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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Review: Intercepted

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- BERLINALE 2024: Phone calls of Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian frontlines to their loved ones back home unveil shocking depravity, and much more, in Oksana Karpovych’s documentary

Review: Intercepted

To flip the Freudian notion of potentially deviant male behaviour on its head, it transpires that, actually, a soldier’s best friend is his mother. With her Berlinale Forum-premiering documentary Intercepted, has Oksana Karpovych got closer than most commentators to pinpointing the fundamental causes and nature of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine? Listening to the candid heart-to-hearts between Russian soldiers, deployed in the initial months of the war, and their mums (and less often, seemingly, their wives and girlfriends), we’re granted a most revealing perch: maybe as a therapist unable to vocally intervene, but one who can surely listen.

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It’s certainly a triumph for public domain-derived journalism (which is Karpovych’s background) and the non-fiction filmmaking that can spring from it. As the war commenced, the Ukrainian Security Service managed to hack the evidently non- or poorly encrypted home phone calls of their enemies, and distributed them online; with other first-hand sources upsetting enough to absorb on their own, this audio archive-of-the-damned might have otherwise remained the preserve of more specialist researchers.

Carefully whittling down 31 hours of these recordings – many of which were fragments and not full conversations – Karpovych could have reached an impactful message merely by playing them back against a black screen; in fact, this non-synchronous impulse does echo the final product. Against the recounting of wilful war crimes and unmotivated violence against civilians, she and cinematographer Christopher Nunn merely show us the quotidian locations where these military incursions took place – housing blocks, ex-urban dual carriageways, municipal buildings – in oddly tranquil master shots, the majority of them devoid of human presence or activity.

Considered in light of Karpovych’s previous dispatches on the war for Al Jazeera’s 24-hour coverage, it’s worth highlighting the cinematic distinction, and most importantly, the visual and pictorial intelligence, of what we see. It chimes with a trend in depictions of wars and atrocities to show them – if that at all – in a deferred, oblique manner: it’s the finger on the trigger, and then the dissipating smoke, with the explosion itself erased. Gianfranco Rosi and The Zone of Interest [+see also:
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are really not far removed from Intercepted’s visual characteristics. And while disturbing and suggestive – the images of looted properties especially, crucially never overlaid with the soldiers dispassionately describing the same – it also evades any knowing critical accusation of it being destruction porn, trauma porn or anything similar. By maintaining the large-depth-of-field shots and never cutting to a close-up, it helps deny any thoughtless, vicarious pleasure.

To risk one cinematic analogue too many, Chantal Akerman’s News From Home – where letters from the director’s mother are narrated over apparently unrelated footage – also informs Intercepted’s rumination on how we behave and what forms us. The conversations are even-tempered and conducted with the comfortable aura of familial intimacy, yet this discrepancy of form and horrifying content never amounts to real cognitive dissonance. Both the military operators and the homes they spring from are fully nourished by and beholden to Russian state propaganda; with no compunction in her accusation, Karpovych presents this rot – one that motivates such a lust for imperial domination – as hereditary, metaphorically speaking. Never have two sides of a conversation reciprocating one another, usually in complete, unwavering agreement, felt scarier.

Intercepted is a production of Canada, France and Ukraine, staged by Les Films Cosmos, Hutong Productions and Moon Man. Its international sales are overseen by Lightdox.

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