Tekst (smal)

IDFA Frontlight: talking to director Walter Stokman

Interview by Geoffrey Macnab

Spy stories don’t come any more embroiled than the one told in Walter Stokman’s new documentary, The Kyiv Files. The director explains how and why to See NL.

Still: The Kyiv Files - Walter Stokman

Spy stories don’t come any more embroiled than the one told in Walter Stokman’s new film, The Kyiv Files** (a world premiere in IDFA’s Frontlight section). 

In 2017 top secret files from the Soviet era and kept in an archive in Kyiv were finally unsealed. “It’s maybe a bit boring but I read about it on the internet,” the Dutch director explains how he first heard about these files, which revealed just who had been snooping on their neighbours, as well as the mind-boggling extent of the surveillance operation in late Soviet-era Ukraine.

Stokman, whose previous credits include Based On A True Story (2004) about the real story behind the Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon, was intrigued. The premise strongly reminded him of all those books, dramas and documentaries about the Stasi, the sinister shadowy secret police force in East Germany.

“Basically, for me, the subtext of the film is that this society, where snitching on each other is a way of control, kills trust in people,” the director states. 

Ukraine had left the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Stokman found it “weird” that the archives had been opened only now. “Somehow, I feel they [the Ukrainian authorities] wanted to tell their people, look, this is what the Soviet Union was about and this is what you are fighting for if you want to get rid of a totalitarian state that controls you.”

The director points out that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when the snooping went on - and that it is “not really fair” simply to blame it all on the Russians. The local people were heavily involved in the mass surveillance, blackmail and intimidation that went on in these years.

“You’re not allowed to go in there and just see files for yourself. The idea is that you have the name of a family relation and then you can make a request,” Stokman explains the usual process for ordering the files. 

However, the director had noticed a study room where academics and journalists were poring over the secret documents. He realised that they weren’t just looking at files related to their own relatives. Stokman asked these specialist researchers for advice on how he too could access materials.

That is how he stumbled on stories like those of the two hapless Dutch spies who drove into Ukraine in their car little realising that their every move was being monitored and that they were being manipulated and misled by the local authorities. 

“Nothing in this film is staged,” the director says of a film which sometimes plays like a Cold War thriller. The street scenes included in the documentary all feature “real” moments. When a young couple is shown kissing, or when someone is seen scuttling down into the subway, these are all moments that Stokman has shot on the streets, from inside a blacked-out van. “When the KGB talked about how they could operate or what they are able to do…I thought we should add to the whole idea of observation [by] observing people without them knowing it. I would never film people inside their houses secretly but on the street. People are there and I use them to tell my story.”

The “fear and paranoia” from the days when the KGB was snooping into the Ukrainian people’s lives is still felt today. “There is that whole feeling you can’t trust anyone…it’s horrible, horrible. I couldn’t talk of half the stories I found because of people not being willing to talk about it.” 

This is also a story about elderly people looking back at the secrecy and subterfuge from an earlier part of their life, and some of the subjects, especially the women, have fascinating stories to tell. 

The Kyiv Files was produced by Zeppers Film & TV, the company founded in 1997 by Frank van den Engel. Amstelfilm will be releasing the documentary in Dutch cinemas in February next year. 

IDFA takes place on November 8 - 19. For more information, click here.

*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund
**Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and Production Incentive

Director: Walter Stokman
Festival: IDFA