It seems like a lighthearted music video at first as we watch young women and men dancing in the streets to Pharrell William’s infectious "Happy." But as the video, set in Kiev, goes on and reaches Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the burnt-out epicenter of violent clashes between citizens and government forces, we realize these are the very same people who have put their lives on the line for months to protest the policies of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and a conflict that might have seen so far away for many of us suddenly hits home.
That’s the impact filmmakers Gosia Molska and Leszek Molski were hoping "Happy Kiev" would have when they made the video and posted it on YouTube. The directing duo, a married couple living in Warsaw, weren’t on assignment—Molska produces cooking shows and works as a food journalist, and Molski is a television director. But they felt compelled to do something to bring attention to what was happening, so they went to Kiev with their filmmaking gear in early February. "When you see that something important is happening around you while you are entangled in your everyday life, you just want to get away from it and go to the place where important things are happening and where people are united by a certain idea," Molski says. "You want to be with them, talk with them, and for a moment feel what they feel."
The idea of making a music video set to an audaciously cheerful song during a life-and-death struggle might seem incongruous, but the Ukrainians got the thinking behind the idea. "This project made it possible for them to demonstrate in a different way," Molska explains. "They know this kind of [video] will reach young people in Europe and perhaps in the world. They see the point in it because, for them, it’s extremely important to get the world’s attention. They want people to talk about the Ukraine, about the problem. They are afraid that Ukraine will be left alone."
It’s certainly inspiring to see the Ukrainians remain hopeful enough to smile and dance given the obstacles they face. "The protesters have been living on the Maidan in tents for weeks. They are in a certain kind of community. That gives them strength and faith," Molski says. "They know their life and actions are significant and that they are making history. Their smiles are honest and true. I have never seen such honest smiles."
The couple has kept in touch with all of the dancers featured in the video, which was edited by Krzysztof Bochenek, and, thus far, all of them are safe. Yanukovych has since been deposed and is now on the run, facing arrest for mass murder, but the protesters remain in the square, unsure of what the future will bring. "During the worst clashes, we were exchanging emails, Facebook messages, and text messages day and night," Molska says. "This project and the situation we found ourselves in have made us really close."
While the situation was relatively calm when Molski and Molska were in Kiev, there were intense moments. "I felt uncomfortable at the Hrushevsky Street barricade, which was off limits to civilians," she says of the area where the first bloody riots took place in January. "I came face-to-face with the Berkut [the riot police] there—they stood in a double row just a few meters away."
Women are often left out of the stories of revolutions, but as we see in the video, women are playing a key role in the protest movement. "Girls help to organize life on the Maidan. They help with logistics and contacting the media," Molska says, noting, "I have seen girls in helmets with shields ready to fight off a possible attack."
Irena Karpa, the woman seen right at the start and right at the end of "Happy Kiev," is a well-known Ukrainian performer, singer, and a former MTV Ukraine presenter. "She is very involved in the protests and supports the protesters, using the fact that she’s popular," Molska says. "During bloody clashes in the past days, her private Facebook account has become an information center. Karpa was informing people about roadblocks, telling people where medical services were needed and where the barricade had to be strengthened. She was telling people to make it easier for ambulances to get through and which roads to take. In fact, with the help of hundreds of fans, she helped to navigate the situation in the city from her Facebook account."
Molska also cites a woman named Olena, who is seen in the video marching with banners. "She was there the whole time, organizing help for the injured and taking care of logistics," Molska says. "For me, Olena is a true knight."