Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia

Covering a tragic struggle, this documentary shows stark footage of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict from a partisan, though compelling, viewpoint.

War for peace

Yevhen Titarenko

Ukraine, 2017 93 minutes

Documentary filmmakers chronicling the current events in eastern Ukraine will not find a consensus of viewpoints. The ugly conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces has claimed more than 10,000 lives since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean territory in March 2014. The source of visual materials available, the perspective (from the government or the rebel side), the tone, none of this can ever be neutral and War for Peace is no exception.

Not Safe to Screen

The film had been destined to have its Russian premiere in December at Artdocfest, acclaimed Ukrainian-born documentary director Vitaly Mansky’s Moscow-based film festival. However, at the festival there was a violent disruption of the screening of Beata Bubenets’ Bullet’s Flight, another film about the Ukrainian conflict. Bullet’s Flight chronicles the combat operations of the controversial Aidar battalion, now disbanded after being accused by Amnesty International of war crimes. War for Peace, which also features interviews with members of the Aidar battalion, was pulled from the Artdocfest programme even though its producers had found a ‘safe territory’ (the Czech Republic’s embassy in Moscow) to screen it.

War for Peace (its Russian language title Voina radi mira actually means ‘war for the sake of peace’) is arguable slightly less controversial than Bullet’s Flight (in Russian Polyot puli) given that it follows medics whose duty is to save lives. However, that was not likely to quell the fevered emotions of the pro-separatist protestors from Russia’s nationalist group SERB (South-East Radical Bloc) who swarmed into Moscow’s Oktyabr cinema early December during the Bullet’s Flight screening, draped a coat over the projector and released a noxious gas into the screening hall.

«When the Czech Embassy said it could not guarantee the safety of spectators during the War for Peace screening, the producers pulled it and are now using the incident as part of their wider promotional campaign.»

When the Czech Embassy said it could not guarantee the safety of spectators during the War for Peace screening, the producers pulled it and are now using the incident as part of their wider promotional campaign.

Compelling Footage

Whether all the fuss was worth it, viewers may judge for themselves. The film largely consists of raw footage shot by its Ukrainian director Titarenko while volunteering as a military paramedic for 12 months of the conflict. Titarenko worked as a film director before the war (his nom de guerre Regisseur is Russian for ‘film director’). The film is a mixture of frontline footage, conversations with participants that are interrupted by small arms fire or shellfire, and adrenalin-inducing footage such as that of a speeding ambulance being shot at.

«Watching this intimate portrayal of fighting men and women on the frontlines, one can imagine that an all but identical film could have been made from the ‘other’ side.»

As gripping as the footage is, the film is–inevitably–partisan about a conflict in which, from a more detached perspective, there are no winners. No winners apart from, perhaps, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko due to the political capital they are gaining from the ugly mess. The urgency and immediacy of handheld cameras filming in the field makes for compelling viewing: men and women under fire running to retrieve heavily wounded comrades, unrehearsed comments, singing, bravado, and sickening fear as incoming fire brings death and destruction.

Using unflinching footage of badly–in some cases fatally–wounded men, including an experienced war photographer who dies after being hit by mortar fire, War for Peace is a tragic film about a tragic conflict.

The ‘Other’ Side

Titarenko understands that such a film needs light-hearted moments: the infantryman 800 metres from the frontline near Donetsk unsure about how to tighten the spring on a multi-round Kalashnikov barrel clip. His comrade turns to a laptop computer to search for YouTube videos and finds an ancient black and white US army training film after entering ‘How to load a magazine for a Kalashnikov’. There’s also a female medic volunteer who chastises her comrades when the three men cover her with their bodies after coming under fire. She exclaims, ‘What’s a great loss, three of you or one of me!’ The men chime in as one saying, ‘You! There are loads of us.’

«War for Peace is a tragic film about a tragic conflict.»

Watching this intimate portrayal of fighting men and women on the frontlines, trying to stay alive, directing fire at the separatist forces that defend the perimeter of the wrecked Donetsk airport, one can imagine that an all but identical film could have been made from the ‘other’ side, where fighters armed with the same Soviet-designed weapons would be telling the same stories of passionate belief in defence of their homeland with the same disregard for the lives of the ‘enemy’.

 

 


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