SUNDANCE 2023 World Cinema Documentary Competition
Roman Liubyi • Director of Iron Butterflies
“MH17 is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why a full-scale invasion began”
- We chatted to the Ukrainian director about the background to his film devoted to investigating the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the Donetsk region
In summer 2014, sunflower fields and coal mines in eastern Ukraine turned into a 12 km2 crime scene. Now, Roman Liubyi has made Iron Butterflies [+see also:
interview: Roman Liubyi
film profile], a film about this atrocity that is screening in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition. We talked to the director about his multi-layered investigation into the downing of flight MH17.
Cineuropa: Your previous film War Note [+see also:
film profile] was striking. When and how did the idea for Iron Butterflies come about?
Roman Liubyi: After War Note, or even during it, I was working on commissions, you could say, in cooperation with the Security Service of Ukraine. I made short films from the material from court cases concerning the biggest war crimes at that time. They were films about the shelling of Volnovakha and the shelling of the Skhidniy neighbourhood in Mariupol – both cases were from 2014. It was such an unusual experience. It was clear that all of this was leading up to something bigger, and logically, this was to be MH17. The only thing my team and I expected was that we would also be working in the genre of pure documentary. But it became clear that we would not have any privileged access and that we would have to work with what was available on the internet. That was the beginning of it all.
What materials did you use for the film? Was it basically everything that was publicly available on the internet, court materials and Russian propaganda?
At first, we didn't think about the courts at all. We were present at the first press conference of the joint investigative team, and after that, we decided that we should attend the first hearing. As soon as we saw a little of what it looked like from the inside, it became clear that that should also be used in the film. But initially, it was only publicly available videos, videos from eyewitnesses and intercepts by the Security Service of Ukraine, which were posted on the internet.
Where did you get the first archival footage of the creation of the BUK anti-aircraft missile system?
That was a very interesting stage of our work. The archives were handled by Yaroslav Shaposhnyk, a real connoisseur when it comes to archival matters. First, we looked at everything vaguely related to air defence systems in the Pshenychny state archive, but we didn’t really find anything there. Then there was a long process of declassifying materials from the industry archive of the Ministry of Defence, and we found a lot of interesting stuff there. I can tell you that we were not even able to see everything that was declassified for us. What we found on our first visit was more than enough.
In addition, there we found some very interesting cases of brainwashing of Soviet army personnel, which I also use in the film. I’m talking about feature films created by the Russian Ministry of Defence revolving around air defence officers. There are actors who play the roles, there’s the boyhood dream of a beautiful, blonde wife, the cool commander with whom you can go fishing, the son who loves his dad. We also found all of this in the industry archive.
It seems as though certain moments in the film were staged. How did you do this, and where did you get the actors from?
When I accepted the idea that it was possible to use physical theatre and performative techniques, I turned to my friend, whom I worked with for the Belarus Free Theater, which mainly performs in the UK. I did digital scene design for them, and my friend Bridget Fiske did the choreography and was the rehearsal director. I approached her so that we could think together about what might be possible to include. It was all developed very quickly. Bridget remembered a certain Anton Ovchinnikov from Ukraine, although he did not remember her. Anton did a festival of choreography and contemporary art, and he was quite a well-known public figure in the world of Ukrainian choreography. He did a casting session for us and selected about 20 people. From them, we chose the cast of our film, and Anton himself became one of them.
Is the term “iron butterflies” actually used? Is it a technical term or a poetic title?
It’s the most succinct way to describe what exactly killed 298 people – shrapnel from the BUK rocket, in the shape of cubes and butterflies. The “iron butterfly” is the element of the rocket that strikes the target. This name seemed very apt to me because it is aggressive and dark at the same time. But simultaneously, it is poetic and evokes the air, so it always seemed a good decision.
Your film was selected for Sundance as well as the Berlinale. Now, as a full-scale war is ongoing, you draw attention to this specific Russian crime. Do you think it will still be relevant now? The scale of the current crimes is already much greater…
The scales are definitely completely different. But this is still the biggest international case. This Russian attack affected the citizens of different countries – even different continents. What I do in this film is to equate these 298 passengers and flight crew with the rest of the victims of the Russian-Ukrainian war. They are not special. Together with Ukrainians, they are all victims of Russian aggression. I think it is very important, bearing in mind this case, to say once again that the war did not start in 2022; it started in 2014. It is important to understand that and realise that a lot of time has been wasted. MH17 is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why a full-scale invasion began.
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