What does it mean to live in Ukraine? Filmmakers offer their answers

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, my social media feeds filled with denunciations of Russian President Vladimir Putin and listicles recommending how best to support Ukraine. This all made me feel a bit sheepish. Suddenly, Ukra inian cinema was relevant, and a familiar, woozy feeling returned: What use is any of this against the blunt reality of war? What might be achieved by engaging with Ukrainian art and film beyond the flaccid 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 4-hour documentary epic about the Lithuanian independence movement, was making its American premiere. Unless you were an art-house cinema enthusiast or perhaps someone interested in Eastern Europe, Loznitsa’s films were considered obscure. This, despite the fact that he is a prolific and highly acclaimed director, and possibly the preeminent chronicler of post-Soviet history.

In the months since, two of Loznitsa’s films, the fictional Donbass and the documentary Babi Yar: Context, have received commercial releases in the United States, and dozens of interviews with him have been published, including one with The New York Times.

In the face of these newest features, however, my churlish initial reactions began to feel beside the point. To watch a Loznitsa film is anything but a passive activity. Consider his documents: They are often assembled from archival footage and avoid (or very sparingly employ) the use of obvious editorializing methods such as voice-over, interviews and title cards. Instead of providing background information, Loznitsa relies on loaded images carefully selected and organized into montages, which is why his films can sometimes feel like being thrown into the deep end of history without a life vest.

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

Yet Loznitsa’s is a deeply cynical outlook, one that is most apparent in his narrative features, such as Donbass, a grim satire about corruption and propaganda in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. In the film, Loznitsa swings between farce and horror, weaving together local vignettes: an egregious demonstration by a Russian crony who parades medical staff members around an office to a doctor’s supposed theft of supplies (the materials are very obviously planted); a Ukrainian soldier taken hostage, and then practically tarred and feathered by sadistic civilians; the killings of a crew of pro-Russia propaganda actors, whose deaths are pinned on Ukrainian nationalists. But the incessant gallows humor, cruelty and chaos eventually feel like a surrender to total nihilism.

The sweep and import of Loznitsa’s films make him a formidable spokesperson for Ukrainian cinema, but I wonder if his cool, impersonal approach — concerned as it is with structures of power and the complex ramifications of historical events — might also promote a kind of distance.

What does life in Ukraine feel like and how do everyday people carry on amid perpetual violence and escalating militarisization? 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 of the continuing conflict, try 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 struggling to adjust to normal life after being raped and detained as a prisoner of war. Natalya Vorozhbit’s (questionably bleak) omnibus film Bad Roads (streaming on Film Movement Plus) loosely connects four stories that take place around the Donbas, exploring the fraught relationships between vulnerable women and the soldiers stationed around the region.

In Valentyn Vasyanovych’s austere drama Reflection (in select theaters), a Ukrainian surgeon, Serhiy, is captured by Russian soldiers and forced to help dispose of the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers who died while being tortured. The nightmarish first half — set in a sludge-gray, off-the-grid prison with a portable human incinerator — unfolds with unnerving levels of patience. We practically witness the trauma seeing into our hero’s bones. Then, in the second half, Serhiy is released in a prisoner swap, and everything about his life, including his chic, high-rise apartment and his relationship with his angsty young daughter, takes on a zombified state, enveloped in a dissociative haze even as he tries to repair himself.

It’s true that art provides us with the opportunity to confront uncomfortable truths, and yet the most severe and somber examples are typically upheld as the most significant, the most hard hitting, informative and worthy of our time. But the experience of living through war doesn’t start and stop with the raising of weapons or the exhibiting of its worst victims. Understandably, we are more easily roused by these extremes, but perhaps a different kind of sensibility is warranted, one that communicates not just the worst of life under war, but the breadth and peculiarity of everyday resilience.

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

First, there is Kateryna Gornostai’s tender teen romance, Stop-Zemlia (available on major digital platforms), set in Kyiv around 2019. It is a meandering film, much like the three fumbling youngsters at its center — self-described “weirdos” who grapple with their sexuality, pine for aloof crushes, smoke cigarettes, have sleepovers and text anonymous admirers.

Like the others in their class, Masha, Senia and Yana are played by nonprofessional actors whom Gornostai allowed considerable leeway to improvise. At the same time, interviews in talking-head style punctuate the drama and forge connections between the performers — actual Ukrainian teenagers — and their roles. Senia, whose family used to live in a violent part of the country, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, and we see the kids, briefly, in helmets and wielding weapons as they participate in a combat training class. But these are simply threads in a larger web of experience. Although we’re able to predict what will come for many of these young adults in a few years, we can’t imagine them, given the richness of their inner lives, as only victims.

And in Iryna Tsilyk’s metatextual documentary, The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (in select theaters), the war is right outside one family’s window, yet they not only endure, they live and create. Tsilyk follows a single mother and her children, the Trofymchuks-Gladkys, who live in an apartment in the tumultuous Donbas region. Constant shelling in the distance provides surreal background noise, although the gang is oddly blank about their situation. There are certainly moments of grief and terror, but they are matched by pleasures and triumphs: the revelation of a full-ride scholarship for the eldest daughter, a joyous birthday celebration, the smaller kids always zipping around the room.

The family members are also making a film about their lives, which means they are hyper-aware of certain cinematic tropes. “It should be tragic,” one child says as she tries to stifle her laughter before delivering an on-camera testimony. In the end, the family project is screened for a small local audience, the camera cutting to each captivated gaze. One wonders if and how the film resonates with these spectators — and what would they have to say for themselves?


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