What does it mean to live in Ukraine? The filmmakers offer their answers.


When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, my social media was filled with denunciations of Russian President Vladimir Putin and lists recommending how best to support Ukraine. All of this made me feel a bit sheepish. Suddenly, Ukrainian cinema was relevant and a familiar, giddy feeling returned: what good is it against the harsh reality of war? What could be achieved by engaging with Ukrainian art and cinema beyond the flabby goal of raising awareness?

At the time, I was on my way to the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, where “Mr. Landsbergis,” Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s muscular four-hour documentary epic about the Lithuanian independence movement, was making its American premiere. Unless you were a fan of arthouse cinema, or perhaps someone with an interest in Eastern Europe, Loznitsa’s films were considered obscure. This, despite being a prolific and highly acclaimed director, and perhaps the preeminent chronicler of post-Soviet history.

Faced with these new features, however, my initial crude reactions started to feel out of place. Watching a Loznitsa film is anything but a passive activity. Consider his documentaries: they’re often assembled from archival footage and eschew (or use very sparingly) the use of obvious editorial methods like voiceover, interviews, and title cards. Instead of providing background information, Loznitsa relies on carefully selected loaded images organized into montages, which is why his films can sometimes feel like being thrown into the depths of history without a vest. rescue.

His works are also straightforward examples of the intertwining of real-world politics and film production processes. In “Babi Yar: Context”, Loznitsa repurposes World War II footage, much of it originally intended for Nazi and Soviet propaganda, to reveal the cycles of violence that unfolded in the Ukrainian city of kyiv after the 1941 massacre up close of 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and their Ukrainian allies.

Yet Loznitsa’s vision is deeply cynical, one that is most evident in its narrative features, such as “Donbass”, a dark satire on corruption and propaganda in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. In the film, Loznitsa oscillates between farce and horror, weaving local vignettes together: a blatant display of a Russian pal parading medical staff around an office to expose the alleged theft of hospital supplies. a doctor (the materials are very obviously planted); a Ukrainian soldier taken hostage, then practically tarred and feathered by sadistic civilians; the murders of a team of pro-Russian propaganda actors, whose deaths are attributed to Ukrainian nationalists. But the relentless gallows humor, cruelty and chaos end up feeling like a surrender to utter nihilism.

The breadth and significance of Loznitsa’s films make him a formidable spokesperson for Ukrainian cinema, but I wonder if his cool, impersonal approach, mindful of power structures and the complex ramifications of historical events, might also help some sort of distance.

What is life in Ukraine like and how do ordinary people cope with perpetual violence and escalating militarization? What does it mean to live in the crosshairs of Russian imperialism and Ukrainian nationalism? A number of recent and upcoming films by Ukrainian filmmakers, born out of the continuing conflict, attempt to articulate these tensions, some more directly in conversation with the brutalities of war than others.

Maksym Nakonechnyi’s “Butterfly Vision,” premiering at Cannes in the coming days, follows a Ukrainian reconnaissance expert who struggles to adjust to normal life after being raped and held as a prisoner of war. Natalya Vorozhbit’s (arguably dark) omnibus film “Bad Roads” (shown on Film Movement Plus) loosely connects four stories set around the Donbass, exploring the strained relationship between vulnerable women and soldiers stationed in the region.

In the austere drama “Reflection” by Valentyn Vasyanovych (in some theaters), a Ukrainian surgeon, Serhiy, is captured by Russian soldiers and forced to help dispose of the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers who died under torture. The nightmarish first half – which takes place in a muddy gray off-grid prison with a portable human incinerator – unfolds with unnerving patience. We are practically witnessing the trauma seeping into our hero’s bones. Then, in the second half, Serhiy is freed in a prisoner swap, and everything about his life, including his swanky high-rise apartment and his relationship with his angsty young daughter, takes on a zombified state, shrouded in a dissociative haze even as it tries to repair itself.

It is true that art gives us the opportunity to confront uncomfortable truths, and yet the most serious and dark examples are generally considered the most significant, impactful, informative and worthy of our time. . But the experience of living the war does not begin and end with the raising of arms or the exhibition of its worst victims. Naturally, we are more easily excited by these extremes, but perhaps a different kind of sensitivity is warranted that communicates not only the worst of wartime life, but the breadth and particularity of everyday resilience. .

That’s why two movies in particular stand out, and they’re not interested in making monumental statements about history, violence, and terror, even though those realities undeniably lurk all around.

First, there’s Kateryna Gornostai’s sweet teenage romance, “Stop-Zemlia” (available on major digital platforms), is set in Kyiv circa 2019. It’s a meandering film, much like the three groping youngsters at its center — self-proclaimed “weirds” who struggle with their sexuality, long for distant crushes, smoke cigarettes, have parties pajamas and anonymous admirers.

Like the others in their class, Masha, Senia, and Yana are played by non-professional actors who Gornostai left considerable leeway to improvise. Meanwhile, talking-head interviews punctuate the drama and weave connections between the performers—real-life Ukrainian teenagers—and their roles. Senia, whose family lived in a violent part of the country, battles PTSD, and we briefly see the children wearing helmets and brandishing weapons as they take part in a combat training class. But these are only the threads of a larger network of experiences. If we are able to predict what will happen to many of these young adults in a few years, we cannot imagine them, given the richness of their inner life, as mere victims.

And in Iryna Tsilyk’s metatextual documentary, “The Earth is Blue Like an Orange” (in some theaters), war is right outside a family’s window, but it not only endures, but lives and creates. Tsilyk follows a single mother and her children, the Trofymchuks-Gladky, who live in an apartment in the tumultuous region of Donbass. The constant shelling in the distance produces surreal background noise, though the gang are oddly jaded by their predicament. There are certainly moments of heartache and terror, but they come with pleasures and triumphs: the revelation of a full scholarship for the eldest daughter, a happy birthday party, the little ones still going to run into the room.

The family members also make a film about their lives, which means they’re hyper-aware of certain cinematic tropes. “That should be tragic,” said a child, trying to stifle his laughter before giving testimony in front of the camera. In the end, the family project is screened for a small local audience, the camera cutting out every captivated gaze. One wonders if and how the film resonates with these viewers – and what would they have to say for themselves?


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