The road to war

UKRAINE / Two films screening at Norway's Movies on War Film Festival look at the lead-up to the February 24th Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Slaves can free neither other serfs nor those who are not enslaved.

The trickle of documentary films about the war in Ukraine is beginning to deepen and widen. Soon there will be a flood of films telling the story of Russia’s cruel and vicious attack on its neighbour in February 2022 and the stories of atrocities committed against the civilian Ukrainian population.

If Evgeny Afineevsky’s Freedom on Fire – Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom and Lesya Kalynska and Ruslan Batytskyi’s A Rising Fury can be viewed as an early litmus test, the bar is being set pretty high. Designed for international audiences, the films are at pains to sketch the background to the war – how Russia’s relations with Ukraine have historically affected the region and the march to war that began with the Euromaidan democratic uprising against the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Freedom on Fire Evgeny Afineevsky
Freedom on Fire – Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a film by Evgeny Afineevsky

Freedom on Fire

Afineevsky’s film sets out its broad historical theme with an impressive animated opening narrated by Helen Mirren (who is of Russian descent) that sketches Ukraine’s history as an independent – though much coveted, invaded and divided – nation from its early origins as the 9th-century state of Kievan Rus through successive attempts to claim its own nationhood down the centuries.

That done, the director plunges directly into visceral scenes of Russian missile and artillery bombardments, fleeing refugees, and cowering women and children. Relying upon footage from a wide range of cameramen and women, Afineevsky dedicates his film to «all journalists, filmmakers and members of the press, who have been killed and are risking their lives today to shine a light on the stories and images of different conflicts for the world to see.»

The wide reference is deliberate from a director who has previously focused on other conflicts in his films Winter on Fire (2015) and Cries from Syria (2017).

In Freedom on Fire, Afineevsky draws together footage from towns and cities that have already become infamous in the world’s imagination this year: Bucha, Irpin, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Dnipro, Mariupol. He skilfully stitches together material shot by professional news teams and shocking phone videos of bodies strewn across streets in Bucha or selfies shot under Russian bombardment in bunkers in the Azovsteel Works to create a clear and compelling narrative.

Afineevsky dedicates his film to «all journalists, filmmakers and members of the press, who have been killed and are risking their lives today to shine a light on the stories and images of different conflicts for the world to see.»

It is clever and emotional filmmaking, focused on the stories of civilians – the men, women and children who have suffered so grievously under Russian attack and occupation – held together by key characters that include a Ukrainian journalist Nataliia Nagorna, a young mother who sheltered at Azovsteel alongside her husband, who was later taken prisoner, and a Russian-born lawyer who joined the Ukrainian army as soon as the war started.

Afineevsky is keen to show the high morale of the Ukrainian people and to underscore the fact that free people have a much stronger ability to withstand an enemy than those who are ‘enslaved’ – by definition, the Russians. His film opens with Ukrainian comedians performing to a largely young audience in a bomb shelter, where they crack jokes about the impossibility of slaves freeing people who are already free. «The Russians are freeing us – yes, freeing us from our homes, land and lives,” one comic says to a ripple of sardonic laughter. The director contrasts this resilience with the propaganda that Russian state TV pumps out and includes brief interviews with Russians shot during the country’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations this year, where they insist that the war against Ukraine is just because it is aimed at the «denazification» of the country.

There are, of course, shocking scenes too. The child who describes surviving the Russian missile strike on the theatre in Mariupol, where she was sheltering with her family, only to find her little sister dying under rubble nearby. «I could hear her rasping», the little girl says before an image of her curly-haired little sister appears on screen.

And there is footage from Irpin where a territorial defence soldier is talking to camera from the street, explaining that people needed to get out of the area due to shelling. A whistle is heard, and then for a split second, the concussive flash of an exploding shell just a couple of metres away. The screen goes blank for a second before the images reappear, shouts of «Shit, shit…» from the crew as they emerge to drag the apparently wounded but still living man to safety.

A Russian audience may see such a film as clearly partisan, but despite Ukraine’s pre-war reputation for corruption and the fact that a large number of Ukrainians in those territories already occupied by Russian-backed separatists since 2014 (Donetsk and Luhansk) are resolutely pro-Russian, the war in Ukraine is a rare conflict where the truth is so bleakly black and white. Russia’s invasion is clearly illegal, its use of terror – rape, murder and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure – that to attempt any film that seeks to find some understanding of Russia’s position at the moment is all but impossible for any filmmaker who is not a committed pro-Kremlin propagandist.

A Rising Fury
A Rising Fury, a film by Lesya Kalynska and Ruslan Batytskyi

A Rising Fury

For those seeking a thorough explanation of the events – and human stories – of the events that brought Ukraine under a full-scale Russian invasion, A Rising Fury is a good start.

Directed by Lesya Kalynska and Ruslan Batytskyi, it is woven around the experiences of a young couple who met during Maidan – Pavlo and Svitlana.

Pavlo, a native of Donetsk, had already had extensive military training through a ‘softball’ club run by Igor ‘Berkyut’ (Hawk) – an older, Russian-speaking man who had gathered a group of young men around him in the years preceding the outbreak of separatism in Eastern Ukraine. Pavlo, who describes his life and those of other youngsters at the time as aimless and uncared for, soon became infatuated with the older man, considering him his best friend. But during Maidan – which Igor steadfastly refused to join – suspicions about Igor’s loyalties surfaced. Svitlana recalls a phone call where Igor warns the young couple that there would be an armed provocation and that many protestors in the heart of Kyiv would die. She felt a wave of evil fall over her, she says. The information could not possibly come from the SBU (Ukrainian security service.) Her suspicions were correct: subsequent research proved that Igor was, in fact, a major general in the Russian FSB (a successor body to the KGB). His task in the Donestk region all those years ago had been to prepare a military cadre to form the basis of the armed separatist movement.

Shot over the years since 2014, A Rising Fury details the extent to which Russia has been playing the long game in preparing for its attempted takeover of Ukraine and the human toll that process has taken.

A Rising Fury details the extent to which Russia has been playing the long game in preparing for its attempted takeover of Ukraine and the human toll that process has taken.

There is virtually no footage of the war since the full-scale invasion was launched on February 24 this year. All the combat footage (and there is plenty) and images of refugees and burned-out tanks belong to the war that took more than 14,000 lives between the eastern separatist and Kyiv government forces between 2014 and 2022. As such, A Rising Fury is a valuable starting point for anyone wishing to understand more about the conflict in Ukraine via documentary film and other sources.

There are other documentaries on this most dreadful war already in the making. Volodymyr Tykhyy is working on a sequel to One Day in Ukraine – which has already been aired on the BBC – and Kyiv-based Irish producer/director John O’Reilly is shooting on location with the Ukrainian army on the frontlines of the war for a project with the working title of Return to Kherson. With the recent announcement of a Russian withdrawal from the south-eastern Ukrainian city – retreating from territory occupied since early in the war to prepared defensive positions on the east bank of the Dnipro river – it seems events are moving rapidly before an anticipated winter slowdown of Europe’s worst conflict since World War Two.

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

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