The Australian artists George Gittoes and Hellen Rose left for Ukraine last Friday (18 March) and are now in the capital city, Kyiv.

As the whole world knows, Kyiv is under siege by Russian forces who have been ordered in by Vladimir Putin.

I spoke to George Gittoes the day before he and his wife Hellen left their home in Werri Beach on the NSW south coast.

Here is the edited interview.

“The plan is to catch a train into Kyiv. The train line is still running. Hopefully it will still be running when we get there. They’re using antiquated, pre-digital communication systems so the Russians can’t predict what they’re doing. And then we plan to spend at least a month in Kyiv. 

“I’m taking four movie cameras with me. I’m hoping to create a little Yellow House situation where I’ve got artists and young filmmakers and stuff that we can help. We can employ them and also be doing things together. And I’m planning to do a big peace mural on one of the walls in the city. A mural attracts creative people from everywhere and lets everyone know you’re an artist. 

“We’ve heard about a young woman who wants to meet us who was the top prima ballerina in Kyiv and she’s now picked up a gun and she’s fighting the Russians. But they’re the kind of stories, like I’ve always done, where we find people who believe in art not war. How creative people kind of face off against the destroyers. I think that’s particularly interesting in this case because we’re dealing with a very civilised country. It’s famous for its universities. What I’ve learnt is when you go to a place like that and you’re under attack and someone turns up who’s offering to create new things, it’s just impactful. It’s like creating in the face of destruction. It inspires people. I’m sure by the time we leave there we’ll have a network as big as the one in Afghanistan.

“We kind of represent Australia as a country that cares and people see the art and film we make, we symbolise the caring nature of people. Most Australians would love to be able to do things like us, but they don’t know how to. Hellen and I have got no excuse because we know how to.”

So you almost feel you have to go and do what you’re doing?

“Yes, if I didn’t do this I wouldn’t forgive myself because we know that we can do so much good.

“The thing that’s fascinating to me about this war is we’ve got an artist leading the country. Zelensky is an artist. He’s a communicator. We’ve been talking to people close to him, and we’ll probably meet him when we get there. I know we’ll relate well to him. And they’re saying, ‘George we need you and your cameras and your communication skills more than anything, because our biggest fear is that the world will lose interest’.

Have you ever been to Ukraine before? 

No. That’s what makes this very hard. I’m at a stage of my life now where everywhere is easy for me to go. If I go to Cambodia I know everyone there. If I go to Baghdad, Nicaragua, Western Sahara, Palestine, Iraq, all these places I’ve got a network of people who’ll meet me at the airport and show me love and everything is actually easy. South Side Chicago. It’s like going home to all these places. So this is the first time in decades where I’ve gone to a conflict zone where I haven’t got the comfort of a network. I have to create a network and that’s a challenge. 

You’ll base yourselves in Kyiv at least a month. Is one of your aims to make a film about Ukraine? 

Well, we’ve already got this model of the Yellow House so I want to help a whole lot of young filmmakers and people who want to make film, because when you go into one of these war zones, the thing that everyone wants is for the world to know what they’re going through, for their story to be told. So when we leave, maybe I’ll leave all my cameras there. There’s going to be a lot of people like you, who would never dream of picking up a gun, and who are. I think that’s my film. That dilemma of being a pacifist, but there’s a point where pacificists realise there’s something they have to fight for.”

Elizabeth Fortescue, 24 March 2022