Review: In Ukraine
by Ola Salwa
- BERLINALE 2023: Tomasz Wolski and Piotr Pawlus let the images speak, or rather scream, for themselves, giving an insight into “the horror, the horror” of a full-scale war
In their documentary In Ukraine [+see also:
interview: Piotr Pawlus, Tomasz Wolski
film profile], Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski (1970 [+see also:
interview: Tomasz Wolski
film profile], Ordinary Country), who, in recent years, have also collaborated with Sergei Loznitsa on the editing of his The Kiev Trial [+see also:
interview: Sergei Loznitsa
film profile] and Babi Yar. Context [+see also:
interview: Sergei Loznitsa
film profile], prove that they know full well the overwhelming – and misleading – power of images. In Ukraine, which has premiered in the Berlinale’s Forum, gives an unparalleled insight into the titular country torn apart by war.
Made up of still shots captured in urban and remote locations (in this respect, In Ukraine slightly resembles the works of James Benning), the documentary is more about understanding what daily life in the war zone must be like through an emotional experience – created by both the images and the way they have been edited (Lev Kuleshov was clearly a major inspiration in this regard). The film is also an intellectual work: a harsh reminder that no matter how “photogenic” or “alluring” images of war are, there is nothing romantic about it. It’s vile and cruel, even if not a single drop of blood is shown. An empty, half torn-down building with a dog peeking out from behind the closet door is just as telling.
The doc starts with the “regular” sight of cars driving on the roads. Nothing unusual – just the daily commute. But in Ukraine, as they motor around, there are broken-down tanks, buildings in ruins and collapsed bridges by the roadside. People just walk around them, while some look at them as if they were tourist hotspots. And just as one’s eyes and brain start to become accustomed to these “war afterimages”, there is another change of shot – now our eyes are staring down the barrel of a tank gun. You can’t get accustomed to this; it’s your moral duty not to. Pawlus and Wolski have more twists like this up their sleeves. They show the places that the world’s media have already presented many times: the shelter in the subway, the food distribution centres, checkpoints... They even join a small group of troops in the woods.
The sounds of missiles exploding can be heard, but so can the noises of daily life. One minute people are standing still; the next, they hear a siren and start to walk towards a makeshift shelter. There is no panic, as they are already used to this. But can you really get used to war? This is one of the core themes of the film. The answer is ambiguous. It’s impossible to live in a constant state of alarm, but it’s equally impossible to let your guard down.
The directors also ponder the different dealings and agendas of people coming to the war zone: there is a person handing out food to an agitated crowd and posing for a photo with every bag they give out, and foreign voices can be heard among the Ukrainian soldiers. There are also journalists reporting in front of an interesting background picked specifically for their cameras. But the war can’t be reduced to merely a picturesque backdrop, because landmines can be hidden anywhere.
Wolski, who graded the film, gave it an ORWO-stock look, which brings back memories of the 1980s and earlier regimes, when perhaps there were fewer strikes, but the day-to-day threat was still palpable. If silence is able to scream Colonel Kurtz’s famous last words, it really does so in In Ukraine. And very loudly, too.
In Ukraine is a Polish-German co-production. Warsaw-based Kijora Film produced it, while Indi Film served as a co-producer.
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