Their Own Republic by Russian director Aliona Polunina caused quite a fury at this year‘s Doclisboa due to its pro-Russian stance. The documentary nonetheless offers an interesting insight into the side of the Ukrainian conflict rarely portrayed in western media.

Orginal title: Svoya respublika)
Director: Aliona Polunina
Country: Russia, 70min, 2018

In the age of social media, it can feel as if the pressure to loudly and unwaveringly entrench oneself into the perceived ‘correct’ side of any argument has all but replaced the desire to explore and experiment with ideas through nuanced, open-minded dialogue.

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Questioning assumptions through risky curation of documentaries and debate is an embattled value that Doclisboa – co-helmed by Cintia Gil and Davide Oberto – still take seriously. This is a conviction tested this year by an unprecedented, politically motivated demand for changes to its programme by two embassies. While the Turkish embassy objected to written references to the Armenian genocide and atrocities committed against Kurds, the Ukrainian embassy requested that the film Their Own Republic, by the Russian director Aliona Polunina, should be pulled from the line-up since it did not reflect the international community’s condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Doclisboa not only resisted this external interference, but made a public statement explaining their commitment to being a «territory of discussion and not censorship».

The world premiere of Their Own Republic saw around half a dozen activists from Portugal’s Ukrainian community turn up to protest the screening, handing out fliers headed «Doclisboa supports terrorism!» They admitted to not having yet seen the film, but disputed the validity of the term ‘civil war’ used in the trailer, and afterwards brought their vocal objections to the annexation in general to a bitterly heated Q&A.

Not a neutral approach

Shot last year, Their Own Republic takes us into the day-to-day life of a pro-Russian battalion in the city of Yasynuvata, a Donetsk war zone currently controlled by the separatists. It’s by no means the first film through which Polunina has delved into the way politics play out in the region on the more microcosmic level of human relationship dynamics. Her feature The Revolution That Wasn’t (2008), awarded in numerous festivals including Ukraine’s Docudays, followed members of Russia’s banned National Bolshevik Party for a year. Her mid-length Varya (2014), accompanied a maths teacher from Moscow, sympathetic to Maidan as she travelled to Ukraine to meet friends she had made over the Internet. While Polunina’s current film did receive backing from the Russian state, her track record of independent projects does not lend itself to thinking of her as a tunnel-visioned propagandist. That said, her approach to the battalion in Their Own Republic cannot be described as neutral, even though her pretence to fly-on-the-wall shooting effaces her own presence.

To see a film from a Russian separatist bolthole certainly felt fresh and new – even if one hoped for sharper insights.

The director does not present a straightforward glorification of the men, though her fascination with the machismo of their activities and her pride in being an accepted initiate into this very particular space is palpable, as they clean their weapons or stand for inspection. The frailties of these troops are cause for wry humour, especially in the case of a soldier who deserted while drunk then eventually gave up hiding, showing up the absurdity and confusion of their outpost situation. This humanises them, while their Ukrainian enemies remain voiceless, perceived only as the dull boom of artillery fire.

Their Own Republic by Aliona Polunina

In the Q&A, Polunina was only too happy to extol her support for the Russian side in the conflict, and love of the troops. Beyond shared national sympathies, it’s a common symptom of an entrenchment that does not incorporate much contact with civilians or the opposition. She stays sheltered from the live combat at the very front, but still is dependent on them to a large degree for keeping her safe.

Certainly, there is more powerful cinema being made about the conflict in Ukraine, foremost the work of Belarusian-Ukrainian director Sergey Loznitsa (from Maidan, a rigorous eye into Kyiv’s heart of revolution which opened Doclisboa in 2014, to his surreal take on the war as a warped hellscape of media manipulation from this year, Donbass). But the vast majority of such films doing the rounds of festivals have been preaching to the converted, in the sense of presenting a highly partisan, pro-Ukraine perspective to predominantly sympathetic audiences. To see a film from a Russian separatist bolthole certainly felt fresh and new – even if one hoped for sharper insights.

Interesting failures

While films such as Loznitsa’s are almost ideologically over-charged in their damning indictment of a corrupt Russia, Polunina offers the opposite, under-reading her environment with an unobtrusively observational approach that takes for granted the troops’ presence at face value. In sum, it comes off as a blithe depoliticisation of the context of separatist occupation. Life is logistics and not much more in this vision of soldiers in their daily grind. The emphasis on physical labour – men chopping wood, stacking bricks, tending farm animals – keeps us squarely in the realm of concrete subsistence and a rugged, working-man mentality.

A small portrait of Putin on the wall, unremarked upon, is the only reference to a horizon of beliefs outside army protocols. The sense of the unglamorous banality of ongoing war is instructive and almost Beckettian, though ultimately the film feels not fully realised; the work of someone without a mature grasp on what is at stake. But the ways in which the film fails are exactly the ways in which it is interesting, because it leaves one pondering just how much a film should be hostage to all it leaves out; to the bloodshed on the other side of the lines that Polunina declines to attempt to justify.