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BERLINALE 2023 Forum

Piotr Pawlus, Tomasz Wolski • Directors of In Ukraine

“We wanted to make sure this country was a protagonist”


- BERLINALE 2023: The Polish filmmakers discuss their documentary, which, instead of being intrusive, silently observes the daily struggles and joys in the titular war-torn country

Piotr Pawlus, Tomasz Wolski • Directors of In Ukraine
Directors Piotr Pawlus (© Tomasz Wolski) and Tomasz Wolski (© Piotr Pawlus)

In Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski’s documentary In Ukraine [+see also:
film review
interview: Piotr Pawlus, Tomasz Wolski
film profile
, screening in Forum at the Berlinale, life goes on – even in war-torn Ukraine. Their camera isn’t intrusive, however, just silently observing the daily struggles and joys. They never judge, whatever may be going on. They just watch.

Cineuropa: You made a clear choice in the film – you opted for static shots, with no voice-over. But how did you choose these locations?
Tomasz Wolski:
We worked quite unconventionally because it was Piotr who was in Ukraine. I noticed on Facebook that he kept going there – I wanted to know why. I thought I didn’t want to make a film about this war, mostly because many Ukrainian directors would do it themselves. But here he was, risking his life like that. He told me that it came from this inner need, that he went there to help.

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I asked him to film different locations; we would talk about how to shoot certain scenes. I recently glanced at our old correspondence and, well, just kept on scrolling. It was interesting, figuring it out together, because this whole concept of focusing on static shots devoid of any commentary goes against everything documentary films usually feed on.

It also seems respectful. It’s a bit like saying: “We are not pretending to understand what you are going through, but we still want to show it.”
Piotr Pawlus:
Tomasz’s suggestion was to just watch and see what happened. Emotionally charged moments happened outside of the frame because I had to talk to these people and convince them to trust me. Also, our ideas would often change, depending on the situation. Once, I was in a village and came across a playground. Later, it became one of our locations.

TW: We needed scenes where you could see the war. It had to be clear that this film was shot “here and now”. You could say that these locations are all over the map. But we wanted to make sure this country was a protagonist.

You show these absurdities of war – from soldiers waiting in the forest, pretending to be calm, to people fighting over breakfast cereal. It’s not just about heroism.
It’s an argument over food. We were wondering if that scene could be close to the sequence featuring dogs, also fighting over something to eat. To what extent are we commenting on that? It’s not these people’s fault. There are many negative aspects of living in such conditions, and Piotr experienced it, too. It’s not just about the war; it’s about bureaucracy and corruption as well. We don’t talk about it in the film, but it was never supposed to be only celebrations. We wanted to balance it out and show difficult moments at a difficult time.

It seemed to me that this project needed some distance. That compassion is there, obviously, but there’s a fine line between that and emotional blackmail, which is easy territory to get into when you’re talking about someone’s misfortunes. Also, it’s horrible and sad, but we are so used to these images now – we constantly see dramatic scenes. Here, the war and all its brutality are present, but they are in the background.

Ultimately, you made a film about life.
Journalists and reporters tend to focus on the war. We didn’t want to tell that story. We are just showing that state in between calm and anxiety. People try to go on with their chores, but there is this fear lurking constantly. I felt it, too. Sometimes, I couldn’t put the camera in a certain place, because if I’d moved, I might have run into mines.

TW: The ordinary under extraordinary circumstances is very interesting to me – how people try to adapt and live normally. During World War II, people also had to get food and meet their friends; people fell in love, and children were born. They go on because there is no other way. They can’t just sit in their basement and despair. In a way, it’s also quite sad because it proves we can get used to anything. We are used to this war, witnessing it from afar. So are they – to the air raids, the sirens, all those demolished houses.

In Ukraine seems to be suspended in time. Sometimes, it feels like you are showing the past, with people taking photos of old tanks, but at other times, it’s clear that it’s happening now.
It was an odd moment, those people taking pictures with the tanks. They look like souvenirs of bad times that are long gone – but that’s not the case. Maybe it’s a hopeful gesture? You would show these photos to children one day, saying: “That’s what it was like.” I guess it also says something about our times, about this need to immortalise everything.

PP: Some of these people had to flee Kyiv when the Russian troops were advancing. They hid in places they deemed safe, which later turned out to be occupied. Then, they would come back, “reclaiming” this place – that’s how I see it. Although you can’t really judge, you can only watch.

TW: At first, we wanted to divide the film into three parts. The first one was supposed to focus on everyday life, the second on the military and the third on reconstruction. Even though the war isn’t over, they are already trying to get back to “normal”, repairing buildings and rebuilding the infrastructure. Maybe in a few years’ time, we will be able to show that, too.

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