The View from Here: Man, Myth and Hero

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Volodymyr Kish.

There is an amazing Ukrainian documentary film on tour currently in Canada titled “Myth”, about an unlikely, yet very real hero in the ugly conflict that the Russians have been waging in Eastern Ukraine for the past few years. His name is Wasyl Slipak. He was tragically killed by a sniper’s bullet on June 29, 2016 near the town of Luhanske in the Donbas conflict zone. He became one of the more than four thousand Ukrainian fighters that have been killed since hostilities erupted in 2014.

What distinguishes Slipak’s untimely death from those countless others is his unique life story and the tragic waste of a truly world class musical talent. He was born in Lviv in 1974, and from an early age was recognized as a real vocal prodigy. His singing abilities were truly extraordinary. His vocal range spanned the spectrum from countertenor to bass. For those unfamiliar with music, countertenor is the equivalent of the female mezzo soprano range. This ability was so rare that it actually hindered his being accepted for study at the Lviv Conservatory, as the faculty there, though recognizing his talents, did not know what to do with him and his unique skills.

Slipak persevered in pursuing music and subsequent to winning an opera singing competition in France, he was invited to sing in Paris’ Opera Bastille. His talents were quickly recognized, and he was subsequently invited to join the prestigious, world-famous Paris opera where he became a featured soloist. By 2011 he was at the top of his field and enjoying well deserved renown on the world opera scene.

When the Maidan revolution broke out in 2014 leading to the Crimean crisis and war in the Donbas, Slipak became increasingly concerned with events in his homeland, and became actively involved in leading the Ukrainian community in Paris in demonstrations and fundraising for the victims of the conflict. His patriotic sympathies evolved into a passion, until finally in 2015 he took leave from his operatic career, took up arms and joined a volunteer battalion fighting in the Donbas. When his leave ended, he returned briefly to Paris and the opera, but his heart and soul were elsewhere. He came back to the front in 2016, and shortly thereafter, met his untimely end. He was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine,

The documentary film about his life is titled Myth and interestingly the title is a play on words. In Ukrainian, the word is “Mif”, which is also the nom de guerre that Slipak took on when he went into combat. It was the shortened form in Ukrainian of Mephistopheles, his favourite operatic role in his stint with the Paris opera. Ironically it symbolically reflects his real-life transition from an operatic hero to a tragic real life hero.

The film is not your standard documentary of a war hero, nor does it indulge in a hagiographic interpretation of his life. It avoids idolizing Slipak, showing a man who, though a world class talent with a penchant for sacrifice and heroism, was still very human, and at times prone to mischief and self-indulgence. When he left Paris to go fight the Russians in the Donbas, he not only abandoned his promising operatic career, but also broke the heart of a woman with whom he had a deep love affair. In many ways he was larger than life, and to more normal humans like myself, it can be hard to understand the motivations and passions that drove him to do what he did. Heroes are often enigmatic creatures, driven to do extraordinary things by an inspiration that transcends standard human reality.

Whatever the case, there can be little doubt that Slipak’s extraordinary life story is worthy of literary and artistic treatment. It is a story that is rapidly and deservingly evolving into the realm of mythology, both in Ukraine and in the diaspora. The great American expert on mythology, Joseph Campbell developed the concept of “the hero’s journey” as a process of “following your bliss”, and Slipak’s own heroic journey towards becoming a myth is a good reflection of this ideal. As Campbell once said, “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves, and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

For those of you who have not seen the film, I would highly recommend making the effort. It is more than just a documentary film about Ukraine’s current struggles. It is a film about the more universal theme of what motivates some humans to do truly extraordinary and heroic deeds. Tour details can be found at: www.dopomoha-ukraini.org/

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