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Comedy of War Shows Ukrainian Resistance Through Laughter

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SNAKE ISLAND, Black Sea, February 24, 2022 — An incoming transmission announces, “Snake Island, I am a Russian warship. I suggest you lay down your arms and surrender. Otherwise, you will be hit. Do you copy?”

One of the Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island says to his fellow service members, “Well, this is it. Should I tell him to go f*ck himself?”

“Just in case,” another voice replies.

The radio clicks on and the Ukrainian soldier replies, “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself.”

Nine months later, Ukrainian comedians Hanna Kochehura, Anton Tymoshenko, Vasyl Baydak, and Sasha Kachura will pile into a van with a camera crew to perform for civilians and the military throughout Ukraine as Russia continues its attack of the country. The resulting documentary, Comedy of War: Laughter in Ukraine, displays the same defiant irreverence of the 13 soldiers from Snake Island—not just by the comedians, but by the Ukrainian people who attend a comedy show in a Bucha art gallery where infamous Russian war crimes occurred, or who brave a city-wide blackout for a bomb-shelter comedy show in Kharkiv.

Before the tour begins, the four comedians sit around a table and plan their stops, noting safe venues for performing and undamaged routes to take to get to them. At each leg of the journey, text appears on screen with the city name, the amount of miles it sits from the Russian border, and the number of civilians killed there since the start of the most recent invasion in 2022. The first stop, Bucha, is 260 miles from Russia, has 1,417 civilian casualties, and reached out to the comedians, saying they wanted to see comedy there. 

The clearest lineage of this documentary traces back to comedy writer and director Larry Charles’ 2019 Netflix docuseries titled Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy. Known for his film collaborations with Sacha Baron Cohen, including Borat and The Dictator, Charles set aside the mockumentary format for an actual documentary exploring places like Iraq, Somalia, Liberia, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria. The four episodes looked at “humor in the most unusual, unexpected and dangerous places,” but does so from an outsider’s perspective—we don’t see first-hand how a traumatic experience develops into cathartic humor. It’s this difference that sets Comedy of War: Laughter in Ukraine apart.

During their next stop in Chernihiv (55 miles from Russia), the comedians stop to explore a bombed library.

“After Bucha, it was clear for us that it was genocide,” Kochehura says in a voiceover as the four clamber out of the van in front of the peach library with a decimated roof and cracked walls. “And it’s based on hatred that we are Ukrainians. For me, it was like, I need to uncover everything that makes me Ukrainian because they’re trying to take this away from me.”

This theme reoccurs during their Chernihiv military show as Kachura performs a bit in which he recounts asking an old lady, whom he is helping with her groceries, if they can speak in Ukrainian instead of Russian. In his hyperbolic rendition of the old lady’s reaction, Kachura falls to his knees in a vehement rant that devolves into nonsensical reasons why it’s rude to ask her to switch from Russian. Simply living as a Ukrainian is resistance and joking about the pressures to fall in line with Russia becomes transgressive.

“Russia thinks that if she terrorizes—if she destroys some libraries, some hospitals, some electricity, we go to the government and say, ‘Please stop it, we must do peace,’” Baydak explains. “But no. It doesn’t work like this. What I feel here—I want a victory. I don’t feel that I want … peace, no. … In these places, I feel I want to work harder, that victory will come faster. And it’s cold—” Baydark pauses to exhale a cloud of visible breath as he laughs, “It is very cold here.”

Later, both Baydak and Kachura will reveal they and their wives have only been able to communicate intermittently because of rolling blackouts caused by Russian attacks. I could relate to the lingering anxiety between messages; after 9/11, my father, a Marine, went overseas for tours in Iraq. Communication was infrequent and my family often wondered if this stint of silence was the one that meant the worst had happened. But then we’d hear from my dad and he’d say something like, “Sorry, we were busy golfing.” Humor breaks the tension of uncertainty.

Back in the crumbling Chernihiv library, Kachura tells of his wife’s experience constantly hearing Russian jets fly overhead. When she returns to Kyiv, he says, she cannot stop crying, that the incessant fear of being shelled followed her. Later, we see Kachura perform a joke about how much of a wimp his wife thinks he is because he is always sleeping in hallways to avoid debris from potential shelling damage—Kachura paints her as a battle-hard, seasoned trooper who says, “No, actually, you should sleep in the hall. I’ll take the bed.”

Following the bunker show, an attendee tells the camera person, “It’s beautiful when, during the war, people are given this help…help for your soul.” But the attendees of the comedy shows aren’t the only ones benefiting. Synthesizing jokes from terrible situations is a coping mechanism—and a distracting mental exercise which elevates craft.

Years after returning from Iraq, my father would tell the story of leaving his barracks for a cigarette in the middle of the night. While outside, a bomb destroyed the buildings he had just left. “And that’s how smoking saved my life,” he always says. But he never talks about his friends who were lost. Hyperfocusing on a seemingly innocuous, incongruent element reflects the absurdity of the situation—of war, in general.

“If you want to make a stand-up show better choose shelters. Shelters is the best place for show,” Tymoshenko quips. “You just start war against Russia and your stand-up becomes much more interesting.”

The documentary and the specials are available on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, and more.

By Brooke Knisley  |  June 12, 2024

Read the original article HERE.