I was frozen inside when I fled war in Ukraine but now I’m an award-winning film director in Manchester

Alyona Kaporina has been on an incredible journey.
Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022, filmmaker Alyona Kaporina stopped thinking about the future. Her career as a director was just taking off, but all her inspiration to create had disappeared overnight, “as if someone had just turned it off.”

She could not have imagined that two years later she would be presenting her first feature-length film to a packed out audience in the UK, winning the the prize for best documentary at the Manchester Film Festival. 

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Her film, The Rising Sun, follows the story of Yana, a young Ukrainian mother widowed in the early days of the war and trying to build a life for herself and her son in Manchester. It highlights the individual struggles that many Ukrainian refugees are facing – learning English, finding a job, securing housing – as well as the community’s wider fight in support of the war-torn homeland they left behind. 

We sat down with Alyona to find out more about her film and the journey she has been on to make it. 

Ukrainian film director Alyona Kaporina shooting her documentary The Rising Sun.  Ukrainian film director Alyona Kaporina shooting her documentary The Rising Sun.
Ukrainian film director Alyona Kaporina shooting her documentary The Rising Sun.

“I was frozen inside”

Alyona was on the train from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk when the war broke out. She was travelling to the western Ukrainian city to meet with the potential leads of her first feature, a film about young love and teenage music students.

This was just one of the many projects she had in the works. She was developing a Black Mirror-style anthology series. She was also working with Kvartal 95, the production company founded by President Volodymyr Zelensky long before he went into politics. They had been busy applying for a film competition and the deadline was the day before the war started. Alyona describes this as the “last peaceful evening".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She told ManchesterWorld: “I was shocked. I can't say that I knew or felt it would happen. I think it's my fault that I was so naïve and I was really not political, I wasn't interested in any political news. It was absolutely unbelievable.

“I was sure that ordinary people could not support Putin. I was sure. Because my native brother lives in Moscow and I went to Moscow a lot of times. It's not pleasant for me to remember this, but when I was a child I dreamt about living in Moscow. I really liked that city. My brother had lived there for more than 30 years, more than half his life, so I was sure that they couldn't. So when everything started I realised that I was really too naïve.”

Alyona and her now ex-husband made the decision to stay in western Ukraine where it was safer. She forgot about directing and started volunteering. She said: “In that time, I didn't remember that I was a film director at all, I just didn't remember. I could only think about how to survive and how to help people, my country. Many of our friends moved to Lviv and they organised a charitable foundation and I started to work for them, but it was a volunteering job. But I felt full of energy, I couldn't sleep normally. When stressful events happen, I feel full of adrenaline.”

Film director Alyona Kaporina at the Picadilly Gardens rallies in support of Ukraine. Film director Alyona Kaporina at the Picadilly Gardens rallies in support of Ukraine.
Film director Alyona Kaporina at the Picadilly Gardens rallies in support of Ukraine.

It wasn’t Alyona’s idea to come to the UK, she was enjoying living in Lviv and felt fulfilled by the volunteer work, organising humanitarian aid from Poland. But she had received a proposal from her relatives in Manchester, Kateryna and Yura, asking her to consider applying for the UK’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. She tentatively applied at the beginning of April 2022 and eventually arrived in the UK on 28 May. 

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Kateryna and Yura made her feel very welcome, taking her on hikes, visiting other UK cities, but “it was like I was on vacation,” she said.  “After the war, after my personal drama, I was frozen inside. I smiled all the time. I remember that Yuriy often said: ‘Alyona always smiles, Alyona always smiles, what a wonderful girl, you're always smiling.’ Yes, I smiled, but not inside. I missed Ukraine a lot – a lot.”

“It was like someone had turned off the inspiration”

It did not take long for Alyona to connect with the Ukrainian community in Manchester – mainly because they are not that hard to find. Since the start of the war they have been gathering most Saturday afternoons at Piccadilly Gardens for their weekly rally and Alyona has been helping the organisers since she arrived. But once she was settled in the UK, it was time to find a job – and that’s hard when you can’t speak English. 

She prepared her CV and “spammed” as many production companies in Manchester she could find. The only one to reply was Chief, who agreed to take her on as a runner. She was an experienced director but was happy to make coffee, clean and prepare the sets if it meant working in the film industry. After three months, though, they asked her to consider her own project. 

She said: “I can't describe my feeling because I was shocked, I was happy, I was excited and I was so scared about it because I had forgotten that I was a film director. The worst thing was inspiration. I lost my inspiration. I had it on the February 23, and I remember in the evening, we were sitting on the train with my colleague, we were going to Ivano-Frankivsk and I had a lot of ideas. And then on February 24, it was like someone had turned off the inspiration in my mind, in my soul.”

Director Alyona Kaporina shooting her documentary The Rising Sun. Director Alyona Kaporina shooting her documentary The Rising Sun.
Director Alyona Kaporina shooting her documentary The Rising Sun.
Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It took her a couple of months to find that inspiration, but the moment came when she photographed a 13-month-old boy, wearing a traditional Ukrainian ‘vyshyvanka’ shirt, holding on to his tiny section of a 10-foot Ukrainian flag that was being marched through Manchester city centre on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine. 

The Rising Sun

After seeing the photo, one of Alyona’s friends asked if she knew the boy’s mother, Yana Motytska. Yana was living in Clitheroe with her son Damir but regularly took the train to Manchester to join the rallies.

Yana’s husband, Badri, had been killed in action in March 2022. He was an educator by trade and never served in the military before the war began just weeks before. He died defending Moshchun, the site of one of the war’s most pivotal battles. It was here that Russians stopped their advance on Kyiv and started to retreat. 

Alyona was nervous about asking Yana to feature in the documentary, but Yana was keen to help a fellow Ukrainian. Alyona recalled: “She just smiled and said: ‘Yes, of course. What should I do.’ She is amazing. I think she didn't expect that everything would happen, I mean a big film, big project, big screen. Yana really wanted to help me to do my job for my company, for my job, for improving my working conditions. Every time she asked me: How are your colleagues? Are they happy with our process?”

Yana and Damir, the stars of Alyona Kaporina's documentary The Rising SunYana and Damir, the stars of Alyona Kaporina's documentary The Rising Sun
Yana and Damir, the stars of Alyona Kaporina's documentary The Rising Sun
Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Finding Yana and Damir is just one of the serendipitous moments she encountered during the filming process and some of the most poignant scenes came about entirely by accident. As Alyona described it: “I'm sure that there is a guardian angel for this film because there were these situations which were impossible to plan or foresee.”

One of those moments is an encounter with a fellow Ukrainian refugee on a bus in Salford. She had met Yana in a queue at the civic centre. Yana was applying unsuccessfully for social housing, but the other woman had decided on a more drastic course of action – to declare herself and her children homeless. 

The second moment happened in Moshchun. Alyona said: “It was my first visit to Ukraine after leaving, and I didn't plan to shoot in Ukraine but I felt that I would like to go to this place where Badri was killed, just to pay my respects. But I had a lot of business in Ukraine – doctors and flat refurbishment – so I was busy from morning to evening and I kept on delaying this trip to Moshchun. And on the last day, I was travelling in the evening, but during the day I told my ex-husband Zhenya to take me to Moschun.

“I saw a woman in black and a man in military clothes, and I realised: Oh my god, it's his mother and brother. There were no questions, it was just improvised. I was sure that this was some sort of divine providence because it was a coincidence that I had come right at that time, that day when they were there.”

Yana and Damir, the stars of Alyona Kaporina's documentary The Rising SunYana and Damir, the stars of Alyona Kaporina's documentary The Rising Sun
Yana and Damir, the stars of Alyona Kaporina's documentary The Rising Sun

“I risked it and I’m grateful”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

When we first sat down with Alyona, she insisted that we do the interview in English. She would not have been able to do this a year ago, so this is a big deal for her. She only occasionally slips back into Ukrainian, like when she tells me about her parents. They both died eight years ago, and although she misses them, she is glad they never had to live through this war. 

“I am really happy that they didn't know about it – or maybe they are just looking from heaven. You’re going to think I'm silly, but I have this thing. There are a lot of wild geese on the canals and sometimes I see a pair that are always watching me, observing, and I sometimes think they are my parents.”

Alyona still sees her future in Ukraine, but there is no way of knowing what will happen. She has already started thinking of ideas for her next project, both fiction and non-fiction. She also plans to take The Rising Sun to more film festivals.

She said: “I really miss Ukraine and I went to Ukraine last September to shoot a YouTube project in Kyiv and I was so happy to do it. For me, Kyiv is the best city to live, but in my situation everything depends on jobs. I am single, I am alone. Nobody can help me and I need to work and do something just to make money to live.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For now though, she is proud of her achievements since moving to the UK – of which there are many, from learning English to supporting the local community, and now making an award-winning documentary.

She said: “It was very emotional for me. This film was the hardest project in my life, but the most important. I risked it and I'm grateful for myself that I did.”