Exploring conflict, searching for humanity. Like Dew in the Sun, a line taken from the Ukrainian national anthem, combines a personal quest for the fate of filmmaker Peter Entell’s ancestors with exploring a region marked by centuries of conflict. The display of different peoples inhabiting Ukraine and the Crimea region and fighting each other over the centuries shown at the beginning of the film, underlines this. The film questions why Entell’s grandparents left Ukraine a little over a century ago, in addition to why people keep making each other’s lives so miserable. Unsurprisingly, the answers to these questions are closely related and include terms like invaders, wars, and pogroms.
Starting in Kiev, Entell and cameraman Jón Björgvinsson travel to locations including Slaviansk, Bakhchisaray, and Donetsk, where they explore the hostile situation between Europe-oriented Western Ukraine and Russia-oriented Eastern Ukraine. Eventually, they make it to Mokra Kaligorka, where Entell’s ancestors lived. Entell and Björgvinsson both film; Entell does not research his films in depth, instead preferring to unravel his story and material along the way. Filming using two cameras lessen the chance of missing out on potentially relevant footage, he explained during the IDFA.
The three storylines filmed by the small team are intertwined, and include various histories, values, perspectives and opinions, none explicitly made to stand out. Entell’s search in archives, observations of, and interviews with, military on either side, in addition to local stories and memories. Statues and memorials play an important role in the film. They act as a comment to the images and sounds, like a chorus to the film’s main footage. The many statues and memorials not only testify to past events and suffering, but also do this in specific ways: by expressing power and strength, such as a tank or the Motherland statue in Kiev; or sorrow and hurt, such as the statues commemorating the massacre at Babi Yar. National and regional anthems, in addition to partisan and folk songs, accompany the exploration of Ukraine’s past and present conflicts. One image says it all: a field of yellow sunflowers set against the blue sky, mirroring the country’s flag; yellow and bright blue, whilst also harbouring a tank.
In addition to their own recordings, Entell also featured a large extent of YouTube material in the film. This footage is introduced by blurring either side of the image. Many of these, sometimes quite shocking, images show the horrors of war: fighting, dead and wounded soldiers, and the mistreatment of POWs. But, they also show that all wars today are media wars. Actions at the front of the line as well as behind it are constantly filmed using phones, tablets and cameras and then – apparently – uploaded online.
Entell takes a profoundly human approach to his quests: he tries to connect with all the locals he encounters. He does not pick a side, preferring instead to perpetually ask “why?”, like an innocent child who does not understand what is going on. He asks the archive employees who help him search through thousands of entries in the dense emigration records: why did so many Jews emigrate? (Seeing them handle the archival records and old paper maps feels like an ode to the materiality of our past. They painstakingly try to make sense of the Cyrillic handwriting.) He also asks this to soldiers on either side of the divide. Answers invariably fall short and include a lot of pointing to the opposite side.
The film recently won the ‘Night Award’ at the 14th International Festival Signes de Nuit in Paris. Entell briefly responded: “We have now entered a very dangerous moment in history, the Age of Trump – characterised by anger and hatred, suspicion and fear, racism and an attitude of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Like Dew in the Sun is an appeal for tolerance and understanding. Although the film is anchored in Ukraine history, it speaks to the situation facing so many countries today.”
The narrative of Like Dew in the Sun is complex yet sensitive – the finale borders on the melodramatic. Entell cuts some dried earth from the old Jewish cemetery, now merely a cattle grazing field, and asks to mix it with his ashes “when the times comes”. Having said that, it was a profound relief to watch a feature documentary which is not formatted to fit the ubiquitous storytelling straitjacket.