KYIV, Ukraine – For Roman Matsiyta, life went from real to real in the dark hours between dusk and dawn one day last month.
The 45-year-old Ukrainian actor-musician was preparing to celebrate the release of his latest film, “The Narrow Bridge,” a critically acclaimed drama on Amazon Prime that centers on a talented artist named Kiril. The main character, played by Matsiyta, has his life turned upside down when invaders attack his beloved country, compelling him to swap a paintbrush for a rifle.
Little did Matsiyta know that, while filming in and around Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv a couple of years ago, life would soon jarringly imitate art.
“I have acted in the movies many times, in war movies as a soldier, a character in the wars. But I never thought I would be acting like this in real life,” Matsiya recently said, cradling his gun next to sandbags piled in the frozen air outside of the presidential buildings in the heart of Kyiv. “But our military needs all of us.”
The actor said that unlike his Kiril character, it was not an eternal struggle for him to abandon his flute for a firearm to fight a real enemy.
“I woke up to the sound of explosions, and everyone knew it had begun, and I was ready to fight,” Matsiyta said of the Russian invasion of his country. “Immediately, I went out to find out how I could sign up to fight.
“There were many people like myself trying to be useful somehow or somewhere. After several days, we were accepted into the Territorial Defenses. We received our weapons and went forth to support however we could.”
The Territorial Defense Forces was founded in 2014 after Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, which saw President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, topple. The revolution was followed by Russia retaliating with the annexation of Crimea and backing pro-Russian separatists to invade eastern Ukraine.
In the TD’s early years, tens of thousands of volunteers signed on to the light-infantry, military defense outfit. The number ascended in recent months as tensions with Moscow burgeoned amid a troop buildup around Ukraine’s border. But in the nearly two weeks since the Russian takeover, the number of recruits has soared to up to 2 million.
TD has played a pivotal right in the fragile fight to maintain control of Ukraine – from manning checkpoints to running security checks and holding support-line positions that enable more experienced combat soldiers to focus on frontline fighting. But given that battles are breaking out across the embattled nation from many directions, the TD is more and more dragged into the heat of the combat.
“Everyone is participating in this war. Normal people throw Molotov cocktails, cook food, support those out in the cold,” Matsiyta said. “Our job is to maintain public order and help citizens not panic. We don’t want anything that will hinder the operations of our professional military.
“Everyone is taking arms. We will not let the enemy get into Kyiv.”
The prominent Ukrainian roams from checkpoint to checkpoint all day and most of the night, sleeping on thin mattresses on dusty floors and living on cold coffee and soup cooked by tenacious locals. He guides me past a string of faded, historical buildings on Kyiv’s Banker Street, pointing out the antique steps leading to the Writer’s Union and the storied National Art Museum of Ukraine.
Matsiyta said that this week, he was supposed to be recording the Georgian subtitles of “The Narrow Bridge,” produced by the late Oscar-nominated filmmaker Zaza Urushadze, followed by a trip to the US for press promotion. Now, he finds himself calling on Hollywood and the arts community worldwide to do more in support of Ukraine as the invasion intensifies.
“I would like to ask the global cultural community everywhere to support us, to express their upset, to protest however they can to stop this war,” he said, flipping his military cap to resemble something of a beret. “It will be easier to win with the support from the cultural community of the world, with as many voices as we can.”
From Matsiyta’s lens, there is no other term to describe the bloodletting in his nation besides “genocide.
“Over many years, Putin has turned the Russian population into zombies,” he said. “[The Russian people] believe that they are breaking us away from fascists.”
The graveyard of memories Matisiya has accumulated in just 10 days is enough to outweigh any dramatic take for the silver screen.
“I have seen how cities are shelled with rockets, and I have watched peaceful citizens and children die. I could not imagine in my worst nightmare this would be happening in my country,” he said. “But we will never surrender. … If my fate has been to be here, I will be here till the very end. I will not, I will not flee. I will not leave.”
Another Ukrainian man, Yuriy Temirbulatov, 55, sits beside the renowned actor as he speaks. Temirbulatov recounts how he operated a construction company just over a week ago. Even as an ethnic Russian on his mother’s side, he serves alongside Matsiyta – as well as a colorful cluster of farmers, military veterans, ballet dancers and schoolteachers in the name of the yellow and blue flag.
Temirbulatov scratches his head, confused about how family and friends in Russia still argues that there is no war, that it cannot possibly be real.
Meanwhile, the painful conflict has united Ukrainians far and wide, he said.
“There were many people in Ukraine who would not talk to each other for years, who hated each other for political reasons,” he said. “And now they are fighting together, fighting against the invaders.”
The men – clustered around a deserted courtyard as they breathe out a commixture of cigarette smoke and cold air – dream of returning to the before, their lives before this barbaric invasion.
“We want normalcy,” Temirbulatov said. “We want to go back to our lives.”