Jake Swantko wanted to be a writer. "I was awful at it, though," he says. "After taking an electronics media class on a whim at the University of Oregon, I realized that filming gave me the ability to articulate in a different way. The most important thing with documentary work and with good camera work is the ability to empathize completely with people, to almost be a method actor in understanding other people and what their tendencies are. I found, as I started to shoot, that it all came full circle with wanting to tell stories."
As a freelance cinematographer for the past four years, Swantko got some valuable experience as a production coordinator on Greg Barker’s Emmy®-winning Manhunt (2013) and We Are the Giant (2014). While in Park City with Barker and the rest of the Giant team, hobnobbing with this producer and that director, maybe even a movie star here and there, Kiev was exploding. (During Sundance 2014, Kiev was where most of the action was. The Euromaidan protests saw some of the most aggressive offensives during mid- to late January. Crimea was not yet on the radar.)
"My eyes were glued to the TV every bar we walked into," says the 26-year-old who had been working as a cameraman for an advertising collective in Los Angeles before he found Passion Pictures in Culver City and applied to one of their job openings, which landed him on Barker’s two most recent documentaries.
"I’m Ukrainian," explains Swantko, "so going there is something I’ve always wanted to do. And following everything that was going on in Kiev just made that itch to go even stronger. I wasn’t the most fun guy to be around there because I felt like I was always somewhere else—I was always thinking about going to Ukraine."
Swantko, whose first professional gig was shooting footage on Bar Pilots in Astoria, Oregon, for National Geographic while still attending college, doesn’t speak Ukrainian. His great-grandfather was from a part of Ukraine that’s now Poland, a village called Zawadka Rymanowska, and there always has been a subtle undertone of the culture and traditions within his family. His desire to visit his ancestral homeland and the political upheaval that was occurring there put Swantko in an opportune position, but a dangerous one, as well, one he felt was necessary for him to witness and help others witness, too.
"I think that to put yourself in some degree of risk, you have to refer to your convictions," he says. "Look yourself in the mirror and ask, ‘Why are you doing this, and for what reason, and is it really important?’ I thought it was important enough, so I did it."