Behind the scenes: A Ukrainian camera operator, unflinching in his craft

Ukrainian diasporas existed around the world long before the 2022 Russian invasion. Israel is one country with a big Ukrainian community. But for some reason, people there persist in referring to Ukrainians as "Russians." This time, I want to highlight the actions of one of my Ukrainian friends and his background.

Artyom Dubitski was born in Ukraine and raised in Israel, where he was always pigeonholed as Russian. On a recent assignment, his tact and dedication were extraordinary.

(Former NHK Jerusalem bureau chief, Soga Taichi)

Language dilemma

In February 2023, just before Russia's invasion of Ukraine hit the one-year mark, I traveled to Canada. I was there to report on a Ukrainian family I had met at the border of Poland a year before, when the chaos began.

I was based in Jerusalem at the time, and I had to choose a camera operator to travel with. Would I go with the person I usually work with? Or opt for someone who could communicate with our subjects?

I eventually chose Artyom, a Ukrainian-Israeli film director. He's an up-and-coming documentary maker who recently won a top prize at an Israeli film festival.

When I asked about his background during an online interview, he said he was from Ukraine. But he also revealed he's not fluent in the language.

I still chose him. And Artyom told me: "I've constantly been thinking about what I can do for Ukraine, but I couldn't do anything until now. I'm really glad we can cover this story together."

Artyom was born in 1990 in Malyn, a town in northern Ukraine not far from Bucha. A large number of civilians from the area were killed during the invasion.

Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the chaos that followed, Artyom's family fled to Israel, as they had Jewish heritage. He was seven at the time.

Russian 'no matter what'

Many other Jewish families did the same. But for Artyom, the sudden move to a country he knew nothing about was difficult.

Artyom (middle) and his family began a new life in Israel.

Although Artyom was from Ukraine, he only spoke Russian, which was spoken by local people in the USSR's former republics. And no matter how many times he explained his roots, his classmates called him "Russian." He said, "I was busy explaining 'I am Ukrainian'."

Artyom was regarded as a Jew in Ukraine because his father's family was Jewish. But in Israel, people are considered Jewish only if their mothers are Jews.

"I was definitely having a serious identity crisis. I didn't know who I truly was," he recalled. Artyom started thinking he was half Russian, half Ukrainian.

Finding a true identity

Then came February 2022, when Russia launched the invasion. "I felt as if one of the halves of myself was attacking the other half," Artyom said.

He feverishly hoped for any news that the conflict was over or that Ukraine's counteroffensive was succeeding, especially for the sake of his relatives who decided to stay.

Artyom even thought about going to Ukraine to help in some way, but his family said it was too dangerous.

He said, "With Russia's military invasion, my Ukrainian identity became stronger."

In Canada, Artyom used his knowledge of the Russian language to double as an interpreter for the Ukrainian family in our story.

Reminders of Russia

Our subjects, the Biglenko family, were from Kherson in southern Ukraine. Before the invasion, they mostly spoke Russian at home. But now, they converse entirely in Ukrainian.

The Biglenkos dislike any reminder of Russia. And this was not lost on Artyom.

"I wanted them to feel safe and didn't want to remind them of anything negative that they have experienced" by speaking Russian, he said. After he politely explained his circumstances, the family understood.

Artyom films the Biglenko family in February 2023.

Six-day assignment

When we conducted the main interview with wife and mother Natasha Biglenko, we asked her to speak Ukrainian so that she could feel more comfortable. I told Artyom that asking questions in Russian wouldn't be a problem, but as we started, he slowly translated my questions and tried to ask them to Natasha in Ukrainian.

Natasha spoke of the heartbreak she has suffered as her family fled around the globe. Artyom's skilled camerawork captured her emotion.

Natasha Biglenko, as filmed by Artyom

A genuine bond

The Biglenkos welcomed us with a traditional Ukrainian dish, borscht.

Artyom and the family's 10-year-old son Platon connected over their shared struggle with a childhood move to an unfamiliar country.

Platon Biglenko

Artyom also doted on 6-year-old Maria, also known as Marichka. He had to confront his own complicated feelings while we worked, and he became close with the Biglenkos because of who he is.

Natasha and Maria Biglenko

After we wrapped up, Artyom told me: "Covering this story was special. When I first heard about this opportunity, I felt like it was a gift from the sky. I know making a report will not stop the war, and the war is still going on. This is unfortunate. But it was important for me to do something. I wanted to feel part of it. My Ukrainian part was pulling me into this. And I hope the lives of the Biglenkos will be better."

The Biglenkos with journalist Soga Taichi and camera operator Artyom Dubitski

Ukrainians united

Artyom is among many people of Ukrainian descent who live in Israel. On February 24, 2023, they gathered in the central square of Tel Aviv to mark exactly one year since Russia launched its invasion.

Ukrainians protest in Tel Aviv. (February 2023)

The crowd condemned Russia's actions and called for a swift end to the conflict.

Like Artyom, many have struggled over the years with their identity. But that's changing now. "I didn't know who I was in Israel, but the invasion has strengthened my identity as a Ukrainian," said one participant.

In the 19th century, renowned Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko wrote: "Keep fighting—you are sure to win!"

All these years later, Ukrainians across the world are battling on. And they firmly believe Shevchenko's words will once again become reality.