French professional surfer and filmmaker Damien Castera chronicles artists in war-torn Ukraine – Wavelength Surf Magazine
“The idea was to immerse ourselves in the daily lives of these women and men who used art as a means of escape and resistance.”
Damien Castera raised a cold, frosty glass of continental lager in a bar on Bourdaines beach and pointed to a roped left-hander who was spinning on a mini isthmus of Hossegor sand. A furnace-shaped sea was 35 degrees under the shade of an umbrella. Four feet of heavy summer swell bordering the Atlantic. From the channel, I had just watched the awkward, square-jawed, impossibly handsome foot rip the bag from the tear bowl in style for the last hour. (For a taste of his talent, watch him surf Indonesia last year here.)
“It’s so strange to surf and party and enjoy all this freedom, when last week I was in eastern Ukraine in a war zone with bombs raining down from the sky” , Castera said. “It feels like an alternate reality, and I’m still trying to process it all.”
Castera, 38, was a professional surfer who surfed in elite-level shortboard and longboard competitions, but over the past decade has turned his considerable talents to exploration, writing, photography and photography. Freesurf filmmaking. He is probably best known as the director of the 2018 film Water has no enemywho documented child soldiers in Liberia who traded their assault rifles for surfboards.
Surfing commentator and coach Vico Hamel described Castera as “one of the smartest surfers I’ve ever met, author of several books and a member of the very exclusive French Explorer Society. So that makes him an Indiana Jones sexy with long hair Nobody should be able to get so much juice!
To these attributes we can add empathy. With his keen interest in geopolitical conflicts, Castera had closely followed the situation in Ukraine before the Russian invasion. When the war started, he filled his van with medical supplies and set out on the four-day journey to the Romanian-Ukrainian border. Initially, the plan was to drop off the goods with an NGO, but when asked if he wanted to continue to Lviv, the city in western Ukraine, he continued. Once there, he was asked to provide long-form reporting for a French national newspaper.
“I quickly realized that most of the reporting was done by war correspondents and so naturally focused on all the death and destruction,” Castera said. “However, I had met so many writers, artists and musicians and felt it was important to tell their stories as they pursued their craft.”
With very few filmmakers in the country, Castera decided to return to France, collect his camera and his collaborator and DOP Michael Darrigarde, and return to make a documentary. The couple will spend two months traveling from Kyiv in the west to the Donbass region, following the brutal front line of the war as it heads east.
“The idea of the film was to immerse us in the daily lives of these women and men who used art as a means of escape and resistance,” he said. He filmed an old painter nicknamed “the last hippie of Galicia” who painted religious icons for the salvation of soldiers.
It follows a group of graffiti artists requisitioned by the army to paint military cars. In the subway of the heavily bombed city of Kharkiv, where the majority of the remaining population lived underground for two months, he saw musicians giving concerts and artists giving art lessons to children. There was a bomb squad leader who used music to galvanize his men and a violinist who played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons amid crumbling buildings.
“In Kyiv, people were dancing and singing in the park between the sirens of the bombardments, and it was the same in Kharkiv, even though 100,000 bombs were falling on the country every day. They were desperate to retain the positive and joyful aspects of their lives that they had before the war, because if they didn’t, it was hopeless,” Castera said.
While this was Castera’s first experience in a war zone, he faced the danger of the situation by focusing on the job of telling the artists’ stories. He did not fear for his life but lived with a constant and nagging feeling of tension in his stomach. It was only after the 2500 km round trip, and the decompression on the beaches and bars of Hossegor that fatigue set in, after a few intense months.
Currently editing the documentary he hopes to show at the Sundance Film Festival later this year, Castera’s experience has left him, like the artists he has followed, a sense of hope.
“The biggest impact was seeing 100% of the population defending their country in every way. In the face of trauma and tragedy, the unity was incredible. Ukraine has a long and complicated history, and there was a real feeling that western and eastern Ukraine were very different. Now there is real unity. The purpose of this film is above all to capture the humanity emerging from this chaos.