Welcome to Kachalka – Kyiv’s legendary outdoor gym. Inhabited by young and old (mainly topless barrel-chested men), at the sprawling fitness haven you can get your sweat on pumping some literal iron at one of the many scrap-metal exercise stations. In Gar O’Rourke’s 10-minute documentary we’re treated to a unique tour of the park, from its caretaker, and introduced to the important role it plays in the capital’s community.
First witnessing the unusual gym when he was sent a Whatsapp video from his brother, who lived in Kyiv a few years ago, O’Rourke reveals that “once I saw this place on camera I immediately knew there was an amazing story to be discovered”. A largely observational piece interspersed with voiceover from the film’s tour guide, despite the seriousness that the frequenters of Kachalka treat their workout retreat, O’Rourke punctuates his film with moments of humour (the sports massage my personal favourite) to ensure the focus here is more on the people than the striking, industrial nature of the place and its contraptions.
“I wanted to capture the unique spirit of this place and the lessons which could be taken from it”, O’Rourke explains and despite a film that focuses so specifically on this Ukrainian attraction, the universal themes of community, resourcefulness and friendship are the lasting memories that stick with us from the film. Although it’s fair to say that the man power-walking in his speedos, the beefcake working out with his head and the elderly guy busting the splits are images I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
O’Rourke does an excellent job of balancing the humour with more serious or touching moments, whether it’s a father with his child or the two old men who interact like an old married couple, Kachalka will make you laugh, smile and reflect (especially considering the current situation in Ukraine). Based in Dublin, the director made several trips to Kyiv prior to filming, so he could embed himself within the community and the gym. Praising their “amazing” local fixer Serg Solodko for helping them get under the skin of the place, O’Rourke aimed to make “the cinematic style feel ‘powerful’, to mirror the power of the machines and the people using them”.
“I hope this short film helps to shine a light on the Ukrainian spirit and what makes it truly unique”
The topical elephant in the room here is why we’re releasing a film set in Kyiv at this point in time. Speaking to O’Rourke, I was keen to ensure that his motivations for getting the film online weren’t at all exploitative of the horrendous situation in which the country currently finds itself and was more about celebrating the Ukrainian people. Worries that he quickly extinguished:
“Kachalka was made in Kyiv a couple of summers ago, in a moment in time which seems a far cry away from the tragedy which is currently taking place”, says O’Rourke. “Although this film shows a very different reality to what we are currently seeing in Kyiv and around the rest of Ukraine, I hope this short film helps to shine a light on the Ukrainian spirit and what makes it truly unique. The intention behind this film was to capture the incredible sense of community and ingenuity that exists at the heart of this Kyiv gym and I think this is something which speaks to the stories we are hearing from Ukraine in this present time.”
Since its festival premiere, Kachalka has competed in some of the world’s top film festivals including Clermont-Ferrand, Hot Docs, Aspen & Palm Springs Shortfest, before being selected for PBS’ Oscar & Emmy Award-winning documentary show POV. O’Rourke is planning to return to Ukraine for his first feature documentary, which takes place in a Soviet-era sanatorium.
If like director Gar O’Rourke, and everyone here at Short of the Week, you’ve been affected by the conflict in the Ukraine, the filmmaker has asked us to share a link to Red Cross Ukraine where you can make a donation to help support the emergency appeal