Theory and the Practice of Context

Documenting Ukraine
Olga Birzul

My professional acquaintance with documentary filmmaking took place in 2009. I went to the Kyiv House of Cinema to write an article about the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival Docudays UA. At that time, it was a small but progressive festival that attracted a thoughtful audience. Eventually, I decided to stay and work there, and non-fiction cinema became my third university: it taught me to think critically, recognize stereotypes, and empathize with others' pain. I sought deep immersion into complex topics and believed empathetic cinematic perspectives could unite people. To me, watching a documentary film felt like finding shelter by a campfire in the middle of a wild forest. The fire not only warms but also provides a sense of protection from predators. The Revolution of Dignity, which began in November 2013 with mass protests by Ukrainians against the tyranny of the pro-Russian government, radically changed my perception of documentary filmmaking. I realized that it could still be the most dangerous beast in the forest, especially when authoritarian parties shamelessly exploit its propagandistic instinct and use films to spread and impose their political ideas. My country eventually fell into this treacherous trap.

The history of independent Ukraine is filled with historical shocks akin to Hollywood movie special effects. The turbulent 90s, two revolutions, and Russian military aggression escalated into a horrific full-scale war. During my student years, I participated in the first EuroMaidan, and by the second, I stood there with my husband and our four-month-old daughter. My friends documented the tumultuous reality while I created opportunities for as many people as possible to see these films. We believed we were participants in modernizing Ukraine and saw the enlightening and advocative potential in spreading high-quality non-fiction cinema. After the Revolution of Dignity, our festival events truly began filling auditoriums. Notably, Ukraine, as a territory of democratic change, finally caught the interest of foreign filmmakers. However, alongside thoughtful films exploring the causes and consequences of the "color revolutions," entirely different films with different tones began to infiltrate the programs of well-known film festivals. These films, in particular, constructed a myth about Ukrainian Nazism and promoted imperial narratives. For example, renowned American director Oliver Stone produced a propagandistic documentary titled "Ukraine on Fire." Relying on conspiracy theories, he portrayed the Ukrainian revolutions of 2004 and 2014 as organized uprisings planned by the American government. The leading commentators in the film were Vladimir Putin and pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and sanctioned oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk.

Russian filmmakers were not lagging behind either. Some of them ("Their Own Republic"  by Aliona Polunina and "Donbas. Outskirts" by Renat Davletyarov, for example) glorified separatists in Donbas, who are actually recognized as terrorist groups sponsored by the Kremlin regime. Others dressed up as "peacekeepers" and through their films, indulged in nostalgia for the Soviet myth of "fraternal nations" (such as the film "Crimea" by Alexey Pimanov). Still, others carefully polished narratives in which Russians were depicted as "victims of the regime": any attempts by characters to resist tyranny inevitably ended in failure ("Leviathan" by Andrey Zvyagintsev).

The Ukrainian film community fought as hard as it could. At Docudays UA, we organized discussions on ethics and propaganda in non-fiction cinema, invited foreign colleagues to familiarize themselves with Ukrainian reality, and arranged numerous presentations of Ukrainian films abroad. We amplified the voices of eyewitnesses of Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, attempting to explain the colonial nature of this terrorist empire. However, every year, western selectors included yet another story in their festival programs depicting unfortunate and powerless Russians suffering under the dictator's oppression or blatant propaganda justifying Russia's invasion of Ukraine. For instance, the short film "Phone Duty,"  featuring writer and politician Zakhar Prilepin in the lead role, openly espouses Putinism, boasting about mass killings in Ukraine and now entering the European Union's sanction lists. Surprisingly, in 2018, this film received an award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and made it to the Oscar longlist.

In 2022, Russia launched a so-called “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine. On February 24th, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia began. Its initial outcomes shocked the world. We all hoped that the experience of two world wars would have taught humanity something – it turned out it didn't. In the early months of the Great War, international news showed the most horrifying war crimes: torture victims, mass burials in Bucha and Izium, the bombardment of Mariupol, and thousands of shattered lives. The whole world witnessed the brutality of the Russians in real time. Ukrainians took matters into their own hands, posting thousands of video documents online, pleading with western politicians to close the skies and provide weapons for defense against the occupiers. However, Russia simultaneously attacked social media, using its favorite tactics, namely dehumanization, distortion of facts, and intimidation with nuclear weapons. It continues to use this propaganda tactic with impunity. And even our contemporary hero, Elon Musk, spreads lies and conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine (now also in Israel) on his own accounts.

As it turned out, culture also proved vulnerable to Russian aggression. Ukrainian society, shaped by the experience of an eight-year-long war with Russia, understood that the occupiers would stop at nothing. People from various professions formed Territorial Defense units and joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Among the volunteers who went to the front lines were artists like my husband, who had dedicated his entire professional life to film editing. In stark contrast, Russian artists went abroad to defend Russian culture on a global scale rather than their own country from a dictator. This, too, is a consequence of propaganda, which has been using culture since Soviet times to cleanse its reputation and divert attention from its war crimes.

Today, the Russo-Ukrainian War is considered the most documented conflict in human history. While curating films for this program, I watched dozens of new movies about our tragedy. Pro-Russian narratives, wrapped in a "peaceful" guise, still persist in blaming Putin alone, not Russian society. Meanwhile, his opponent and dissident, Alexei Navalny, states openly that he does not support the war but openly refers to Crimea, annexed in 2014, as Russian territory. Last year, a documentary biopic about Navalny was showcased at all the top film festivals, with some even making it the opening film. Even attempts by the Ukrainian cultural community to explain to foreign colleagues that playing with bright but controversial themes is a fundamental mistake in the age of post-truth didn't help. In the end, it's not surprising, because the cost of this mistake varies for everyone: for some, it's just a minus one film in the program, and for others, it's a minus one son, father, brother, or friend.

Alongside propaganda, other issues surfaced: apathy and a lack of sensitivity. I know firsthand how it all works. After the annual selection of films for Docudays UA, I too would fall into a two-week stupor from being overwhelmed by human pain and traumas. Now my country has become one of the world's bloodiest wounds, and my colleagues have fallen into the cynical trap of modernity: the demand to talk about their pain in a way that doesn't tire Western society. And I'm not even talking about the personal challenge of not losing my own sanity and professional sensitivity, observing during work trips how images of my devastated homeland on European city billboards alternate with new H&M collections and tourist tours to exotic countries.

However, Ukrainians currently lack comfortable images for an international audience. Every day, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Ukrainian families lose their loved ones, and our multi-million country suffers from environmental and economic disasters inflicted by the Russians. For 13 years, I have been viewing the world through the lens of cinema, but I could not imagine that I would find myself inside the scariest documentary film of all – just as, perhaps, Europeans today cannot imagine that in the event of Ukraine's defeat, Russian evil will eventually have to be confronted by their own children.

All these reflections guided my choice of films for "The Context of Truth" program. I wanted to ponder alongside the audience how the whole world became a hostage to Russian propaganda and how it influenced not only Ukrainian but also global errors. Why, despite all the grim lessons of the 20th century, did humanity allow the rise of “rushism” (Russian fascism), face the inertia of international institutions, and experience a crisis of sensitivity? How to talk about suffering, loss, and war while still holding the viewers' attention? How to convince ourselves and others that solidarity, mutual aid, and responsibility are not just catchy slogans but effective long-term strategies for all of humanity?

Ukrainian Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, whose books are readily accessible in English translation, asserts that Russia can provide the world with nothing more than the export of war and chaos. Ukraine is the crucial borderland that restrains the world from the mistakes of the past. "Ukrainian Storybox: Voices of War", the only foreign film in the program,  attempts to record the collective portrait of the inhabitants of this territory. It is notable that British director David Belton did not include the political elite in the frame, which journalists often highlight in their reports on Ukraine. Based on eyewitness accounts gathered after a several-month expedition, he created a patchwork canvas of voices of ordinary women who were forced to rebuild their lives amidst constant bombardments and forced emigration. Among the heroines are also women in the military who defended the country, and those heroes whose voices we will never hear again live.

Three other Ukrainian-made films include "We Will Not Fade Away" by Alisa Kovalenko, which essentially continues the theme of the previous film but in a more sophisticated cinematic manner. At first glance, the movie may appear to be a teenage road movie, but it is, in reality, a tender and simultaneously poignant portrait of lost youth. This story captures the voices of teenagers from Ukrainian front-line territories. Their childhood unfolded amidst the Russian-Ukrainian War which the world has been overlooking since 2014.

Notably, the director not only documents Ukrainian reality but is also a participant in the combat actions. At the onset of the full-scale invasion, Alisa joined the ranks of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army but later returned to complete this poignant film. Alisa began documenting the war nine years ago, traveling to the most intense points on the front lines.  She even fell into Russian captivity near Kramatorsk. The premiere of her debut documentary film, "Alisa in Warland,“ took place at the International Documentary Film Festival IDFA in Amsterdam in 2015.

The film "Iron Butterflies" by Roman Liubyi is another testament to how vulnerable Western society is to Russian disinformation. The director presents a unique blend of well-reasoned investigation and artistic reflection on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was on a regular route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The catastrophe, caused by the actions of Russian military personnel occupying eastern Ukraine, occurred on July 17, 2014, in Donetsk region. All passengers and crew on board perished, totaling 298 individuals.

The international investigation spanned years, although the investigative group Bellingcat identified those involved in the destruction of MH17 as early as 2019. Ultimately, the Hague Tribunal delivered its verdict in 2022, confirming that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile system from Russia-controlled territory. This occurred after the full-scale invasion when the Kremlin regime, convinced of complete impunity, initiated an open genocide against Ukrainians.

The third Ukrainian film, "20 Days in Mariupol," was created by journalist and writer Mstyslav Chernov. He documented the initial days of the siege of Mariupol, including the shelling of residential neighborhoods and the maternity hospital. Chernov and his colleague, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, were the only journalists who remained in the city. The world learned about the real events through their materials. According to UN estimates, the Russians destroyed 90% of residential buildings during the three-month siege of Mariupol, with casualties among the civilian population reaching approximately one hundred thousand.

Having witnessed so much horror, the director asks in his film how many more accounts of Russian war crimes need to be shown to the world to stop the humanitarian catastrophe and save lives. "War, like X-rays, exposes the eternal truth: good people become better, and bad ones become worse," responds a doctor from the hospital who, under constant bombardment, treated wounded Mariupol residents. It is evident that through this war, Russia is attempting to shake our confidence that there are more good people. However, it has no chance as long as we maintain international solidarity.

"20 Days in Mariupol" is this year's submission from Ukraine for the Oscars in the category of "Best International Feature Film." For us Ukrainians, it's another attempt to convey to the widest possible audience the evidence of the atrocities committed by Russian military forces, not just Putin. We have long been deprived of the privilege of viewing art outside of politics, much like the audience of the international human rights film festival This Human World, presumably.

As part of this human world – International Human Rights Film Festival, an open discussion titled “Documentaries as a Fragile Shelter for Truth, Responsibility and Impact” together with Alisa Kovalenko, Ukrainian filmmaker; Roman Liubyi, Ukrainian filmmaker; Stephane Siohan, film producer, Kyiv correspondent of the newspaper Libération; Katherine Younger, Co-Head of the Documenting Ukraine program at the IWM, Permanent Fellow at the IWM. The discussion will be moderated by Kseniya Kharchenko, a writer and a project manager of the Documenting Ukraine program.

The program is created in partnership between this human world – International Human Rights Film Festival and Documenting Ukraine program, which has been supporting Ukrainian scholars, journalists, researchers, and artists documenting the events of the Russo-Ukrainian War since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

this human world—International Human Rights Film Festival—is set to take place in Vienna for the 16th time this year, opening its doors from November 30th to December 10th. Over 90 films will be screened during this period at five renowned Viennese cinemas: Schikaneder, Top Kino, Gartenbaukino, Stadtkino, and Breitenseer Lichtspiele. With nine thematic focal points, including a film focus on the war in Ukraine, the festival offers a diverse range of perspectives and invites attendees to explore global issues and challenges from various angles. It aims not only to showcase films but also to create a space for dialogue, reflection, and inspiration. Through a wide range of films, spanning from documentaries to fictional works, this human world provides insights into the complexity of human rights issues while shedding light on the stories and voices often concealed from public view.

Translation from Ukrainian by Kate Tsurkan