War II, a time when those living in today’s East Poland and West Ukraine were trapped between the two evils of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

 

Olia captured the stories of people who were risking their lives to save human beings and do what was right rather than what was safe and easy. THREE STORIES OF GALICIA spurred a dialogue about memory and reconciliation among the three ethnic and religious groups involved. It has since been translated into four languages and has screened in theaters, community centers, churches, and on TV stations in 12 countries.  You can see the film here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/92569 and get more info here  www.threestoriesofgalicia.com 

 

In late November, 2013, Olia got a distressing phone call from her mother in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Between sobs, her mother told Olia that students who had gathered at a rally on the main square called Maidan, were brutally beaten by special police forces, and that many young girls were among the injured. Olia was outraged and saddened and knew she had to do something. She flew back to Kyiv the next day, camera at the ready. The journey of the WOMEN OF MAIDAN had begun.

 

Olia asked her old friend Petro Didula, from her home town of Lviv and the DP of THREE STORIES OF GALICIA, to join her on the shoot in the capital. She also posted publicly on Facebook, letting people know she was starting her new film on the protest in Ukraine. Day after day, the crowds continued to swell, and by Sunday, December 8, it is estimated that up to a million people were protesting on the streets of Kyiv. After 10 days of miraculously unimpeded filming, Olia thought the protest was going to succeed and that the president, Viktor Yanukovych, was going to step down. She felt heartened and ready to return to America.

 

At the last moment, just before entering the airport, Olia decided to leave her camera with Petro. Inside the airport, she found a police raid underway, subjecting everyone there to intensive searches. Before she got to passport control, an airport official came up to her, asked for her name, shouted it to the police and pointed at her. It was clear they were looking for her camera, but she kept calm and focused.

 

As Olia put her coat on the belt to go through x-ray, she prayed that a small, external hard drive holding her entire footage, concealed in a secret pocket, would go unnoticed; incredibly, it did.

 

Later, in transit at the Vienna airport, on December 11, Olia was deeply shocked to learn from streaming news that the police had attacked and injured some of the protesters. The violence on Maidan had just begun.

 

The danger and violence on Maidan grew stronger by the day. Olia desperately wanted to go back, but was afraid she would be arrested upon arrival, since she still held Ukrainian citizenship. Shortly after that, she received a message from Petro, who said that he had been filming at Maidan and planned to do so as long as the standoff between police and the people went on.

 

Although Olia was buoyed by the news, she also felt scared and helpless.  Participating in demonstrations, protesting in front of the Ukrainian Embassy, walking through Congress, and writing letters just didn’t seem enough. The violence was escalating and there were no international interventions to condemn the human rights abuses in Yanukovych’s regime.

 

Olia remained glued to the Facebook news feed for any word of what was happening back home. When she found out that her friend, Yevhen Kuzyk, a pediatrician from her hometown, was shot by police and severely beaten while aiding the injured in Maidan, Olia felt compelled to contribute in some way.

 

Her feelings of despair spurred what seemed like an impossible idea — to bring the wounded to America. If the foreign governments of the world weren’t helping, she thought to herself, maybe ordinary people could be moved to champion their cause.

 

As someone who had witnessed the protests firsthand, Olia understood the ugly truth about what really happened to the protestors who were injured. Unable to seek medical help in the hospitals, many were kidnapped by police, and some were tortured and killed. Something had to be done, and fast.

 

Olia approached a number of Ukrainian organizations in the US with a proposal to help the injured of Maidan. As fate would have it, Zenia Chernyk, the President and Chair of the Ukrainian Federation of America, answered Olia’s call. With her help, and that of many others, a massive operation to save the wounded of Maidan commenced.

 

They used every avenue they could—private contacts, word of mouth, e-mails, private Facebook messages and Skype—to get the word out.  Slowly, one by one, the wounded started to trickle into America and received the treatment they needed.

 

During these difficult days, Olia continued to edit her documentary at her home studio in Bethesda. She also remained a key part of the diaspora women’s efforts to support women initiatives in Ukraine, particularly to help the wounded of Maidan. After Russia attacked Ukraine in April, 2014, those efforts were extended to aid the wounded of the ensuing war and its many refugees.

 

It took a little longer to finish WOMEN OF MAIDAN than Olia had expected, and the film had its world premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival in October, 2016. The film was praised for successfully following hundreds of women and the role they played during the “Revolution of Dignity”. Click here for more information about the THREE STORIES OF GALICIA. From November of 2013 through May of 2014, largely due to the women’s strength and resolve, a brutal regime was forced out, and then-Ukranian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia—leaving in his wake the deaths of more than 100 protestors, three of whom were women. You can see a trailer for the film here.

 

The resilience and determination of the women-led movement and their round-the-clock efforts was nothing short of miraculous. Young girls, their mothers, and their grandmothers helped thousands of people to remain standing in protest on Maidan throughout the intense winter. Day after day, they held fast and provided them with the resources, tools and sustenance the protesters needed to survive both the cold and the ruthless attacks by state authorities.

 

Looking back, it can be said that the women who had banded together, inspiring an entire nation to stand united in peaceful protest, gave Ukraine the will to change, survive and thrive. But sadly, their success was short lived. As the world watched, Russia attacked and occupied Crimea (March 18, 2014); and shortly after that, it attacked and occupied Eastern Ukraine (April 6, 2014).  The violence and bloodshed in that region continues to this day.  For more information about the history and details of the Russian occupations, go to: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/ukraine/politics-2014.htm

 

OLIA ONYSHKO

 

Olia has her own production company, OliaFilm, and has worked as a freelance producer, cinematographer and editor for clients including The World Bank, The Global Health Council, DKT International, John Hopkins University, The Down Syndrome Network of Montgomery County, The National Park Service, and The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.  You may contact Olia at oliafilm@gmail.com or at 202-257-7356. The website of her production company is www.oliafilm.com.

 

Olia has been recognized by both the US Congress and the Ukrainian Embassy for her collaborative efforts to rescue the wounded of Ukraine and bring them to the US for treatment. Inspired by that rescue operation, along with other events behind the scenes of WOMEN OF MAIDAN, she has begun writing a feature film script called “To Rescue Hope.”  Listen to a podcast where Olia talks about this new project: http://indieentertainmentpodcast.com/

 

Olia is grateful to scores of people in Ukraine and in the US who contributed so much to the WOMEN OF MAIDAN Project, especially Cathy Wilson, an amazing graphic artist and animator who created the website and all the graphic art for the film. Cathy can be reached at cathy@kavkia.com.