Letters from Ukraine: 1/04/22 – Saint Jon in Kyiv

George Gittoes remembers dear friends from Sydney, Ukraine, and the US, as he prepares to set off to film "Love in War."

Hellen Rose in Kyiv, photographed by George Gittoes

Before I knew my friend Jon Lewis was dying from dementia, I met up with him in Sydney and walked over to the Mitchell Library, where he was proud to show me his exhibition of street portraits. I miss Jon deeply and wish he was here in Kyiv. He would be out capturing the faces of this city under siege and bombardment, as he did when he travelled to the sinking Pacific Islands most threatened by climate change. The inspiring thing about great artist photographers, like Jon, is they teach us how to see one another with compassion.

There is an old lady who lives on the steps into the underground of Maidan Square, where we go to get our basic groceries. Some days she fills the underground with the sound of her wailing – it is loud, endless and heart-wrenching.  Yesterday she was out in the sunshine, for the first time, sharing some of her crumbs with the pigeons. By now Jon would have zoomed in to her, engaged, bonded, and taken a series of portraits. I have not known how to approach her, even though I know she is The Scream of Ukraine. I have Jon’s photo of another old lady glued to my fridge, back at home – she is a swimmer, emerging from the surf at Bondi Beach, wearing flippers and an infectious smile. Below it I have a polaroid, taken by Martin Sharp, of Jon and I at the Yellow House in 1971. We both have cheeky looks on our faces because we had been up to mischief together. We were very young; I was twenty-one and Jon was a year younger. Jon has a stylish vertically striped jacket and bowler hat, and I have the face makeup and a green cape from playing the fox in our production of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story of The Little Prince.

I’ve outlived all my other closest friends from the Yellow House – Martin Sharp, Brett Whitely, Peter Wright, Albie Thoms and David Litvinoff – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”  I lost my youth at the Yellow House, when my girlfriend Marie Briebauer took an overdose and died in our bed while I was away making a sculpture for our puppet theatre. Marie was proudly Ukrainian, although she had spent much of her life in America as a refugee with her mother. We met in San Francisco, and later she followed me to the Yellow House in Sydney. Wherever I go in Kyiv, I recognise places from the postcards and photos in her scrap book. Marie departed well beyond this world. I do not feel her spirit here, but I know she would be glad I came, and that Hellen is with me.

Yesterday, Hellen and I walked to the Dante park that looks down over the city. We watched playful squirrels in the trees and Hellen felt inspired to film herself singing “Raining in my Heart for Ukraine” on her cell phone. It is now posted on Twitter and Facebook.

I have not, yet, put on my frontline filmmaker’s hat, knowing that once I do, I will be fully absorbed and unable to pull myself back to safety. That starts tomorrow. For this April Fool’s Day in Kyiv, I am triggering the mechanics of getting myself out with the Ukraine soldiers as they fight the Russians. I will be asking them for their love stories.

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