Ohio University filmmaker turns a camera on the crisis in Ukraine

Akash Pamarthy just released a six-minute film documenting the days before fellow students Oleksandr Yakymchuk and Olena Zenchenko made a supply run to Kyiv

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
A group photo taken prior to Ohio University students Oleksandr Yakymchuk and Olena Zenchenko started the journey to Kyiv, Ukraine

When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Ohio University MFA candidates Oleksandr Yakymchuk and Olena Zenchenko, both of whom are from Ukraine, were moved to action, taking an almost immediate leave from school in order to return to their homeland, carting medical supplies that the two delivered to the capital city of Kyiv in early March.

While the two hatched plans and made preparations, filmmaker, photojournalist and OU classmate Akash Pamarthy kept a camera rolling, creating a short, six-plus minute documentary that captures the tension, sadness and resolve that shaped those few whirlwind days, the doc concluding with footage provided by Yakymchuk of the two distributing supplies in Kyiv on March 3 — just five days after beginning preparations at Campus Heights, an off-campus apartment complex in Athens, Ohio.

“These are my friends, and they’re also fellow MFA candidates, and they’ve been telling us since last year Russia could invade Ukraine,” said Pamarthy, who got to know both Yakymchuk and Zenchenko over the last six months the three lived in Athens. “And the time had come, and they left the country. I was very shattered in that I couldn’t really help them in any way. … I thought giving money wouldn’t be enough, so I wanted to use my skills to spread awareness of the issue.”

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In the short, titled “Heroiam Slava - Glory to the Heroes,” which you can watch below, Yakymchuk and Zenchenko grapple with concerns for immediate family members living amid the Russian siege, including Zenchenko’s parents, who have remained in their Kyiv home throughout the attack. (Yakymchuk was able to transport his mother to a town an eight-hour drive from Kyiv, Pamarthy said, where she is currently staying with family members.) 

“They had so much going on. … [Zenchenko] wasn’t breaking down entirely, but she had a lot on her plate, and didn’t know what to do. But their parents were in a war zone, so they came to the decision to go back, and they stuck with it,” said Pamarthy, who has remained in touch with the two via social media and by phone. “We tried to talk to them, like, 'This isn’t the right decision to go back to a war zone, even if you want to help the country.' They were like, 'Whatever you’re telling us is true, but we don’t want to be in a place … where I have to tell someone, there is no home.'”

The pair’s decision to return is summed up in a sentence spoken in the short by Yakymchuk, who says of the war defense efforts, “If everybody is doing something, we’ll succeed,” an idea that has been conveyed in the numerous stories that have surfaced in recent weeks documenting courageous acts undertaken by everyday Ukrainians in defense of their country. (Yakymchuk, for his part, is also a documentary filmmaker who at one point professes his interest in returning to Ohio following the end of hostilities to resume making “weird” things.)

Mural by Kristen Eads and Olena Zenchenko in Athens, Ohio

For Pamarthy, the short presented a challenge in terms of navigating the line between director and someone who is friends with his subjects, and wary of exploiting that relationship in the name of art. “I didn’t want them to think I was just there for the benefit of my film; I wanted them to understand I was with them and for them,” said Pamarthy, who drove the two to the airport, where they flew to Warsaw, Poland, picking up a car to make the 10-hour drive to Kyiv. “I tried to tell their story [through film] because I wanted to listen to their voices, and I want to connect people with what’s going on in their life.”

The rawness of the moment is preserved in the short, which Pamarthy said he envisioned as the first in a series of chapters that could ultimately result in a feature-length documentary. “That’s what [Yakymchuk] envisioned when we were talking, so he’s going to continue to film in [Ukraine] and we’re going to try and coordinate," he said. "These are important stories to tell.”

Ultimately, though, Pamarthy said the time-sensitive nature of events necessitated a quick turnaround of the opening chapter, which he hopes will raise Stateside awareness of the war undertaken by Russia currently unfolding in Ukraine.

“We’re in the fast-paced world of social media where the next minute something can become old news, and people don’t care anymore. And before that happens, we want to get this out, and we want to spread awareness,” he said. “On campus, when we’re talking, people don’t really know about Ukraine or what’s happening with the people there. This is the true lesson of our story: We want people to know there is a situation and [Ukrainians] are afraid that without help there will no longer be a home for them.”