Krakow Film Festival 2024

Still life

UKRAINE / Filmmaker Maciek Hamela provides a singular and emotional snippet of the war as he drives Ukrainians over the border into Poland.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many filmmakers have attempted recording its horrors from several angles and adopting alternative perspectives, in both form and style, from a student-led civil rights movement in Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom to a small Russian village’s controversial and dichotomic stance on the war in The Last Relic, all the way to journalistic firsthand footage of destruction in Oscar nominee 20 Days in Mariupol, to name but a few.

Joining this growing number of documentaries, In The Rearview focuses on the experiences of Ukrainian refugees being evacuated from the nation’s war zones and fleeing an unrecognisably familiar environment. Driver-turned-filmmaker Maciek Hamela’s intimate portrait of a life entirely torn apart by war is a heart-wrenching road trip where stories, pain and hopes are shared in the backseat of a van, in between present loss and future prospect of a regained freedom.

In the Rearview Maciek Hamela
In The Rearview, a film by Maciek Hamela

The unseen faces of war

Rolling past wreckage, destroyed military equipment, collapsed bridges and bombed-out homes, Hamela’s car cruises through military checkpoints and U-turns away from minefields, while receiving the latest information on the exact position of new passengers waiting to be picked up and the Russian army’s roadblocks. While traversing hundreds of thousands of kilometres, new souls take place in the cramped seats, and new faces take turns in front of the camera.

Many families (mostly women and children, for men have stayed behind to fight) have left a house they may not find upon their return, or other family members who firmly opposed to leaving their country, or beloved animals which tears are shed for. A surrogate mother, who is waiting to register her pregnancy after she could never connect back with the ‘biological’ parents when war broke out, wants to use the money to open a bakery. A Congolese woman who is being taken to a waiting ambulance in Germany, with a bullet still lodged in her ribs following a Russian shooting, confesses she would like to come back «when things calm down». And then children, who suffered the most immeasurable trauma by being exposed to war way too young, now casually speak about it as if it were their every day, completely desensitised to it. And yet their brief moments of joy and playfulness amidst this shattered landscape represent the sign of innocent resistance Ukraine is still holding on to.

In The Rearview focuses on the experiences of Ukrainian refugees being evacuated from the nation’s war zones and fleeing an unrecognisably familiar environment.

A platform for a briefly shared existence

Whether Hamela picks up his passengers from city tower blocks or rural villages, whether he welcomes poor or aristocratic families, there is an ever-present familiarity in the stories these people share. The car acts as a safe space, protective of the outside, terrifying world, yet creating a detached closeness in having people sitting side-by-side with strangers, without looking into each other’s eyes, allowing them to open up about their fearful experiences, but also their hopes and dreams. The director becomes a guardian angel as much as a witness to the most painful moments in their lives, providing a reflective account of the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. This raw, minimalist journey thus represents an initial, if hesitant, reckoning with the horrors of the invasion, and a constant reminder of the tangible, logistical threat and suffering victims are forced to face.

Composed almost entirely of stitched-together shots of the director’s camera, perched between the driver and the front passenger seat, as if Hamela is observing his characters from the rearview mirror, the film thrives on a quietly powerful editing which ensures that, while we never spend more than a few minutes with each group, we get a real sense of who they are, giving them the space to exist as human beings rather than mere subjects. Simultaneously, they also represent a blurred handful of the millions of people attempting to escape, unknown faces battling for attention, compared to the many that will not, playing with our sense of powerlessness in front of a tragedy we grew so numbly accustomed to accept.

In the Rearview Maciek Hamela
In The Rearview, a film by Maciek Hamela

Looking to the future

In the Rearview is a remarkably delicate documentary in its shaping of temporary, car-bound still microcosms. Hamela’s tenacity as a driver and director has turned a van into a portal between past and future, between loss and hope, offering a moving collection of individual squashed-in-a-backseat stories and a sublimely universal reflection on humanity amid an invasion that drove more than 15 million people in search of safer places to call home. A home which they hope to one day return, and which they have not given up on.

In the end, the car is framed completely empty. Is this a sign of danger or success, of hope or hopelessness? Is freedom still possible, or is it too late? The car is still moving forward. Ukrainians are still focusing on the road ahead.

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Massimo Iannetti
Massimo Iannetti
Film programmer and writer based in London. Film critic at Modern Times Review

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