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INTERVIEW | Lessons from Ukraine and Taiwan: Japan, Are You Listening?

Acclaimed filmmaker Bryan Hopkins explains why he "can't say that I chose Ukraine but was more accurately consumed by it" in a compelling interview from Taiwan.



Bryan D Hopkins in Ukraine. (© Bryan D Hopkins)

The war in Ukraine entered its 3rd year in February. From the outset, there has been intense debate over how it started, how and if Ukraine should be supported, how long that support should last as the fighting drags on, what Vladimir Putin's end game is, and so on. But one thing that is not debatable is the terrible toll the war has taken on the civilians of Ukraine. 

I recently interviewed the acclaimed filmmaker, Bryan D Hopkins. He is the director of Dirty Energy, the story of the British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Hopkins has recently returned to Taiwan, where he has lived for the past decade, after spending eight months documenting the war in Ukraine. 

In late February, he published an op-ed "Lessons from the war in Ukraine - Taipei Times"). It is about the lessons Taiwan's civilians should learn from Ukraine's experiences, as comparisons are quite often drawn between the geostrategic situations facing both countries. Namely, Taiwan has a neighboring nuclear-armed military power on its (maritime) border claiming its territory. 

I heard Hopkins speak in Taipei, where I currently live, upon his return. Then I read his piece in the Taipei Times. I wanted to ask him about what things Japan's civilians should be thinking about in the event of a contingency in the region. 

Excerpts follow.

Bryan D Hopkins, filmmaker, at work. (© Bryan D Hopkins)

A Conversation with Bryan Hopkins

What led you to become a filmmaker? 

I became a filmmaker in the wake of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. At the time, I was working as a loan officer, making good money and training for a management position. But then almost overnight everything came crashing down and we started seeing massive layoffs. 

Then I saw the writing on the wall, chose to leave, pursue something closer to my passions, and attended film school. I enjoy everything about storytelling, from writing to shooting and editing. But the best part is seeing how images and story ideas can be assembled and move people. [Also,] I think storytelling is a crucial part of being human. It allows us to learn from each other outside of direct experience. If I burn my hand on a stove, I can tell you so you don't have to make that same mistake. 

What led you to choose to go to Ukraine?

I am a passionate filmmaker and an overall curious person. [However,] I can't say that I chose Ukraine but was more accurately consumed by it. For the last 10 years, I have lived in Taiwan. When I first got here, I noticed another foreigner on my street and my first instinct was to meet him for a drink. We did and he quickly became one of my dearest friends. His name is Yuriy and he was a visiting physics scholar from Ukraine who was working with Academia Sinica


Yuriy used to split his time between Ukraine and Taiwan until the COVID pandemic hit and he was stuck in Ukraine for two years. We stayed in touch during that time but there was never a thought that he wouldn't return. That is until Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022. Once the war started, I couldn't think about anything else. 

As a former US Army medic, I briefly considered going as a volunteer. But things weren't very well organized in those early days. Once the Russians were repelled from the Kyiv region, I bought my ticket, packed my camera, and left with the full support of my immediate family.

(© Bryan D Hopkins)

What did you see there?

I started my journey to Ukraine in Warsaw, Poland. From there I visited Auschwitz before heading to Lviv. It's really difficult to put death on the scale of the World Wars into perspective in the modern era. We are so detached from history these days. I fear we have become complacent and run the risk of unwittingly wandering into another major world disaster. 

When I arrived in Lviv I was greeted warmly by my friend Yuriy. It was so great to see him and his family. It's one thing to hear someone say they are okay and something else entirely to see them and hear their voice. 

Along with being a father and a professor, Yuriy has become a pastor. And for much of the last 2 years [he] has run a refugee and food distribution center out of his church. He is a remarkable person. But Ukraine is filled with a lot of people fully committed to defending their country and home from the invaders. 

I traveled all over the country, Kramatorsk, Bakhmut, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odessa, Bucha, and Izyum. In all of these places and more, brave volunteers were pulling together for a single cause despite all the stress and uncertainty of war. It was inspiring.

You have a unique background, including as a medic in the US Army. How did your military background inform your observations, interviews, and filming?

I served in the 82nd Airborne Division during peacetime as a medic. I think this background helped me in at least one small way. [Also,] I have already accepted the fact that I could die for what I believe in. Forgive me for being dramatic, but I mean it. 

I used to jump out of planes, so you need to answer that question first or it can be a nerve-wracking line of work. I'm not going to say that I wasn't scared at times then, or in Ukraine. Bahkmut and Kharkiv were quite stressful at times. 

It was difficult to get close to the battlefield. The degree of danger grows exponentially the closer you get, but it's the last couple of kilometers that things get particularly hectic. I can't stress enough the importance of keeping your distance in a conflict. Irpin and Bucha are haunting.

(© Bryan D Hopkins)

What did you find most helpful during these times?

The experience that helped me most in my interviews was less being a veteran and more about being a father. Ukrainians are incredibly stoic. They don't wear their emotions on their sleeve like today's Americans tend to do. 

That said, once I started connecting with some of the people I was interviewing as fathers, the walls came down. I asked one soldier in the hospital with major shrapnel wounds to his legs about his family who had left the country. And he gave me a very straight answer that his kids were fine. I told him how much I missed my son and daughter and that I knew it must be challenging because it was difficult for me, and I knew I would eventually return home. It was only then that he gave me a genuine heartfelt answer. 

At the end of the day, we are all human, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers. People must never forget that.

Why did you think to apply the lessons to Taiwan?

My wife is Taiwanese, my kids are obviously a blend of Taiwanese and American. I love Taiwan and see it as my second home. [And] it makes sense to share a cautionary story with those you love. 

It would break my heart if anything was to destabilize the region and open conflict were to break out. I think it could be exceptionally devastating for Taiwan if China attacked and I want people to benefit from my experience. I think the threat is real. 

The second-largest economy is scaling up its People's Liberation Army faster than any military in the history of the planet. Xi Jinping has stated very clearly that his patience with Taiwan is running out. It sounds remarkably similar to Putin's threats before the invasion of Ukraine. Thus, I decided to write a commentary in the Taipei Times on the 2nd anniversary of the invasion.

What do you think Japan can learn from Ukraine, living in the same region as Taiwan?

Many things. First, I invite readers to read through the commentary in the Taipei Times. Of course, Japan knows the pain of conflict more than most. I don't think I can say anything to make the horrors of war more vivid for the Japanese people, especially the older generation that experienced the war or the aerial attacks on Japan. 

If Taiwan is attacked, Japan will need to know how to conduct large-scale water rescue operations for the "Taiwanese boat people." [That's because] many Taiwanese would try to flee to nearby countries — Japan in the north and the Philippines in the south. Because the population is largely centered on Taipei, in the north, Taiwanese would try to go to Japan. 

Has Japan learned all it can from the refugee situation in Europe after Russia's invasion? What about lessons from the Mediterranean, from conflict in the Middle East and Africa, where many of the refugees came by sea? If those refugees don't want to return to a People's Republic of China-run Taiwan, what if the United States failed to intervene? No one could blame them. 


Is Japan ready to accept them for the long-term? I think that's a tough situation logistically, financially, and socially. Japan needs to be thinking about these things and to do so now. Not tomorrow. Hopefully, nothing like that ever happens, but it is increasingly likely.


Review by: Robert D Eldridge, PhD 

Dr Eldridge is a former political advisor to the US Marine Corps in Japan, and author and a 2024 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Fellow at Tamkang University.

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