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    Living hell

    UKRAINE / A tribute to the ordinary people of Mariupol and the Lithuanian filmmaker who gave his life documenting their struggle to survive total war.

    There is an untold story behind Mariupolis 2 that is just as moving and compelling as the vision of total war that unfolds in images of dreadful beauty in Mantas Kvedaravicius’ story of people trying to survive as Russia’s war machine tears their city down around them.

    Kvedaravicius was killed by Russian soldiers in late March this year as he tried to leave Mariupol, a key strategic objective that stood in the way of Vladimir Putin’s brutal desire to crush Ukraine and create an ethnic Russian Lebensraum in its eastern Donbas region.

    His fiancé and fixer, Hanna Bilobrova, made her way back into the besieged city to retrieve his body in early April, putting out a cover story that the 45-year-old filmmaker had been killed when a shell hit his car. The truth was much grimmer: he had been executed after being taken prisoner by Russian soldiers, his body tossed out onto the street.

    Bilobrova, 29, had to pass through a series of Russian military checkpoints – some manned by rebel troops from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic – to find his corpse and take it home for burial in Vilnius in early April.

    Since then, she and an international team of producers have worked tirelessly to make a film from the footage Kvedaravicius had shot before his murder.

    Kvedaravicius was killed by Russian soldiers in late March this year as he tried to leave Mariupol

    Addressing criticism

    Appearing on stage at the World Premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, tears streamed down Bilobrova’s cheeks as she and the team introduced the film alongside fest president Thierry Frémaux.

    At a festival where controversy is raging over the inclusion in the main competition of a Russian film – Tchaikovsky’s Wife by Kirill Serebrennikov – the special screening was seen as an attempt by Cannes to address criticism as Russia’s brutal, unprovoked war of aggression continues to rage in Ukraine.

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s unannounced live video address at the festival opening Tuesday, May 17, was likely another nod in that direction.

    Watching Mariupolis 2 – sitting among Lithuanian and Ukrainian friends, the filmmakers just a row behind – was an emotional experience. Even for those unfamiliar with Ukraine, the pain and anguish of this powerful indictment of war in general and Russian aggression, in particular, will prove to be a visceral experience.

    Kvedaravicius loved Mariupol, the Ukrainian Sea of Azov port city. His first film about the city, Mariupolis – released in 2016 and screened at the Berlinale – was a poetic homage to an industrial city with a particular beauty and light.

    Today the city has been reduced to a rubble-strewn hell littered with the corpses of the dead (more than 20,000 civilians are estimated to have died) since the first Russian shells exploded early on the morning of Thursday, February 24.

    Even for those unfamiliar with Ukraine, the pain and anguish of this powerful indictment of war in general and Russian aggression, in particular, will prove to be a visceral experience.

    Sheltering

    In Mariupolis 2, Kvedaravicius’ mostly steady, painterly images documents the lives of a group of locals sheltering in a church within sight of the giant Azovstal steelworks – where only days before the premiere, wounded Ukrainian fighters began emerging to be taken away by the Russians. As of writing, Moscow claims more than 1,700 Ukrainian troops – including members of the Azov Battalion that Putin accuses of being neo-Nazis – have surrendered.

    People crouch in doorways and crunch over broken glass in narrow, dark corridors to a constant soundtrack of rumbling explosions. Some flinch at every crack and bang. Others seem inured to the ever-present threat of death, though all dive for cover when the distinctive sound of incoming fire nearby is heard.

    There is little narrative structure: the camera observes the daily life of those adults that venture out from the church’s basement where a few dozen mostly elderly people and young mothers with children shelter.

    Thrown together by war, former neighbours now form an extended family and work together on addressing the most basic daily tasks – preparing food, fixing cars, clearing the area around the church of debris from the daily pattern of shell fire and aerial bombing.

    It is a monotonous life but not one without its humour: a beloved mongrel eats half a slab of butter lying near a makeshift stove over an open fire in the backyard communal «kitchen». The men and women tending the fire and preparing soup in a large cauldron don’t have the heart to chastise the guilty-looking hound, whose affection for all is written on its soft muzzle.

    A laconic conversation about Ukraine’s pre-war so-called honest leaders – and how life got progressively worse the more those politicians claimed to be honest – segues into a philosophical discussion on how many times one can destroy the world before the desire for revenge and hate is satisfied.

    Call it gallows humour, but people need an outlet to remind themselves of their common humanity in the face of death and such devastating destruction.

    The love and care lavished on a few surviving pigeons from one man’s bombed home and pigeon loft is another detail that Kvedaravicius’s careful camerawork notes.

    the camera observes the daily life of those adults that venture out from the church’s basement where a few dozen mostly elderly people and young mothers with children shelter.

    Love in a world of hatred

    This is a film about love in a world of hatred. Only once do we see a couple of corpses of locals killed by a shell or mortar blast. The two men seemed to have been manhandling a petrol-fuelled mobile generator when they died and are huddled around it in the ruins of an entrance to a bombed house.

    The generator is a valuable find, and under the gaze of the director’s lens, two of the church community men move the bodies to one side and retrieve the generator, cursing the stench coming from the already rotting corpses as they scratch around for the wheels to the generator and find a nail to use as a spindle.

    The director treats the dead with respect – we don’t see their faces, and brief close-ups show their hands and some bloodstains in the dirt and dust. Life in amongst death must go on – and the generator is a lifegiving machine, able to provide power and light that could make the difference between life and death for those still living.

    Knowing that Kvedaravicius will soon join those corpses in this film shot shortly before he died adds poignancy to a documentary the entire world needs to see.

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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