Civilians are all too often drawn into hostilities in the heat of armed conflict. When war leaks into our homes, it is children and youths that have to bear the brunt, and its impacts are devastating because it ravages not only our present lives but also our futures.
A choral portrait
The coming of age, habitually explored in film outside war and politics, unfolds right at the heart of it all as the dark clouds hang over the youths of a Donbas village in eastern Ukraine in the 2023 documentary We Will Not Fade Away, directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Alisa Kovalenko (the film has recently won Best Documentary at Wiesbaden’s film festival goEast). Filmed over a three-year period in the battle-scarred Donbas region (the shooting first began in 2019 and ended at the onset of the February 2022 war), the documentary resists honing in on the conflict; rather, it lets it unfold in the background as the film weaves a choral portrait of five Ukrainian teenagers coming of age.
Like any other teenagers, this imaginative band of youngsters (Andriy, Liza, Ruslan, Lera and Illia) boast an untethered sense of awe and adventure. They are restless, giddy, spontaneous, and a tad lost, relishing long summer days swimming and sunbathing by a lake, conjuring assorted ways to stave off the stifling boredom of a small town, creating art and fantasising about leaving. The fragility and innocence of their age permeate the screen, flooding it with warmth and light that transports us to a happier, sunnier time where you are not weary of life and are never really alone. The sunlit images that convey the teenagers’ embrace of life in all of its joys and struggles are contrasted with the reality of the war-torn village where the spectre of violence looms large. These images are, sadly, all too familiar. Lera takes photos of charred walls and her friend nonchalantly posing in front of the shrapnel-ridden fence. Hoping to build a motorbike, Andriy digs up copper cables, seemingly unfazed by a nearby sign warning of mine danger. He and his younger pal later wish on shooting stars for the war to be over, but so far—they report—it hasn’t worked.
What lies ahead of these youths remains to be seen.
What lies ahead of these youths remains to be seen. Illia is in a quandary about his career path as the choice seems to fall on either acting or being a policeman. «If it’s your destiny, you will be an actor. If not, you’ll be a policeman», his mother says in a kitchen conversation. Prospects seem rather bleak for Illia and the gang amid the ramped-up military presence and impending war when the world, abundant with opportunity, that is supposed to be opening up to them is slowly fading into something distant, almost unattainable. And then, in an expected turn of events, an invitation comes in for the teenagers to join an expedition to «the most beautiful place on earth»—the Himalayas—organised by Ukrainian adventurer Valentyn Shcherbatchev, where they can, perhaps for the first time in their lives, experience the vast and vivid world, beyond Donbas, before the war snatches away their dreams, once again.
Kovalenko achieves a poignant intimacy with the teenagers, embedding her camera inside their physical and emotional worlds and quietly burrowing into their daily lives. There is a sense of universality of coming of age that Kovalenko could relate to, but it was also a kind of déjà vu experience for the filmmaker, who hails from Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine (similarly to Donbas, Zaporizhzhia has been dominated by heavy industry, with the former known for coal mines and the latter for metal factories). «I felt like I was filming something, which was a part of me, which I also went through, and I remembered how much I wanted to escape that dark reality of Zaporizhzhia», the director shared. However, these dramaturgical elements, which were also vital to the story of the youths trying to find a path of their own in the struggling coal-mining region, were all overshadowed by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Kovalenko «woke up on the night train already in the full-scale war» when she was en route to Donbas to visit her protagonists in February 2022. After spending a few days with Andriy and his parents in the frontline village, she decided to stop filming and join the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, feeling «powerless» that her camera could not actually help people in need at that point. Russia’s full-scale invasion has displaced and wrecked the lives of the five protagonists. Andriy, who had planned to study mechanical engineering at the Kyiv Polytechnic University, became a refugee. His village and workshop, where he had been building a motorbike, were destroyed by Russian artillery. Liza was evacuated amid shelling and had to halt her design studies in Kharkiv and flee to Belgium. Lera, who had been preparing her first photo exhibition and hoped to move to Kyiv, had to escape to France after months of Russian occupation. Ruslan fell under Russian occupation in Zolote in the spring of 2022. He had started a computer programming degree and recorded his first rap songs. Contact with Illia was lost when he was under Russian occupation. He had entered the police academy to become a detective at Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau.