Pit No. 8 – a documentary film on energy vulnerability and failed transition in Ukraine

By Sergio Tirado Herrero

When Marianna Kaat, Estonian filmmaker and director Pit No. 8, was ready to start filming his documentary movie about illegal coal mining in the Ukrainian Donetsk/Donbass area, the person she had chosen to be the main character of the film (a retired man fed up with the bribes demanded by the local militia and fighting to have his own pit legalized by Ukrainian authorities) had just died from cancer. She was nevertheless sure to find the story they were looking for and set off to the field with her crew.  They were shooting in a small rural settlement near Donetsk when they met by chance Yura Sikanov, a teenager working in illegal coal pits and earning a living for himself, his two sisters, and even for his alcoholic mother and stepfather. In the first scenes of the documentary, Yura and his little sister show many of the illegal coal pits (some of them right under people’s houses and backyards) of the village where they live.

The grandchild of the powerful director of the soviet Khinmash military equipment plant, Yura almost immediately became the central character of the documentary. At the time when the film was shot, he and his two sisters (Ulyana and Julia) were living completely on their own in a little country house let to them by a neighbour. The film tells the life story of the three Sikanov siblings for more than a year, in which Yura works in different coal pits and mines, sometimes in his own with an old friend (Dima), sometimes in some else’s, while to struggling to keep up with school and his role of head of the household. He has the aspiration to become a chef  and is accepted in a vocational school to get a professional qualification as baker and cook; but he is later dismissed because his work in the pits forces him to miss many lessons. The whole story is located in Snezhin, a small rural settlement in the Donbass area, the centre of the Ukraine’s coal area in and birthplace Ukraine’s president Vicktor Yanukovich.

As stated by the jury who awarded the feature prize of the 11th International Documentary Film Festival “Flahertiana” to Marianna Kaat, “Pit No. 8 is an inspiring portrait of Ukraine, a country in painful transition, where there are no rules”.  This sense of disorientation and defeat is perhaps best represented in a scene in which an old Ukrainian lady, lost in the forest while picking mushrooms in a misty autumn day, ends up meeting the crew filming a coal mine and complaining to them with a somehow miserable “I can’t find the way”.

pitno82familyyura

Julia, Yura and Ulyana – the Sikanov siblings. Source: http://www.osaarchivum.org/

But Pit No. 8 is also a vivid account of the struggles and resourcefulness of people from former soviet societies to make ends meet, of the impact of the global financial crisis in the local economies of Eastern Europe, and of the role of men and women in a post-socialist miners’ community. More importantly for our research in the EVALUATE project, the film manages to successfully portray energy vulnerability in connection with wider income deprivation, dysfunctional families, frustrated transition and systemic political and institutional failure in Eastern Europe. Though not physically present in the film, characters refer to “big powers” (i.e., police officers, a mining commission, politicians, the global crisis, etc.) which are well beyond the sphere of influence of the community but set the conditions under which energy vulnerability is experienced at a local scale in Snezhin.

The Donbass coal basin case probably is a striking example of this coping strategy (illegal or informal coal mining), but not a unique case. In Hungary, photographer Ákos Stiller has documented such practices in the small settlement of Farkaslyuk, near the city of Ózd, a similarly deprived post-industrial landscape as the one portrayed in Pit No. 8. In Poland, another of the four countries of the EVALUATE project, Ewa Charkiewicz (Women Network) has reported about similar issues in areas of the country where coal beds lie at a short depth below the surface.

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