Jhe Euromaidan revolt that toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the Donbass conflict resulted in a wide range of cinematic content in Ukrainian and Russian from 2014 onwards. war, but if there is one thing that is certain, it is this: cinema is now the gateway to history for many, and not the textbooks that follow the dictates of a president banning words like “war” and “invasion” on paper.
“Look at him, he doesn’t look like a yard sweeper. An ordinary tramp! Fuck you…don’t take offense. I’m just stepping into my role…more paint! Is this your first time? I gathered interns…”, a middle-aged actress jokes with another actor and her makeup artist in an unspecified part of occupied eastern Ukraine as her group prepares to stage fake TV interviews on the explosion of a bus.
At first glance, the above dialogue from the 2018 film Donbass may seem to trivialize what has been a protracted and devastating war. But conflict, governmental upheaval and uncertainty have been constant realities for Ukrainians since the country’s founding, whether it was the Granite Revolution, the Orange Revolution, Euromaidan or the region’s eight-year conflict that followed. from the Donbass to the east.
Both amateur and professional filmmakers have chosen to reflect these realities in their works over the years, especially after pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as president in early 2014.
The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war has had an impact on the film industry, with some Ukrainian filmmakers calling for a boycott of all Russian cinema, including the works of producer Denis Ivanov. In light of these developments, the diversity of perspectives and stories depicted in these works deserves the attention of audiences around the world.
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Dark story, colorful celluloid
Due to such a troubled past and present, issues such as ultra-nationalism, identity, self-determination and the preservation of sovereignty have been at the center of much analysis of politics and of Ukrainian society.
Prominent filmmakers bringing these issues to the international stage include Valentyn Vasyanovych and Sergei Loznitsa, both of whom have offered fictional yet realistic portrayals of war-torn Donbass since 2014.
While Vassianovich’s dystopian sci-fi film Atlantis (2019) caused a stir at the Venice Film Festival, Loznitsa has been prolific with documentaries and feature films. His black comedy Donbass (2018) is particularly striking, winning the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival the same year.
Set in 2025, a year after the supposed end of the war in Donbass, Atlantis masterfully uses extended wide shots and thermal cameras with little dialogue to capture the dark lives of two former soldiers going about their business as if the war had never ended. The male veterans don’t exactly have many friends in the area, as they are blamed for contributing to the region’s collapse. This adds to the dark and desolate atmosphere that Vasyanovych seeks at the start of the film.
Donbass, however, takes a completely different approach as Loznitsa employs a cleverly and rightly cynical style of comedy. Featuring crisis actors, messy politicians and activists through a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes, Loznitsa successfully depicts farce and levity amid the breakdown of a functioning society, with anarchy, corruption and propaganda as a common sight.
Along with the satire and grim depiction of reality in these films, there is an abiding love for the Donbass region, its people and what they have been through since 2014. For all the immense problems in eastern l Ukraine who Atlantis and Donbass are unflinchingly honest, the administrators seem to view the people of the region as resourceful and resilient.
But thanks to the success of such directors, Ukrainian nationalism and cinematic coverage of the conflict have often been perceived as quite masculine.
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Show war at home
In this male-dominated industry, Iryna Tsilyk’s 2020 film The Earth is blue like an orange stands out as a representation of the impact of war and conflict on domestic spaces. Whether it is the Vietnam War or the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the moment of crisis and its representation are often validated by the participant’s narrative. This narrative is, for the most part, hijacked by the perspectives of men or even women who fight the conflict with armor.
Tsilyk’s 74-minute documentary tackles this bias through the story of Hanna and her four children who live in the frontline war zone of Donbass. The family finds hope in the art of filming their life – a passion that each member nurtures and with which they feel “at home”. However, early in the film, their attempts to create a studio setup are cut short due to a bombing. The final product, a film recorded inside the house, is shown in front of their friends and relatives. It presents a process of reconstruction of Ukraine — of hope after the revolution.
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Ringing the bells at home in India
Netflix also released its offer on the Euromaidan revolution in 2015, titled Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. A fairly simple documentary similar to those broadcast on contemporary international news channels, winter on fire captures the vibrancy of the protest, which was largely led by students but also included civilians from all walks of life.
Shot by Israeli-American director Evgeny Afineevsky, winter on fire and its raw footage, interspersed with interviews, looks familiar. Especially if one has witnessed the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 in India which, like Euromaidan, has seen protesters using music, dance and poetry to raise their voices against the state.
“I’m here to defend the future,” a protester says in the documentary. The sheer energy of Winter on Fire is infectious and would likely remind India of the farmers’ protest, especially the role songs and music played throughout the struggle.
The documentary also examines the power of social media to have a positive impact, as many protesters talk about how Facebook posts helped them mobilize and share stories about the protest with those who were part of it.
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The Russian side of the coin
Constructions of Ukrainian nationalism and identity are totally incomplete without looking at what the other side – the Russians – said. Given Ukraine’s checkered history of sovereignty as well as the country’s complex linguistic demographics, it is essential to also analyze Russian cinema in the same breath.
Critically acclaimed Russian cinema recognized at global film festivals is often more inward-looking and country-centric, where content criticizes President Vladimir Putin and his government institutions. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s depiction of corruption and local politics in Leviathan (2014) is a notable example, which has generated controversy in Russia.
Other popular Russian-language films about the war in Ukraine, such as Opolchenochka (2019) and Krym Put na Rodinu (2015) are little more than propaganda. But the niche documentary space allowed for greater nuance, with Olya Schechter A sniper war (2018) is gaining attention at film festivals for depicting the Donbass conflict from the perspective of Deki, a Serbian sniper fighting for the Russian army.
Through Deki, Schechter enters the mind of a murderous mercenary and foreign supporter of pro-Russian separatists with grievances against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for his involvement in the war in Bosnia in 1990. As such, Schechter addresses a question that few in the media or film industry in Ukraine or the West have bothered to answer.
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Stop with the “colonial” bias
Then there is the acclaimed American director, Oliver Stone. Decades after winning awards for Section (1986) and Born July 4 (1989), Stone has only recently emerged as a strong supporter of the Russian government and its activities in Ukraine. The filmmaker had served in the Vietnam War and expressed his criticism of American military interventions and foreign policy, which explains many of his pro-Russian positions. “A dirty story and afterwards the West maintains the dominant narrative of ‘Russia in Crimea’ – the real narrative is ‘US in Ukraine'”, Stone tweeted in December 2014, several months after Russia annexed Crimea.
Although he has sentenced the ongoing invasion of Russia, he has already released documentaries like Ukraine on fire (2016), Reveal Ukraine (2019) and Talks with Putin (2017) which reflect a brazen attempt to speak on behalf of a region he misunderstands. It shows a “coloniser bias” – speaking shamelessly on behalf of a people of which one is not a part.
Talks with Putin, however, offers exclusive insight from a Western filmmaker into the life, ideologies and politics of the Russian President. From childhood to US-Russian relations, this documentary examines everything in a way few have succeeded before.
Regardless of one’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian war and the level of knowledge of the history of the last 30 years, it is essential to analyze these works – fiction and propaganda – in order to better understand how national identity and Political prejudices, from both locals and outsiders, have shaped the cinematic and societal landscape of this conflict-affected border region today.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)