Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The meaning of war

UKRAINE / Abel Ferrara's idiosyncratic take on the war in Ukraine melds poetic performances by Patti Smith with the experience of people at war.

Currently screening as part of the 20th Biografilm Festival in Bologna.

Abel Ferrara’s films and documentaries always challenge conventional perceptions of narrative, and Turn in the Wound, his film about the impact of Russia’s invasion on the people of Ukraine fully fits the mould.

Turn in the Wound Abel Ferrara
Turn in the Wound, a film by Abel Ferrara

War and the artist

Opening for its World Premiere at the Berlinale – where it is screening in the Berlinale Special section – Turn in the Wound opens with Patti Smith talking about the life of ‘the artist’ before segueing to an emotionally riveting and deeply troubling account given by a Ukrainian woman of the moment when a Russian aircraft bombed her apartment block in Borodyanka, a town near Kyiv, killing her son and daughter and leaving her the sole carer for her two granddaughters.

The footage is as raw as the stories being told by her, a local priest, and others who survived the initial assault of Russian troops and paratroopers. The camera moves around in a dizzying manner, and conversations are interrupted by interpreters and intercut with performance art by Patti Smith or clips from television interviews with Ferrara about why he came to Ukraine.

For those of us who have been to Borodyanka and talked with people there or who were in Moscow the day the invasion was launched, we were woken at dawn by a telephone call from their news editor saying simply, «It’s started. Can you be on air in 15 minutes?» – Ferrara’s approach feels opaque. It is never quite clear how Patti Smith and her obscure stanzas relate to the experiences of Ukrainians suffering under the brunt of the Russian assault. For those without such direct experience, for whom the war in Ukraine is an abstract but disturbing experience, Ferrara’s approach may allow for some kind of deeper integration of what war means to an artist seeking to understand.

For this reviewer, there was something too self-reflective about Turn in the Wound to truly feel at ease with Ferrara’s approach, in which he describes himself as taking his camera and seeing what it finds with no end product in mind.

Ferrara’s approach feels opaque.

No Answers

Ferrara constantly puts himself in frame – whether it is the television studio interview or when the camera swings away from a woman speaking about the day Russian troops entered her community to focus on him as an interpreter explains what she is saying. This is a distraction that subverts the message of those witnesses to horror.

For the director, though, it is not a distraction but at the heart of what he is trying to convey: how an artist can understand and put into context, war.

In his director’s notes, he states: «When I see Patti Smith in her work, her life, the poet, the singer, the mother, President Zelensky humbly governing, I become inspired. I want what they have. I want to be near them, learn from them, film them. War is far from my immediate reality, but it is the reality for too many people who are just like me. Death and destruction can only be battled with contrary action, love, compassion, empathy, poetry, movies. Righteous intent.»

Ferrara manages to gain access to Zelensky but does not allow the interview to dominate – the Ukrainian president is just another voice in the narrative of a war the director is trying to understand. As he tells the Ukrainian TV host when she asks what he feels seeing the damage and destruction of war, he sighs and says: «Why, why, why – how does it get to this? What is bringing us to killing each other? I have no answers. I’m 71 and more confused than ever.» Turn in the Wound does seek to confront that confusion.

Turn in the Wound Abel Ferrara
Turn in the Wound, a film by Abel Ferrara

Insight and reaction

There are interviews with Ukrainian servicemen who were captured and taken back to Russia, where they were treated in ways that bring to mind the Nazi attitude to Soviet prisoners of war – as Untermenschen – and with a wounded soldier who nearly died on the battlefield. Rescued by comrades after two days, he survived with the loss of a finger on one hand and his other arm. Asked if Ukraine should trade territory already occupied by Russians for peace, his answer is a resolute ‘no.’ And would Ukraine win? Tak – ‘yes’ – he says.

Ferrara’s may be an unusual contribution to the documentary film coverage of the war in Ukraine, but it is one that does bring some insight into the war – and our reaction to it.

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

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