Life during wartime: two years on, how is Ukrainian cinema responding to invasion?

A Bit of a Stranger (dir. Svitlana Lischynska, 2024)

In times of war and strife, cinema – a rather more expensive endeavour than most artforms – tends to take a backseat. Ukrainian cinema, which had in the decade prior to the full-scale invasion found an increasingly confident voice for itself in the international arena, has unsurprisingly slowed down drastically in production. Many new films hew towards documentary and essayistic forms; the film infrastructure underpinning many of the best new Ukrainian voices has largely been put out of action, but these formats allow for the day-to-day capture of reality, lower costs, and a more direct route between thought and film.

The initial response to the full-scale invasion, at least from filmmakers, was that of a first-draft account, such as Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko’s Eastern Front (2023), which caught the first year of the war through the eyes of a medical battalion. But as the invasion, now past its second anniversary, has become increasingly attritional, filmmakers have turned in other directions. The documentary-essay form was keenly on show during this year’s Berlinale, which glimpsed the new Ukrainian cinema, a cinema that’s managed to survive despite the material loss of infrastructure and has (in this instance at least) avoided militaristic, sensationalised images of war.

Though the festival was marred by political strife and controversy over its handling of the crisis in Palestine, new Ukrainian cinema made a small but defiant impact (and indeed, its presence in the programme implies that some conflicts are worth more than others in the eyes of certain institutions). Two documentaries, A Bit of a Stranger by Svitlana Lischynska and Intercepted by Oksana Karpovych, deploy different aesthetic means to different ends: taken together they show the war at its two extremes – at its most personal in the former, at its most dehumanising in the latter.

Many new Ukrainian films hew towards documentary and essayistic forms; the film infrastructure underpinning many of the best new voices has largely been put out of action

Lischynska’s film depicts four generations in her Russian-speaking, Mariupol-based family: her aging mother Valentina, who grew up in the Soviet Union; Svitlana herself, who came of age as Ukraine found independence and later moved to Kyiv; her daughter Sasha, who remembers an absent mother as she stayed behind in Mariupol; and young infant Stefi. By sheer luck Valentina ends up in Kyiv for Stefi’s birthday on the eve of the invasion and is able to avoid the destruction of her home city; later, Sasha and Stefi end up in London, safe from danger. The film then follows how the family responds to the challenge and trauma imposed upon them – particularly how the Russian (or Russified) aspects of their identity become perforated and fragmented in the wake of the invasion.

Svitlana is a steadfast, ever-present recordist, filming large chunks of daily life and able to draw on an impressive personal archive of home video from the nineties onwards. One particularly potent moment comes when we’re treated to images of Sasha watching King Charles’ Christmas speech in London, followed by a scene of the family in Mariupol on New Year’s Eve 2007, watching Putin’s presidential address. The two together (alongside earlier scenes of Ukraine’s National Day before the invasion) throw into sharp relief how constructed and hierarchical national identity building is. And yet in spite of their artificiality, these constructs have very real effects, not just on existential issues like the Russian invasion, but in smaller, more personal ways. A homesick Sasha at one point pines for the Russian pop songs (unavailable to stream on Amazon Music, she gripes), which she needs to be “sad, lonely, and all that”. She still dreams in Russian, she says. A Bit of a Stranger confronts the imperialistic elements of Russian and Soviet influence on Ukrainians, but it also embraces its multi-lingual and multi-cultural elements, producing a complex, ambiguous, cross-generational portrait of a family of women.

Intercepted (dir. Oksana Karpovych, 2024)

In complete contrast stands Intercepted. Oksana Karpovych’s film is comprised almost entirely of scenes from present-day Ukraine: shots of bombed-out buildings or tracking shots from a car amidst debris-strewn streets. Overlaid on top are phone calls, intercepted by Ukrainian military intelligence, from Russian soldiers to their families back home. The majority of the phone calls are deeply unpleasant, speaking freely of violence, looting, and murder. Remarkably few offer any sort of contrition, though many do highlight the difference between Putin’s propaganda at home and the reality on the ground, with mothers expecting to hear of glorious victories only to be told their sons are hungry, cold, and bogged down in mud. The calls suggest that some of the speakers come from one or other of Russia’s many ethnic minorities, who are being sent to the frontlines in disproportionate numbers.

At the same time as we hear these soldiers, many (but not all) displaying little to no remorse, we witness the aftermath of their actions. There’s a distance and hollowness at play here: the images rarely feature people, and when they do, they are far from the camera. This combination then reflects a sense of dehumanisation – we are encountering the Ukrainians partly through the mouths of the Russians. It’s a difficult and risky thing to attempt in a documentary, but on reflection Intercepted succeeds because it never fetishises or accentuates this suffering. Its simple aesthetic choices are enough of a powerful commentary on just how banal and normalised this dehumanisation is.

Ukraine’s own capacity to produce films is severely limited at the moment (if not totally eliminated), but there is a risk here of Ukrainian cinema being defined not by Ukrainians but by the cultural mores and zeitgeist of funders far from the frontlines

Dehumanisation forms one of the themes of Pavel Mozhar’s Unwanted Kinship, a short which also played in Berlin. Mozhar, a Belarusian living in Berlin since the age of 10, uses testimony from Ukrainian civilians of Russian brutality, re-enacting events either with actors or plastic figurines but without direct depictions of violence. In (German) voiceover, Mozhar narrates his complicated feelings around the notion of collective guilt, being of Belarusian descent. He asks himself to what extent he is complicit, and through his aesthetic choices brings the film text into question: to what extent is the depiction of violence itself a form of complicity?

These questions have long proliferated through cinema, yet just as equally we might ask: ‘whose images are these?’ Unwanted Kinship is a German film by country of production. Intercepted and A Bit of a Stranger may have been shot in Ukraine, but both are largely funded by the cultural foundations and ministries of more well-off Western European countries. Granted, Ukraine’s own capacity to produce films is severely limited at the moment (if not totally eliminated), but there is a risk here of Ukrainian cinema being defined not by Ukrainians but by the cultural mores and zeitgeist of funders far from the frontlines. These funding structures tend to flatten cultural specificities into totems, and the long-term risk here is that of a cinema largely predicated on war trauma, poverty, and suffering, produced for the well-heeled suits of a festival audience: a fate that has befallen, for example, post-Yugoslav cinema, modern African cinema targeted at major film festivals, or even the post-communist cinema of Eastern Europe, which flattens its protagonists into victims. All three of Unwanted Kinship, Intercepted, and A Bit of a Stranger find ways to reject this impetus, though one can already see it beginning to appear.

Dmytro Bahnenko in The Editorial Office (dir. Roman Bondarchuk, 2024)

One film to have escaped from this trap is Roman Bondarchuk’s jet-black satire The Editorial Office, set six months before the full-scale invasion (the film was mostly completed beforehand, with a few final scenes and post-production completed since). We follow Yura (Dmytro Bahnenko), an environmental researcher who witnesses an arson attack in the dunes outside of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. He takes his photos to a local news site, where the editor promptly hires him as a social media editor and then quietly shuts down the arson story. Yura, meanwhile, finds himself dragged into an increasingly Kafkaesque world of local corruption, political collusion with the news media, and outright misinformation.

Unlike the rest of the films outlined in this piece, this is not a documentary; but, as a film concerned with how news media is manufactured (Bondarchuk comes from a family of journalists), it is equally concerned with factuality. The director, already noted as a keen satirist with a couple of features under his belt, has great skill in blocking and composition, using long takes to extend a sense of surreal unease to the way the characters interact with each other, nobody quite sure who or what to believe. His final assessment – that a Ukraine susceptible to misinformation and manipulation is equally susceptible to sensationalised half-truths – is timely, not least as regards who gets to tell the country’s story years down the line. One hopes Ukrainian cinema finds ways to continually move towards complex and enriching material, and does so on its own terms.

Explore our collection of Ukrainian film here.

Fedor Tot is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-based film critic and curator specialising in Eastern European cinema.