By the time he received the 100th message of “thoughts and prayers”, “thinking of you” or “wishing you all the best”, Ukrainian director Daniel L (who has requested to keep his surname anonymous) started sending back links to Come Back Alive
. Along with his sincere thanks, of course. While Daniel appreciated people thinking about him and his country during its invasion by Russia, he felt that money to the NGO would do more good.
The biggest NGO working on the ground in Ukraine, Come Back Alive’s main mission is to make sure defenders of their homeland come back alive to their loved ones.
“Strangely enough, it worked,” says Daniel. “One of my best friends told me this helped him snap back to reality and stop feeling hopeless. It’s somewhat easy to feel guilty for not being on the frontlines, fighting off the invaders or assisting people on the ground, but we all have a very simple way to help, and not just ephemeral bigwigs from large NGOs, but actual volunteers putting your money exactly where it’s needed in Ukraine and right now.”
As a director, Daniel had considered what he might be able use his skills for from the early days of the war. He messaged his friends at London agency 10 Days saying he needed to go meet his mother in Barcelona after she managed to safely leave Ukraine. They’d been in post production of another project when the war broke out, but immediately offered to help Daniel, and Ukrainians more generally, in any way possible. “Daniel came back to us a few days later and said he was fed up with people just sending their best wishes and not taking action like donating,” says the 10 Days team. “Whenever something terrible happens in the world you often feel helpless, but this time we thought how can we use our expertise in advertising to help.”
Daniel had a friend at Come Back Alive. He and Oleksii Novikov (the fund’s head of creative) had worked together on a project called ‘Wartaxi
’ after the Russian invasion of Donbas. It was very successful but also provided an introduction to what Come Back Alive does.
The connection and a willingness to help in place, 10 Days wrote a script within an hour. Daniel pitched it to them and they signed it off within 10 minutes. They went into production that evening on ‘The International Office of Thoughts and Prayers’
The goal from the beginning was to get people donating. “That never changed,” says the 10 Days team. “Sending thoughts and prayers, however thoughtful they are, aren't really going to impact the situation on the ground in Ukraine. We just had to make people reappraise this, and donate.”
The script took a surprisingly lighthearted approach to achieve this, considering the horrors provoking the campaign. The satirical film opens in the office of the ‘International Office of Thoughts and Prayers’, which has been clearly overwhelmed by the number of thoughts and prayers being sent recently. We are introduced to a telephone representative (played by TV comedian Ahir Shah), who convinces a caller that donations, rather than thoughts and prayers, would be more helpful and perhaps appropriate in the circumstances. “Instead, we are actively encouraging people to give donations to those supplying Ukrainians with life-saving equipment. Which is probably a more effective way to stop a tyrant than…spreading good wishes,” says Ahir.
The 10 Days team felt that comedy was the only way to stand out and get people to consider a different perspective. “We knew it was controversial,” they say, “but we also know that is often the best way to make an impact. The key was making donations the focus. We felt as long as we did that then we would be OK.”
For Daniel, getting every aspect of the film right was crucial. One important detail for him, as a Ukrainian and as a director, was the flag in the cup on Ahir’s table. “Our art director glued it the wrong way around and had a curse put on him afterward,” he says. “I’m joking. In all seriousness, I think [the most important aspect] was treading lightly with the humour in the spot, whilst conveying the punch of the message. The tone couldn’t be silly, nor overly soft in its execution, nor could it be worthy or overtly critical. And this was not just in the script itself, but the set and performance.”
Even for a team that takes pride in their speed, a production time of 48 hours is impressive. But with the right motivation, it was easy to get the film made quickly. “Knowing every day counted to get donations in – and feeling the passion and pain of Daniel’s story – it only made us more determined to make something great as fast as we could,” the 10 Days team says. “The hardest part was trying to reach talent as agents just don’t respond. We managed to get hold of Ahir through a friend. The stars aligned and he was free and loved the script, so everything fell into place. We are extremely proud that everyone volunteered without question to make this happen.”
The resulting film is unlike any of the charity appeals you’ve seen to support the people of Ukraine against Putin’s invasion. And hopefully it will lead to more tangible support for the country. As Oleksii Novikov, head of creative at Come Back Alive puts it: “Ukraine is really thankful to the whole world for their prayers. A lot of us believe in God, so it means a lot. During these dark days, Ukrainians are praying from bomb shelters, tanks, trenches and hospitals, from free Kyiv and occupied Kherson. We have a good saying, roughly translated as ‘count on God, but count on yourself too’ which means that the chances of having your prayers answered grow exponentially when you’re trying to work miracles yourself. For example ending the war.”