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BERLINALE 2023 Encounters

Review: Eastern Front

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- BERLINALE 2023: Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko deliver a film that is so far the definitive documentary about the Russian aggression against Ukraine

Review: Eastern Front

We now have the definitive documentary about the first six months of the Russian aggression against Ukraine: Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko's Eastern Front [+see also:
trailer
interview: Vitaly Mansky, Yevhen Titar…
film profile
]
has just premiered in the Berlinale's Encounters section. Lviv-born Mansky (for details on his complicated family tree, refer to his 2016 film Close Relations [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
) yet again dazzles with his clarity of expression, unparalleled feeling for dynamics and uncompromisingly humanistic viewpoint.

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Titarenko is a filmmaker and a volunteer who, in 2014, established the medical battalion "The Hospitallers" to evacuate wounded soldiers in Donetsk. The film opens with him and another member of the group standing in front of a rusty Russian tank on Kyiv's main boulevard on 24 August 2022, Ukraine Independence Day, exactly six months after the world finally noticed the war that had really started eight years earlier.

The film consists of two main strands edited in parallel by Andrey Paperny. The footage filmed by an iPhone in the breast pocket of Titarenko's fatigues, starting in February in Kharkiv and following their actions on the frontline, alternates with idyllic images from DoP Ivan Fomichenko's camera, captured as the group is taking a breather in August in a village in Western Ukraine, having gathered to celebrate the baptism of a member's son.

The frontline segments are frantic as the protagonists pick up wounded soldiers and rush them around barricades and over speed bumps to the nearest hospital in their bullet- and shrapnel-riddled van. In the first of these scenes, they are literally in a race with death, the camera filming chaotically inside the cramped space as they try to resuscitate a man for whom it might already be too late. There are three scenes like this, urgent, visceral and breathtaking, in which the quality of the image is reminiscent of a dark, strong-contrast sepia tone.

So when Mansky takes us to Western Ukraine in August for a striking counterpoint, as three of the Hospitallers in swimming trunks sit in the lush foliage by the river, women and children bathing in the background, enveloped in gentle sunlight, the viewer can finally catch their breath. The three men talk about how the perception of the war for their older relatives who had been subjected to Russian propaganda has shifted, and how the Russian speakers in the East have switched to Ukrainian.

The scene of the baptising of Subbota's son in the church is surreally calm and is followed by a celebration in Soupchik's yard, his family having hosted 25 refugees at one point. Talk of joining the army despite health problems or preserving sperm in banks "just in case" points to a deeply human aspect: life must go on, and these people's indomitable spirit, strengthened by the resistance to unprovoked aggression, will ensure it.

Despite the viewer being constantly aware of the human toll of the war, the film still manages to shock us with an apocalyptic scene of a herd of cows stuck in the mud following the shelling of the farm. "This looks like the Second World War," says one Hospitaller, though we have already seen them rummaging through abandoned Russian trenches and capturing vehicles marked with the “Z”.

At the end, the picture fades to white: this horror will continue, and Mansky leaves us in no doubt as to his viewpoint that it can only have one outcome. It is a bold, deeply humanistic and, above all, true film that leaves the viewer moved and as resolute as the heroes and the filmmakers.

Eastern Front is a co-production between Latvia's Vertov, Ukraine's Braha Production, the Czech Republic's Hypermarket Film and the USA's Current Time TV. Deckert Distribution has the international rights.

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