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.


    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 . . .

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
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