Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, ‘Scream of My Blood’ Filmmakers on Capturing Punk Band’s Story

Eugene Hütz, founder and frontman with U.S. gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, would likely to have ended up a painter wearing “dirty pants and long hair” had his parents not left the Soviet Union when he was 16.

“I would probably have become a painter, as there was more of a path paved in that in my family,” he says. “I was drawing most of my childhood and my uncle – Mikhail Mykolayev – is a pretty well-known painter who still lives in Kyiv.”

Fresh from playing a brief, impromptu solo guitar gig at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, following the international premiere of a new documentary about the band, “Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story,” Hütz fits the bill, although his khaki cargo pants are not paint spattered.

The singer was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, but the Hütz family left years of Communist oppression behind and moved to Western Europe in the dying days of the Soviet empire. His father had always been a non-conformist – something which spelt trouble in the Soviet Union – and Eugene says that even at the age of nine, teachers had him down as a dangerously independent thinker. But it was the meltdown at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 that finally forced the decision to leave.

By the time he was 17, after living as a refugee in several countries, the family had been granted U.S. immigration visas and settled in Burlington, Vermont. Eugene – who had already been playing in proto-punk bands in Kyiv – thought his creative life had come to an end in the small New England city. But a walk down the main street – which had several indie record stores – restored his hopes, and when he bumped into some teenaged punk rockers, expressed his delight with a heavily-accented reference to San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys. The local kids looked at this weird new arrival in town and said “Sex…” to which Hütz responded: “Pistols.”

“Scream of My Blood”
Courtesy of Vice News

The story, told in “Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story,” directed by Nate Pommer and Eric Weinrib, is a small part of the jigsaw that is Gogol Bordello. Presented at a packed-out Special Screening Thursday in the Bohemian Spa town from which the festival takes its name, it was its first screening in Europe after its world premiere last month at New York’s Tribeca festival. The choice of Karlovy Vary has some historical resonance for Hütz: Nikolai Gogol, the Ukrainian-born writer, was a visitor at the Bohemian Spa town’s famous Grand Hotel Pupp in 1845. The imposing and ornate hotel is where festival VIPs stay, and it records Gogol’s visit in a brass plaque set in the cobbled entrance courtyard, alongside other illustrious visitors, including Richard Wagner in 1835, Luis Buñuel in 1956, and John Travolta in 2013.

Hütz, who is proud of the mixed ethnicity and immigrant backgrounds of his band members, which include Asian, South American and other fellow Eastern Europeans, is also a fierce Ukrainian patriot and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefit gigs to support Ukrainian refugees since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country in February last year.

“Scream of My Blood” emerged from 20 years of footage shot of the band by Pommer. A close friend of Hütz, Pommer was working as an editor at Vice Media in New York when the Russian invasion started. Last year he pitched a news story about the band being invited to play for Ukrainian border guards in Uzhhorod, a town in western Ukraine that borders Hungary. News bosses thought it too cultural for a hard news piece, but Beverly Chase, VP current programming and development at Vice News, saw its possibilities and brought Vice on board as a producer. Weinrib, who also worked at Vice and has a documentary background (he worked with Michael Moore on “Fahrenheit 911” and made a documentary about Roseanne Barr’s “gonzo-run for president” – “Roseanne for President”), was brought on board to co-direct and help shape the two decades’ worth of material Pommer had already shot.

The result is a vivid story of the richness of a band that has stood the test of time – and multiple changes of members – over 20 years, to become an enduring international feature on the alternative music circuit. It is also a detailed glimpse of the life of Hütz, with documentary footage from the Chernobyl incident and the Maidan protests in Kyiv that precipitated the fall of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and was followed by Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.

Although the war in Ukraine bookends “Scream of Blood,” Pommer says there were “many points I thought we could make the film, but the Russian invasion made it urgent and timely to make now.”

But the film is wider and deeper than that, Wienrib adds: “Other band members with roots in other nations also had their tumultuous times in their countries; as much as I see the film as being about Gogol Bordello and the Russian/Ukrainian situation, it is also a love letter to immigrants everywhere – wherever they come from there is a seat for them at the table. The more they remain authentic to their roots, the more they enrich society as a whole.”

There is plenty of music from the band’s live gigs across North America and around the world, insights into Hütz’s inner spiritual world (he spent several years in Brazil learning mediation and other eastern spiritual practices), and the back stories of key members of the group.

Hütz, who generally is dismissive of documentaries about musicians (exceptions include Nick Cave’s pseudo-documentary “20,000 Days on Earth”) says that, “in this instant it serves a purpose – that the world finally has to learn where Ukraine is, what it is, that it is not Russia. It also shows that there is a band that has been around 20 years, which has always been showing those traits of extreme anti-Russianness.” He emphasizes his antipathy toward Russia by citing a controversial 1995 book by historian and anthropologist Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, “The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering,” to drive home his point. Variety’s attempt to refer to those in Russia who oppose Putin and the war – known from the Variety journalist’s own long association with Russia – is swiftly cut off.

But can music really make a difference during a war? Hütz, who says Gogol Bordello plan to play in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities later this year, insists there is a value: “Yes – a limited difference,” he says. “It certainly cannot change anything fast, but it can provide a sense of direction to people who are completely lost: it also can inspire people to act faster – the ones who are already on a certain path.”

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