When Charlotte-based filmmaker Bryan Wright awoke in a Vienna airport to find that all of his equipment had been stolen while he napped, that could have been an excuse to ditch the mission he had set out on – to travel to Ukraine in the midst of a brutal war and volunteer while documenting what was happening.
But when he recalled his thoughts after making that unfortunate revelation, it seemed quitting never crossed his mind.
“I just figured, with what happened and my equipment being stolen, people are pretty desperate right now,” he said. “A lot of hungry people ain’t got nothing and have lost everything, and I wasn’t about to complain about my cameras. Push on, push on.”
Wright spoke with Queen City Nerve over the phone from an undisclosed location to discuss what brought him to Ukraine during the war, what he’s taken away from his first 10 days in the country, and his plans moving forward.
Getting to Ukraine
A month or so before his trip, as Wright had watched things unfold from his home in Charlotte – with Russia moving from building up troops on the border to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine followed by war – the 47-year-old filmmaker felt compelled to do something.
“Something inside of me said, ‘I want to volunteer. I wanna go help,’” he said.
Though not religious himself, Wright sometimes does community work with Rev. Larry Williams, pastor at Tabernacle of God Ministries in Dillon, South Carolina, and director of that church’s mobile food bank.
While discussing Wright’s desire to volunteer in Ukraine in some way, Williams mentioned that his church and others had already raised money to help Ukrainians with supplies including short-wave radios and trauma kits through the #WorldforUkraine movement.
It was then that Wright’s vision became real; he would deliver the supplies to Ukraine and try to connect with a nonprofit organization or any grassroots group that could use his help.
“I thought, ‘Now I’ve got a little purpose here. This might work,’” he said.
Wright set out for Ukraine on March 17. His camera equipment was stolen during a layover on his way to Warsaw, Poland, where he bought a new camera and hired someone to drive him to Lublin, Poland, closer to the border.
From there, he made contact with a fixer (or a “sherpa,” as Wright calls them) who brought him across the border and into Lviv in western Ukraine, where he was able to drop off two suitcases full of radios and trauma kits.
‘They’re mad, but they’re scared’
His first night in Lviv, he stayed in a yoga studio that had been turned into a refugee center, where he said he met “all types of nice families,” then traveled to Trenopil the next morning, where he stayed at an inn and interviewed members of a family he met there.
Wright eventually made his way further east to Kyiv, the embattled capital of Ukraine, which is still under control of the Ukrainian government but has been subject to heavy bombing.
Upon arrival, Wright was made to stay in the train station for 48 hours under a two-day “curfew” that amounted to a lockdown. During that time, which Wright describes as “cold, stressful, with no place to sleep,” he was picked up by a fixer and began to move around the outskirts of Kyiv a bit.
When Queen City Nerve spoke with him, he was in a town about 20 minutes outside of the capital. He had spent the day in a building with members of the community who had gathered to camo nets, which help hide tanks and other military equipment from recon drones and bomber jets.
He described the people he met that day, civilians young and old, as “like lions,” saying the mood on the ground was grim but hopeful.
“Everybody’s pretty nervous, and they’re angry,” Wright said. “The Russians have killed over 100 kids. They’ve blown up over 300 schools. They’ve destroyed cities. They’ve killed thousands and thousands of civilians now. So Ukrainians are upset. They’re mad, but they’re scared too.”
Much of his time has been spent trying to help secure aid from afar, acting as a go-between residents and foreign aid organizations.
In follow-up text messages after our original conversation, Wright said he was working to help get a large load of tactical gear and medical supplies from Germany through Lviv and into Kyiv.
“The people here want to know ‘Where is the world?’ and ‘When will they send help?’” he wrote. “People need supplies and for some reason the supplies promised from Lviv aren’t making their way here. Medicines and tactical gear are needed desperately.”
Anxiety on high for everyone
As for the other part of his mission, to document what is happening in Ukraine, he has found it more difficult than expected. Ukrainians are extremely suspicious of outsiders, he said, and understandably so. He operates under strict guidelines that include not taking any pictures of military installations or buildings that may or not be used by the military.
Many of the photos he was able to send to Queen City Nerve are more artistic than journalistic, and even those come with dangers. Wright documented the installation of anti-tank barriers around Kyiv, also made by community members, but not all shoots have gone well.
At one time, he tried to shoot a picture of a sandbag with a sunset behind it, but because the sandbag was part of a larger military installation, even if unidentifiable, he suddenly found himself looking down the barrels for four guns.
He identified himself as American press and admitted that he should not have taken the picture. One of the Ukrainian soldiers who had confronted him went through his phone and made him delete that picture and a few others, he said. He’s been temporarily detained on three occasions in which he was seen taking pictures without a fixer.
It was clear during our multiple conversations that the trip has taken its toll on Wright’s mental health. Before going to Ukraine, he had assumed that more people in the country would speak English, similar to other European countries he had visited in peacetime.
That hasn’t been the case, however, and he has found the language barrier incredibly isolating, even though he has not been alone since arriving in Kiev.
“The biggest thing is trying to find someplace where I’m not completely feeling like a fish out of water when it comes to language,” he said. “I definitely feel a little dumber. But it’s OK. I’m here to help and they know that and they’ve been warm and welcoming.”
He has also witnessed traumatic scenes of devastation and desperation, serving as reminders that he is there voluntarily while so many others couldn’t leave if they wanted to.
“I’m hearing many stories of courage and pain,” he said. “Many are losing everything. It is their strength and love for freedom that keeps pushing me and inspiring me beyond what I think my mind and soul can handle.”
It is the desperate scenes at train stations — like the woman who broke down when she realized her daughter had walked back into the city just as their train was supposed to leave — that stick with him the most. He continues to keep a close eye on operations, as he does not have an exit strategy beyond the trains.
“I’m watching the trains,” he said. “If they do start saying they’re going to put a stop to the trains, I’m kind of thinking in my head right now, from the desperation I’ve already seen and how crazy the train station could be, I’d like to avoid that. I’m hoping the trains keep running, and as long as the trains keep running, that’s the only strategy I’ve got right now.”
During our last text conversation, Wright said he was “slightly lonely and my stress level is at the max,” but he had only become more resolute in the reasons he was there and more comfortable with his surroundings.
He said he will continue to try to connect with volunteer organizations while drawing inspiration from the residents he meets along the way.
“It’s really amazing and powerful to see people come together like this,” he told Queen City Nerve. “Nothing makes me feel more human and that I’m part of what we are and who we are more than ever.”