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Marc Wilkins, film director, co-founder of The Naked Room, “Reytarska Circle” food space

The material was created within the framework of the "Life of War" project with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Lab and the Institute of Humanities (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen).

We met Marc on his favorite Reytarska street and talked about the vision of Kyiv, his own place here and why Ukrainians will win the war.

Marc was so fascinated by Ukraine during the Maidan revolution that he decided to stay and live here, became an entrepreneur and united the community of Zoloti Vorota area around him. Read the full story why he is so inspired by the city and its people who find their own voice.

I’m a hippie child, my parents were runaway hippies who were looking for a new way of life. I don’t know if being born in Switzerland is so exciting. I was born in a hospital in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. But if you ask me about my childhood, I think the most interesting thing could be that my parents were kind of hippies who were very busy with themselves. They didn’t have much time to take care of their children. So, I had a lot of free space to explore what I liked and lots of space to roam around. And I think the highlight of my childhood was when my parent moved with me and my little brother to Crete, an island in Greece. We lived on this island for a year in an abandoned house we had renovated. There was no roof in this house, so we made a roof with bamboo. We swam in the mornings.

In my childhood I wanted to be a captain of a boat or a ship. I wanted to be in the sea and sail on the boat. I also wanted to be a veterinary, a doctor for animals. And my desire to be a film director happened when I was 15 years old when I was in New Zealand on the student exchange. And that year, the movie Piano won the academy award for best movie. I watched this movie in New Zealand and wanted to become a filmmaker because I was excited that the movie director from New Zealand won an oscar, and everyone was inspired, including me. And I decided to be a film director. But it was very far from what my parents were doing. They didn’t have a television at home.

My mother didn’t like cinema because it had a powerful impact on her. She was somebody who was quickly crying or became very nervous. She liked stories and music, but we never watched television at home, and my parent never went to the cinema with me. So, television came into my life only when I was at my grandparent’s house. When I stayed with them, I was allowed to watch TV but always had to sit and read the program magazine. And I needed to say what I wanted to watch and why I wanted to watch this. Then, my parent split, they stopped living with each other anymore, and I spent lots of time with my grandfather. It’s a little Ukrainian situation. I understand now that children in Ukraine also spend lots of time with their grandparents.

I also spent lots of time with my mother and my stepfather, who was wonderful but my main male figure, my hero was my grandfather - Arthur, in Switzerland. He was also the one who was always very touched by the television. He was not so much in watching football or some teleshow, he was more in watching movies. I was allowed to watch movies depending on my age. It was always very amazing how my grandfather, a strong man, was touched by the movies. I wanted to learn how to make movies to create all these reactions. I think that’s where my interest in how to make movies came from.

Frankly speaking, I still don’t speak Ukrainian. My two best friends are not here. One is in Berlin, and another is in New York. So, even if I have a wife who is from Kyiv, I’m personally not super connected to the community. But I feel very inspired by the part of the Ukrainian society pushing for change and risking everything to transform this country into a free and democratic one.

I was attracted by Maidan Revolution. I was living in New York then, and the whole time I watched the news and what was happening in Ukraine, Kyiv. And I was so impressed, worried, and also angry when I saw how Russia was abusing this uprising. First, Russia was the cause, and how people were protesting against Yanukovich and Russia. And this inspired me and I think what also inspired me was the country's style, culture, and fashion.

I lived in New York, the heart of contemporary culture. It’s usually London or New York. You can’t deny this fact. It’s where the most important fashions show and art exhibitions are happening. It just felt cooler here. And more interesting and braver.

Because I came to Ukraine for the first in 2006, and from that time to 2013, I had the impression that Ukraine and many other countries that used to be the part of Soviet Union and which I visited, were trying to copy what western cultures did in the past. So it was not about creating some new architectural vision, new music, or new cinema, it was all about copying that was already done and trying to catch up. But around 2014, with the Revolution, I felt that independent voices were appearing and designing the architecture and visual art. Cinema came a little later. Lukich, Stop-Zemlya, till 2016-2017 it felt more like Tarkovsky. And then it started to develop rapidly.

Anyway, those two things interested me - the political courage of the people to push and are ready to be arrested and killed and the beauty of contemporary culture finding its own voice. It’s very difficult in Zurich or New York to find your own voice because the culture started like hundreds of years ago, let’s say after the second world war. And there was already so much happening in New York. So, there were lots of people. So, now there is so much space to develop something new, which is impossible to do in Old Europe or the West. I think the future of Europe is in Ukraine. And now in a very cruel way the world is learning this.

When I came here first, it was like I fell in love and everything was pink and amazing. And then I bought this piece of house and that’s when I started to understand - oh, it’s not so easy. Because part of the people in this house and for example, the person who’s living right above is a filmmaker. She was so much against me and us creating this gallery. Who could think? I’m here for these cool people. And they were trying to sabotage the NakedRoom and me because they were part of the old Soviet doctrine that everything new is bad. These people say - We don’t want the changes, we want Reytasrka street to be calm, where you can park a car and, there is nothing going on. And it was so painful.

When we developed this idea to create a gallery, we wrote a letter, printed it, and put it at every door, introducing us. That we want to make a gallery for Contemporary Ukrainian Art, and I was sure everyone would love this idea. Who can be against it? It’s not that we were going to start a techno club. Nobody reacted except one note. It said - Don’t do an entertainment business here! It was put at our door. And we were so surprised.

And then we invited everybody for a meeting. So, at Sunday at 11 o’clock, we were going to bring some cake and sparkling wine. Please, dear neighbors, come and meet us. Two or three people came. The angry ones. They came to tell us how we are not welcome here. I was really surprised. I understand that some people don’t want noise after 10 p.m. First, when we had a block party here, we had skaters, and after that, some people told their children were traumatized by the sound of skating scratching the asphalt. Everywhere in the world, you can find grumpy people against something. But there were also young people, and that surprised me.

Many neighbors love what we do and join us. We had a teenage girl interning from the neighborhood and some elderly people come to check out every new exhibition. But some are stubborn, still suspecting us to be “the bad guys”, like for them everyone are “the bad guys”

When Poroshenko became president, some of the civil society leaders became part of his party. And there were young parliamentarians, and it all looked very promising but suddenly, I realized that people who I thought will bring the change were just following Poroshenko, who was from the old vision. First, I liked how witty and smart he spoke, and he promised to sell Roshen and focus on transforming Ukraine. But then he didn’t do it. And I was a little upset and worried. I saw there were still so many people against this positive transformation. A lot young activists from civil society don’t manage to become politicians. I also understood that nobody knows how to become a politician in Ukraine. Many politicians today didn’t become politicians the way you usually become a politician. You shouldn't become a politician because you have a lot of money. You should become a politician because you have ideas about the future and how to improve it. And then you need to bring people around you who will support you.

In Germany, where I have spent most of my childhood and adult years, the strongest party is the Green Party which started in the 1970s in the kitchen that was the first headquarter of this political party. And here in Ukraine, everyone with political ambitions says we need our TV channel or our media and nobody really has a concept of what the party is standing for. And it really amazed me when Zelensky started to run for president, he invited the people of Ukraine to help him make this program. In our community, people were more on Poroshenko's side, we knew who he was, he didn’t transform the country quickly but at least we knew what was happening, and Zelensky is a new face and no political experience.

But I had some hope in Zelensky, maybe because I’m a filmmaker and a storyteller like Zelensky himself. And in some months, I started to become disappointed in him again because of the corruption cases and he didn’t build a team that could really change something. And there was a moment when I, together with my wife, we thought that it’s really impossible for us to push through and change this country.

And there was a moment when we were thinking about where else do we want to live. We thought about some places in Europe, my wife used to live in Berlin, but it felt old and arrogant. And we really are not big fans of Berlin. Oh shit, we love Ukraine. And then the war started, and it was an amazing experience to see how the people of Ukraine work together in a moment of attack. People come together and become incredibly strong. And Zelensky really inspired me, and we knew Ukraine is our home.

This is a place where I want to spend the rest of my life. My wife became pregnant and we are expecting a baby, and we want this baby to be born in Kyiv.

And my family in Switzerland and Germany were kind of upset. They say “Are you crazy? You are at war!” But we are confident we want to be here despite the war. We could be somewhere in Switzerland, technically safer but we couldn’t feel safe, because it wouldn’t be our own house and our street, with our friends around us.

The big problem is that I still don’t know the language. I’m 46 years old, and the brain of a 46-year-old man doesn’t have the ability to learn something so quickly. I’ve learned Russian at school for ten years. I can read Cyrillic but the teachers were all from the Soviet Union and I hated those teachers. And I was boycotting them and sabotaging Russian lessons in my school.

And when I came to Ukraine, everyone speaks here so good English, and they are happy to speak English. When I say to the taxi driver “Dyakuyu” and “Do pobachennya” - a few words that I know, he hears my accent and says - “Good Evening.” And I think, please, tell me something in Ukrainian so that I can learn a bit. Ukrainians are so sweet and so nice and eager to communicate with the world.

I need to find a teacher, and I’m so afraid of homework, of sitting and learning the words and grammar. I hope I can learn it with my child. And I think when my child is born, I’m going to walk the Reitarska Street to Schevchenko Park with my stroller and my baby in it, then people will consider me to be Kyivan. I hope so.

Beyond the Reitarska district, I also like Podil very much. I know there is some kind of fascination about Troyeschina because it is such a dark place. There are sleeping quarters, high buildings, cars, and trash bins. And I believe this be turned into something cool, and you can define some of them as modern or post-modern architecture.

But if I make a film, I would make it about the story that’s inspiring and touching me, not about the story that I find interesting, but I find it hard to tell because I don’t feel a connection towards it. The old parts of the cities in most countries have been occupied, sold, bought, and owned for hundreds of years. So you can’t even park a car in the center of Berlin, Paris or London. There is no space. In Kyiv, the center is still transformable, you can never have something like the Kashtan yard and what Kashtan guys are doing in another center of the European city.

And that’s what I like about the Golden Gate area - it’s a center of an old Kyiv, but there is still some space to make dreams into reality.

That’s why I focus on this district. I live here, and there is a Gallery, a Reytarska Circle, Zigzag. But I do really like Podil, and I think it’s something with me starting to be a family man, and sometimes I’m fantasizing about finding some old factory in Podil and turning it into some shared family space.

For our wedding, we chose the place we like to go to every day. Why choose some fancy luxury restaurant? Why do you need to pretend there is another life you are living? We choose Zhytniy Market as we go there every Saturday for the vegetables. And its incredible architecture. And the same with Trukhaniv Island, how fantastic is this huge piece of wildlife in the center of the city! We usually go there for walks with our dog, so it was kind of logical to celebrate there our wedding day.

Before the war, I was more trying to understand, and now I think people need to be more constructive. We don’t have so much time. When we started Reytarska Circle, there was a Spa salon, and the yard was dead. When we began to bring some life there, some people didn’t like it. During the war, the business owners in Reytarska Circle turned their restaurants to open kitchens to feed the territorial defense and pensioners in the neighborhood. And one moment, they couldn't pay their bills for the electricity because they put all their money into feeding the territorial defense. In May, the people started to open their restaurants again because they had to earn some money.

And the neighbors who were basically fed for free by the restaurants were suddenly against the people sitting on the roof terrace and drinking their coffee there. During the war! We all need some funds to pay taxes and donation to the Army. And I can’t accept this negativity anymore. I don’t want to find understanding. Look at this beautiful park! And people were complaining about it being renovated. And now it’s much more people and isn’t much louder. We need more to support everyone in creating life, future, and progress. And I now prefer to surround myself with positive and constructive people who build the future.

Now I’m focusing more on becoming a father, and I also have two film projects. But it’s a little too early to talk about them. And I also would like to build more of Riverbird’s Nest.

When the war started, we had a plan to stay in Kyiv and support our community. We packed nothing when we woke up in the morning. We were shocked that Ukraine was attacked on so much scale. And so we changed our mind, and in 20 minutes, we packed and jumped into the car. We planned to drive to Berlin, and we managed it. But then we came back.

For me, Kyiv is not a place where someone gave me a job, and that’s why I moved to Kyiv. I moved here because I fell in love with the city. I wanted to do everything for the city and also the country.

So first, we came back to Lviv because we didn’t want to use the resources needed for the military or be in their way. Our idea was to help on the polish border and help refugees arriving in Poland. Then we saw how polish people greatly organized everything and it was nothing for us to do. And it was a funny moment when we went to the Ukrainian embassy in Warsaw, saying We want to help, we are volunteers. They said, it’s wonderful, so you have an apartment - how many people can you host? And we said - Oh, actually, we don’t know ourselves where we are going to stay tonight. They said - Oh, but you have a car? We said - Yes - yes, we have a car. Ok, how many seats do you have? - Oh, our luggage is in the car, and our dog, and we are refugees ourselves. So, to be a volunteer, you need something to offer. So, we came back to Lviv. It was a horrible time. I was trying to be everywhere. I was trying to help in the evacuation and coordinating of transport from occupied villages. I collected the names of people who needed to be evacuated and coordinated them with drivers.

My video project about Ukrainian had two purposes - to raise funds and tell about them. My partners and I wanted to show that there are very creative, amazing, inspiring young people in Ukraine. The goal was to introduce new names.

I am surprised by how positive the people in my community are. So many people look happy. It’s like normal autumn days. Nobody feels the danger. But when you talk to people, there is some alertness. It’s very difficult to think about finding a foundation for the movie in Ukraine while there is a war. No money for making films. So, you understand, we need to win this war first before you can let your ideas flow again. It’s difficult to develop a long-term vision now. But on the other hand, we can think of what we can do differently after the victory. Because now, the whole world is aware of Ukraine and Kyiv. So, there will be a lot of investments flowing to Ukraine.

And I really hope that all the destruction that is happening in Ukraine now will be turned into a chance to rebuild Ukraine and make it even more beautiful. Now we should realize that buildings with a history are more important than new buildings because the Russians destroyed so much of our history that old brick is important. They tell the history of our country and our identity. You see, I tell - our.

We will win because good is always winning. The Nazis lost, the Roman Empire lost, and dark imperial forces always lose because the will for freedom is stronger than the power that suppresses people. Ukraine has a history of surviving dark times. There were always so many forces trying to dominate the Ukrainian people. And they always pushed through. And there is an incredible will. They like - I know there can be no electricity or water, but I have some potatoes in my basement. It’s amazing optimism and that will help Ukrainians win. The conflict is very clear here. It’s black and white. Russia is falling apart.

​The material was created by:

Author and transcriber:


Tonya Smyrnova

Oleksandra Onoprienko


Bohdana Horban


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