Krakow Film Festival 2024

An unknown soldier

CONFLICT / Contrasting quiet Ukrainian life compositions with intercepted phone conversations between Russian soldiers and their families.

Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began at dawn on February 24, 2022, Ukrainian security forces have been tapping into the mobile communications of Russian soldiers, recording their conversations and posting them online. Filmmakers have used these recorded phone conversations freely, and Oksana Karpovych is one who skillfully utilises them in her film Intercepted. What makes Intercepted stand out is how successfully Karpovych has created a distinct cinematographic form based on juxtaposing sound and pictures to create tension between what is seen and heard.

Intercepted Oksana Karpovych
Intercepted, a film by Oksana Karpovych

Living paintings

Karpovych begins her film with darkness, and we can barely hear some faint sounds that make the viewer think of lurking danger. The scene opens by capturing a serene moment of children playing by an abandoned country road. A girl is on a swing, and like a pendulum, she swings from one side of the frame to another. The minimalistic music, composed by the Ukrainian musician Olesia Onykiienko, intensifies and eventually merges with the sound of thunder, foreshadowing the imminent presence of evil. While evil is not visible, its approaching destruction is hinted at through the escalating audio.

Then, all of a sudden, we see the world from the point of view of an invading soldier looking from his tank as he drives through destroyed villages. The initial phone conversations have even a humorous tone and indicate that the soldiers still think their mission is a field trip. They are so excited about how amazing the Ukrainian ice cream is and how delicious real juice tastes. They also mention how fertile the soil is and the nice clothing they find in the bombed homes. «The Ukrainians live much better than us at home,» they all say with awe. «I snatched some makeup for you and something small for everyone in the family,» one soldier reported. The woman on the other end of the line is thrilled and laughs, «You wouldn’t be Russian if you didn’t steal something!»

Christopher Nunn’s camerawork is reminiscent of the visual poetry found in Roy Andersson’s films. The still images resemble living paintings, allowing viewers ample time to contemplate each scene. Nunn’s camera captures not only the destruction of Ukrainian homes but also the war’s impact on humanity. The camera peacefully observes the devastation of bombed landscapes and the tireless efforts of people to clean up the rubble and restore a sense of normalcy in a war zone.

The camera peacefully observes the devastation of bombed landscapes and the tireless efforts of people to clean up the rubble and restore a sense of normalcy in a war zone.

Gradual gloom

Gradually, the accounts of the soldiers become gloomier as they become disillusioned. If there is one thing they all realize, it is that state propaganda fooled them, and everything is based on lies. The soldiers are at first told that they are entering Ukraine as liberators, but soon, they realise that they have been lured into a combat field to murder and loot.

Most realise they are mere pawns in a power game set up by Putin. «Are you bombing the NATO bases?» asks one father to his son, who answers, «I have not seen anyone yet.» The father is a little confused, «But they show us on the TV that we are bombing one NATO base after another.» His soldier son replies, «Don’t believe what they show you; it is all false.» The father says, «Those at home find it hard to believe – so why are you fighting there and what is the meaning of this all?» His son replies, «It is not for the people. It is for Putin and his sense of power.»

Intercepted is as much a witness of the atrocities of war, as well as a study of the systematic dehumanisation process. Committing war crimes becomes a standard practice. «I have seen things no time can erase,» says a despaired soul to his girlfriend. Gunning down a mother in front of her children just because she happens to be out for an afternoon walk, executing children, and torturing and murdering Ukrainian prisoners of war are just some of the accounts we hear. A tired soldier yells to his crying wife, «Listen! This is the last thing I have to say – just make sure that our son never joins the army.»

When the conversation ends, the film turns to long-lasting, observable scenes captured from a prison camp. Now, for the first time, we see the soldiers. We see these silent, broken men quietly shuffling around in the cafeteria line, their skin as pale as the washed-out walls behind them. These are broken human beings that no timespan can heal. Even men turned into monsters are victims of the machinery of war.

Intercepted Oksana Karpovych
Intercepted, a film by Oksana Karpovych

Few stand

Hopefully, one day, people in Russia will be able to see this film. Intercepted is an exemplary film about the extent of potential destruction caused by false news, how dangerous it is for its people, and how easily the people are led by manipulation. It is hard to know what the Russian people think and feel about the Ukrainian war. Only some dare to express themselves, as the woman who cries to her soldier friend, «Please, don’t call me anymore!… Destruction is a choice, and they [the state leaders] have chosen that for you. This is the choice we made by simply staying silent.» Some stand up, but they are few.

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Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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