Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
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 . . .

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