Ukrainian Directors Take Stock On First Anniversary Of Russian Invasion & Shift Gaze Away From Frontline

Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Liubyi is marking the first anniversary on Friday of Russia’s invasion of his country with a screening at the Berlin Film Festival of documentary Iron Butterflies in its Panorama section.

The director was in London working on digital set design for the Belarus Free Theatre’s Dogs Of Europe production at the Barbican when Russia attacked on February 24, 2022.

“My wife and daughter had been due to fly out that day to join me but obviously that didn’t happen,” he recalls. 

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Instead, they fled their flat in Kyiv, which had come under heavy missile attack, for what they thought would be the relative safety of Liubyi’s parents’ home in Irpin. 

The commuter town northwest of Kyiv would become a hotspot in the early days of the invasion and the site of Russian atrocities. 

Liubyi raced back to Ukraine.

Accompanied by This Rain Will Never Stop cinematographer and friend Slava Tsvetkov, he navigated checkpoints and blocked roads in a dangerous mission to extract his “girls” from the city.

His wife and seven-year-old daughter are now living in London.

“She is going to school in London and has become bilingual. She loves it but she would jump at the chance to return home any day. It’s harder to convince kids,” he says.

Liubyi has spent the past year in Ukraine, making films capturing life during the conflict under the banner of the Babylon’13 – Cinema Of Civil Society collective, and also supporting the war effort, attached to the country’s drone-driven reconnaissance unit.

Iron Butterflies, which world premiered in Sundance last month, explores the Russian disinformation campaign around the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

For Ukrainians, the tragedy, which killed 289 civilian passengers and crew, should have been a wake-up call to Europe and the United States about Russia’s involvement in the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. 

Instead, it took eight years for a Dutch court to rule in November 2022 that the aircraft had been downed by a Russian-supplied missile.

The film is Liubyi’s second feature after War Note, capturing life at the Donbas front for Ukrainian soldiers in 2014 via personal videos shot on their smartphones, cameras and GoPros.

When Liubyi embarked on the new film, one of his aims was to raise the alarm over Russia’s designs on Eastern Ukraine. He admits the invasion left him questioning the point of the film and even his work as a filmmaker.

“I think a lot of Ukrainian filmmakers felt like me,” he says. “At first, I wanted to give it all up and do something real, like go and work as a sapper or a medic, but then with time the film gained new meaning as analysis and a lesson about lost opportunities.” 

As the war grinds on, the director is shifting his creative focus away from the frontline with a feature-length, family-focused animation inspired by Ukrainian folklore.

“You can’t show people sheltering from the war in basements, films about war, or MH17,” he says.  “We’re working on the script.  It’s based on a book written almost one hundred years ago, called Unholy Power.

“It is a very kind of story about these unholy powers who intervene to help these silly creatures, human beings, who get into trouble all the time.”

The work will combine different animation techniques, led by stop-motion and puppetry.

Liubyi says there is also scope within the storyline to bring in international partners thanks to a scene in which “unholy powers” from all over the world convene on Bald Mountain, a real-life wooded hill in Kyiv connected with local folk mythology.

Compatriot filmmaker Tonia Noyabrova’s drama Do You Love Me? also screens at the Berlinale on Friday, again in Panorama.

The coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical drama stars Karyna Khymchuk as a 17-year-old growing up in Ukraine in the late 1980s, navigating the collapse of her parents’ marriage and the Soviet Union.

Young actress Khymchuk is now a refugee in Berlin, while Noyabrova ended up living out of a suitcase as she completed editing in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, color-grading in Berlin and then sound design and the titles in Sweden.

“It was like giving birth to a real child,” says Noyabrova. “It was emotionally and physically very complicated to complete the film because I was living as a refugee and travelling around the world.”

“It was the international community that helped me complete this movie,” she adds “Having the Berlinale as the final destination is like a dream come true.”

Now living in Poland, Noyabrova, like Liubyi, does not want to focus on the immediate conflict for her next film.

Instead, she is writing a Ruben Östlund-style satire about refugee life.

“It’s a comedy about refugees. The main character is a playwright, who wants to write an outstanding play about war to stop the war,” she reveals.

“It’s not a comedy-comedy. It will be an ironic movie in the vein of a Ruben Östlund film, like The Square.”

She says the film will be set in a big city in Europe but the exact setting has yet to be decided and will depend on which European co-producing partners come on board the project.

“It could be anywhere. We just need to pick a very conservative European city with a very powerful bureaucracy. It could be France, or Germany…,” she adds.

The story will involve a diverse group of refugees and be driven by rivalry between different groups as they fight for attention and support,

“The Ukrainians have become the main refugees and the other refugees are not happy with the situation. There will be a lot of layers and aspects to the characters,” explains Noyabrova.

Her earlier work such as the short film Everything Will Be Alright and first feature Hero Of My Time critiqued contemporary Ukrainian society.

She acknowledges, however, when quizzed on this, that it is not an approach she would take in the present circumstances.

“We have to be very careful now because we’re fighting for our freedom against a very powerful enemy so it’s not the moment to fight with each other,” she says.  

Like Liubyi, Noyabrova says her film Do You Love Me? has taken on fresh resonance following the Russian invasion.

“It’s a personal story which became really relevant. We can compare the collapse of the USSR with the collapse of the entire world now, the collapse of democracy,” she says.

“We’re not just fighting for our democracy and our freedom but also that of the European Union. I really believe that.”

Both filmmakers remain optimistic that Ukraine will prevail, with the support of the international community.

“There is no way to survive without hope,” says Liubyi. “If we still have Kyiv, if we still have Kharkiv, if we still have Odesa, if we still have Dnipro, I think we will make it.”

His only fear is that war fatigue will set in if the conflict continues for another full year. 

“I easily imagine how they [the Russians] will push their propaganda further and further and Ukraine could one day be alone in this fight,” he says.

“Now we’re fully supported by the whole world and I’m using this opportunity as a representative of the Ukrainian people to say how much we appreciate all the help we have in our fight. We’re really fighting for our existence, our culture and our land,” he continues.

“We will manage it but the only question is at what cost. There are many, many smart people fighting and dying. We’re losing the most precious thing we have, our people.”

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