Memory, reconciliation, and humanity in the Volhynia massacres
An interview with Wanda Koscia, director and producer of the documentary film “My Friend the Enemy.”
Summer 2013, western Ukraine. The film crew joins a group of Poles on a trip to Volhynia, Ukraine, where in 1943 tens of thousands of Polish villagers were massacred within a few months. The deaths were an organized act of ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian nationalists. Seventy years later, these people have returned to visit the villages they fled, now mostly empty fields, where they meet their former neighbors.
The Ukrainians and Poles in this documentary tell stories of horrific slaughter. Complex and moving relationships are described between people who had lived along side each other for centuries. Some had risked their lives to save their neighbors and friends. At that time, Poles in this area, Poland’s eastern borderlands, were regarded as enemies by the Banderites – the followers of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. Thus, Ukrainians helping Poles risked death. In this documentary, one can see the concepts of friend and enemy blur and the voices of the protagonists flow without being interrupted by narration. The setting is a timeless lyrical rural landscape.
I had the pleasure of meeting the film’s director and producer, Wanda Koscia, a Polish-speaking British documentary filmmaker with several decades of experience researching, producing and directing documentaries for broadcasters such as the BBC, Channel 4 (UK), and Discovery. Koscia specializes in Eastern European topics, although not exclusively. Recent notable credits include an episode of Putin Russia and the West, a major four part series made for the BBC; Battle for Warsaw ‘44’, which was made for Discovery Europe and then shown on the BBC flagship history program Timewatch; and Dunkirk, the Soliders’ Story, which told the story of the British retreat to Dunkirk in 1940 and won the prestigious Grierson Award for best Historical Documentary in 2004.
Ángel López Peiró: What is the idea behind the film?
Wanda Koscia: On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Volhynian massacres, we wanted to take a new look at these appalling historical events. Many Polish documentaries have been made about the massacres, but none have so far focused on the story of Ukrainians who saved Poles from death.
What did you want to accomplish with the film?
I wanted to create awareness that the situation was not black and white; that not all Ukrainians in Volhynia were murderers, and nor was it the case that all Poles were saints. Our aim was to tell a human story of ordinary people who risked their lives to save their neighbors, even when their neighbors were said to be the enemy. We want to remember the victims, help people understand the context of these events, and notwithstanding the terrible tragedy, to convey a message of reconciliation. Sadly, this is a very universal story; we could have been filming in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda.
It is a fact that pre-war Polish governments (1918-1939) discriminated against Ukrainian minorities. Was this perhaps the main cause of massacres?
There was discrimination against the Ukrainian minority in Poland before the Second World War. Ukrainians had hoped to have their own independent state and these hopes were scuppered. To say relations were difficult is an understatement, with acts of terror being committed by both sides. In fact, Ukrainians formed a majority in what was then southeastern Poland.
In Volhynia, Ukrainian was the mother tongue of 68% of the population with Polish a mere 17% of the population. Be that as it may, there is surely no excuse to slaughter innocent people, largely women and children and the elderly, simply because they were of another nationality, which was the policy of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943.
What do you think of Agnieszka Holland’s depiction of Polish-Ukrainian relations in the film In Darkness?
I think Agnieszka Holland’s film was a wonderful depiction of the drama and tragedy of Lviv’s multicultural urban population and the wartime relations between Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians. The story I tell, although also about wartime ethnic cleansing, has a very different setting. Volhynia was a backward rural province, which prior to 1918 had been under Russian tsarist rule for over a century. Before 1918, Lviv had been ruled by Austria, which left a very different legacy. It is not insignificant that 70% of Volhynia residents were illiterate at the time while Lviv was a sophisticated university city. The two are incomparable.
Who are your main influences as a director?
There are many directors and filmmakers I admire and I have always learnt from the people I work with. But what really influenced this film is the way it was made. Normally, I work on productions commissioned by a broadcaster and which are therefore strictly planned and timetabled with commissioning editors and executive producers monitoring each stage of the process. This film came about very differently, one could say, back to front.
The production company, Warsaw-based Grupa Filmowa, were prepared to put money up front for a film about the 1943 massacres focusing on “Righteous Ukrainians,” and that was the only “directive” I worked to. I was given a free hand, which was both scary and liberating. There was neither time nor funding for extensive research trips, so each trip to Ukraine was with our two man filming crew.
We set out to look for stories of rescue, and since that was the question asked, that is the answer we got. The film evolved organically as we worked and came together in the edit where we decided very early on that neither a narrator’s voice nor archive footage would be needed to tell the story. Above all, it was the fantastic professionalism and tireless passion of Andrzej Adamczak, the cameraman, and Stefan Ronowicz, the editor, which influenced the film.
What would have you done differently?
As things turned out, probably nothing. Once edited, the story is closed. I would have liked to have found witnesses to tell a more detailed story of Poles saving Ukrainians from a Polish revenge attack. Nonetheless, I hope that the film is fair and balanced. If I had the time and resources, I would have loved to spend a year filming in one of the villages with some of the people we met. But that would be another film altogether.
Is it possible for Poles and Ukrainian to live together in today’s western Galicia and Volhynia?
I would hope so. Since the fall of communism, Poland’s foreign policy has been to support Ukrainian independence. Good relations are in both countries’ best interest. I would be very glad if the film helps to bring reconciliation and respect.
In what ways (if any) can the Ukrainian nationalist movement led by Stepan Bandera be seen in the Maidan movement?
Stepan Bandera is a hero to many Ukrainians, but he is long dead, killed by Soviet agents in 1959 in Munich. Nor can he be blamed directly for the Volhynian massacre as he was imprisoned by the Germans in 1941 and was a prisoner of Sachsenhausen concentration camp from January 1942 to September 1944. The Volhynian massacre which took place in 1943 was organized by some of his radical followers.
The Maidan movement brought together a large variety of people including nationalists. But as we saw in the May presidential election, the extreme far right did very badly, with Oleh Tyahnibok of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party polling a miserable 1% and Dmitry Yarosh of the Right Sector Party getting even less.
Polish society generally seems to support Ukraine, although some Poles claim that Ukrainians have never been friends of Poles, and that Ukrainians have always been enemies of Poland. Based on your experience as a filmmaker and documentarian, how would you respond to these individuals?
It is obviously in Poland’s interest to have a democratic and prosperous neighbor on its eastern border. Most Poles I know have a positive attitude towards Ukraine. Poles who lived through the 1943 events are often cautious, some are mistrustful even occasionally hostile, which is hardly surprising given their experience.
But there are also many survivors, or their descendants, who actively work not only to restore the memory of the Polish presence in Volhynia, but also to build bridges and good relations with the local population. We ourselves were met with nothing but kindness and hospitality during our filming in Ukraine.
“My Friend the Enemy” has not yet been screened and has been short listed for the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam this November. You can watch the trailer here, and visit the film’s website here.
Wanda Koscia was born in London to Polish parents and has more than 20 years working in the production of documentaries for British television, mainly on topics related to contemporary history.
Ángel López Peiró is a Spanish freelance journalist currently based in Krakow, Poland.