War in Ukraine – as experienced by those living through it

UKRAINE / A glimpse of the war as experienced by Ukrainians every day since Russian forces invaded on February 24, 2022.

Shot on March 14, 2022 – Ukrainian Volunteers Day (its title in Ukrainian) – One Day in Ukraine marks that day as the 2,944th day of the war, rather than the 18th, as Ukrainians count the war as having started in 2014 when Russia annexed its Crimea region.

Not seen before

This is the war, as most of us have not seen it before. There are no breathless television news correspondents flinching at the sound of gunfire in their carefully constructed «frontline» news reports. There are few scenes of bombed and gutted homes, the twisted remnants of cars blown apart by shellfire, or bodies lying crumpled in the streets where Russians shot them.

Tykhyy, part of the Babylon ’13 collective of Ukrainian filmmakers that have recorded events since the Maidan revolution of 2013, uses his team of cinematographers to quietly bring the viewer into the experience of those in and around Kyiv living in a time of war.

Shot before the Russian army had retreated from the northern environs of Kyiv after a month of what we later learned was brutal, criminal occupation exemplified in the rape, torture and murder of civilians in Bucha, Irpin and elsewhere, this is a glimpse into a capital city where the enemy is at the gate.

One Day in Ukraine is both a shocking and soothing film.

Shocking because it conveys an unmistakable background dread – even as ordinary people go about their ordinary lives. The pervasive sense of a dark cloud hanging over them – paratroopers are just a few kilometres away, approaching the outer suburbs of the city – and yet, there is no panic. Just a determined sense that life goes on.

It is soothing precisely because of that very resolve. We may now know of the horrors of Bucha, of the heart-rending daily tolls of children and promising young lives snuffed out forever by Putin’s vile killing machine. And yet here are families camping out in the deep halls of the Kyiv Metro, their children playing – darting to and fro in the ornate halls – their beloved family pets held protectively in their arms or begging for what titbits they may be given from boxed meals heated in microwaves.

And then, like an invisible cloud of poison gas, through that very normality seeps unease – this Metro station is just like that which I used to use every day when I lived in Moscow for so many years; those kids – full of life and cheeky exuberance – are the same as those grey, smashed bodies pulled from beneath the rubble of a deliberately bombed theatre in Mariupol, where a sign reading children, clearly visible from the sky, did nothing to stop it being a target of Russian bombs.

…this is a glimpse into a capital city where the enemy is at the gate.

The jigsaw of war

There is a cast of characters here, all of whom are part of the jigsaw of war so rarely seen – a young woman who adores her dogs and volunteers in a kitchen feeding local people and the volunteer territorial militia who patrol the capital and its suburbs. Air raid sirens sound off in the distance as she walks her dogs in a city centre park. The pets seem unconcerned, although as she explains to friends later over lunch, one of them was so traumatised by nearby shelling that it hid beneath the toilet all day, refusing food and drink.

We follow a militia volunteer on a vital mission to fly a drone over a village near Irpin, where Russian armoured vehicles and lone lines of troops can be seen infiltrating ever closer to Kyiv over a pontoon bridge slung across a river. His heavily armed colleagues are tense as they creep toward the edge of a village just 3km from forward Russian positions, peering into a pine forest as light flurries of snowfall.

That visceral sense of just how close men intent on killing you are is like a punch in the gut. You don’t get that from TV reports.

The extent to which drones are now an essential tool of warfare – both for reconnaissance and attack – is evident in One Day in Ukraine. Aerial footage shot from drones, zooming in on tiny figures of Russian troops scurrying through shell-pocked landscapes and burning buildings in the distance, delivers an unease that never escapes one throughout the film.

Brief cuts of more disturbing images – destroyed hardware, dead people (both enemy soldiers and local civilians) – are used sparingly to build a picture of the horrors of warfare.

That visceral sense of just how close men intent on killing you are is like a punch in the gut.

Amidst the madness

One Day in Ukraine is not, in a classic sense, a war documentary. In contrast to, say, the Mariupolis 2, shot by Mantas Kvedaravicius, the Lithuanian director killed by Russian troops in the Azov port city that fell to Moscow’s troops in May, it largely focuses on people trying to live normal lives amid the madness of war.

A young woman bakes an apple pie – working from memory as she has left all her recipes behind after fleeing Russian forces.

Volunteer militia sings heartily along to a salty song about what awaits the enemy soldier.

The extent to how difficult normality is can be seen in one scene where Ukrainians caught looting are taped to metal traffic signs in the streets – their trousers and underwear pulled to their ankles.

It is an act of swift militia retribution designed to send a message to others. One man complains he was not caught red-handed. He is told to shut up. They don’t have the luxury of due process with Russians pushing ever closer.

For those closely following the war, the appearance in the film of acclaimed Ukrainian environmental and civic activist Roman Ratushnyi is another reminder of the horror of this war. The 24-year-old volunteer was killed in action on June 9, fighting Russian units in Izyum on the eastern front of the war.

For an understanding of what it actually means to live in a war zone, One Day in Ukraine sets an early and high bar for the slew of documentaries we can expect to see in the coming months and years from what is already the biggest, most violently threatening war in Europe since 1945.

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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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