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Ukrainian Films from the Frontlines: Documentary Reviews

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    by Talk
  • Post Date
    Wed Apr 03 2024
Credit: Bellingcat

Written by Oliver Gerharz

During March, I watched four documentaries about recent political events in Russia and Ukraine because I wanted to engage with the material for my class on the subject outside of a textbook. Here's what I thought of Navalny, Putin's Palace, 20 Days in Mariupol and Maidan:

Navalny (2022)

Alexei Navalny was a major leader of the Russian political opposition to current Russian President Vladimir Putin who died in a Russian prison in February. After his death, I was drawn to the two documentaries featuring Navalny: Navalny and Putin's Palace.

Navalny follows the story of Alexei Navalny's recovery from and investigation into his poisoning by Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) agents. The documentary begins with basic info about what happened: Navalny suddenly became sick on the flight back from a Russian village called Tomsk where he had filmed parts for his own documentary Putin's Palace. After an emergency landing, Navalny nearly died in a Russian hospital. Eventually, he and his family went to Germany for top-of-the-line treatment.

German doctors found the poison Novichok in Navalny's blood, a poison often used against enemies of Putin. After this info is made public an investigative journalist spends a lot of time and money using the dark web to filter through private information, eventually piecing together the FSB's plot to kill Navalny. After he had proof, Grozev met with Navalny, who was quicker to trust Grozev than the other members of his team.

Then Navalny joined Grozev in uncovering the plot to kill him. This investigation reaches a climax when Navalny and his team have the phone numbers of all the people they believe were involved in the plot. Since they have all the proof they reasonably need at this point besides an outright confession, Navalny decides to do a sort of prank call.

Navalny calls the men and tells them he is the assistant of so-and-so (the full name of their boss) calling after having asked the same questions to so-and-so (the full name of one of the other guys who poisoned Navalny). This use of personal information establishes the trust needed to get a little bit of information from the FSB agents at first, but none agree to disclose state secrets on an unsecured line and quickly hang up.

However, when Navalny calls a Novichok-making scientist who isn't as good at keeping secrets, he gets him to spill everything. This scientist is gradually coerced into slowly telling Navalny every excruciating detail down to the color of the pair of Navalny's underpants that they put the Novichok in. This sequence was much longer than any other in Navalny, a move made to show Navalny's incredible charisma at work that really shows off his personality.

As the investigative portion of Navalny comes to a close, Navalny plans to end his exile in Germany and return to Russia despite the risks because he loves his country. The final scenes feel like you're watching a man commit suicide—there is little doubt that his return to Russia will mean his death. In the scene where the filmmaker interviewed Navalny's daughter she said that the family doesn't talk about the negative possibilities inherent in their return—it wasn't really something anyone was able to talk about. I thought that was certainly the way the subject was treated throughout Navalny, aside from a moment where Navalny becomes upset with the journalist making the documentary—he hates that the journalist is making a movie to release if he dies. 

When in his final talking head Navalny is asked by the man behind the camera what the people of the opposition ought to do if he is killed, Navalny tells him that if he is killed on his return it means that the opposition is strong enough to be a threat and that the people of Russia ought to step up and continue fighting if he is killed. When Navalny returned to Russia, his flight was redirected to a less central airport where he was arrested and sent to prison.

Overall, I thought that Navalny was both tragic for its content and genuinely entertaining for Navalny's personality. Navalny's personality is a great strength and the people behind the movie play to it extraordinarily well, but the avoidance of the reality behind returning to Russia adds a dormant tragedy to Navalny.

Putin's Palace – 2021

The same day that Navalny was imprisoned, his team released Putin's Palace on YouTube. I took a day between the two and was shocked when it opened with Navalny speaking in Tomsk where the FSB would soon make an attempt on his life. Another constant reminder of the relationship between the films was how they both prominently featured talking head style recordings of Navalny in a bar near where he lived in Germany. Though they cover different subject matter, watching Navalny provides a good bit of context for the narrator of Putin's Palace.

Atop cliffs on the shore of the Black Sea sits Putin's palace, which might be the single most luxurious mansion on the face of the earth. A huge portion of the documentary is dedicated to Navalny making fun of Putin's frivolous spending, but despite the outlandishness of an underground hockey rink and a toilet brush that costs thousands, this fact of the palace is done to death. In spending a lot of time on a house tour that makes fun of Putin, the real point of Putin's Palace is somewhat lost.

Though the wasteful luxury of the palace is made abundantly clear, the important thing to remember is that it was built using money stolen from the people by corrupt officials. 

Throughout the film Navalny lays out a huge and impossibly confusing web of corruption around Putin's palace. Instead of explaining as he goes, he just drops names and waits until the end to lay out the entirety of the vast spider web of Putin appointees and corrupt officials who pitched in their embezzled funds and bribe money to buy Putin his mansion. 

This organizational choice provides a great wrap-up for the movie and helps with brevity as if Navalny explained as he went the movie might have been an hour longer. After this Navalny closes the movie with an explanation of how the problem will not fix itself if Putin dies. All of Putin's cronies, children and mistresses each have their own mansions. Soon each of these people will need mansions for their cronies, children and mistresses. Navalny makes it clear that the impossible greed of this is a great material threat to the Russian people.

Overall, I thought this breakdown of Russian corruption was a pretty well made documentary. While it shows the corruption and decadence at the top of Russian politics, it does so in a way that makes the most trivial aspects of the movie the most memorable.

20 Days in Mariupol (2023)

20 Days in Mariupol is an astonishing look into the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mstyslav Chernov is a Ukrainian journalist who went to Mariupol, a city in Donetsk near the frontlines at the start of the war. 20 Days in Mariupol is brutal in its intensity and honesty, never shying away from what it is focused on and never depicting anything less than the full horror of war. 

The documentary depicts the uncertainty and fear of those in Mariupol for the first 20 days of the Russian invasion. Conditions worsen as Russian bombardment runs around the clock. Most of the documentary is footage Chernov shot in Mariupol to send to the Associated Press, but 20 Days in Mariupol also includes Chernov's personal asides and reflections on how the world responded to the videos that Chernov sent out of Mariupol.

As the only journalist remaining in Mariupol, Chernov's footage was seen around the world. 20 Days in Mariupol is full of clips of major western news networks using Chernov's footage, showing what Chernov was doing for the world at large. 

At the same time, Chernov shows Russian broadcasts which call him a liar. State pundits accuse his footage of a maternity ward being bombed of being faked—they claim that Irina Kalinana, a dying pregnant woman from that maternity ward, was a paid actor. This propagandized side of things adds another layer to what makes 20 Days in Mariupol such a compelling and heartbreaking documentary to watch.

The horrors of war are first displayed in the documentary when Chernov makes it to the hospital where he spends the rest of his time in Mariupol. On Chernov's third day in Mariupol a child dies in surgery after being hit by shrapnel from shelling. The doctors at the operating table cry and shout at the cameraman, telling him to keep filing so that he can show Putin the horrors of what he has done. 

The intensity of this scene is followed by a shot of the same room empty aside from the child's corpse on the stretcher. Through the balancing of loud and quiet scenes, chaotic and somber moments, Chernov emphasizes tragedy time and time again throughout the film.

Chernov's asides are also among these slower moments. He offers insight into his own feelings of fear for his children elsewhere in Ukraine, his awareness that being captured by Russians would mean his death and his desire to forget the mass graves he has seen in spite of his  knowing that in making 20 Days in Mariupol he never will. 

These voiceovers carry the same air of tragedy that the rest of the movie does, though instead they focus on the mental reality before the physical one.

Eventually, Chernov and a local leader among the armed Ukrainian forces in Mariupol, Police Chief Volodymyr Nikulin, flee the country in a car that has been modified to disguise massive amounts of recordings and recording gear within it.

In his first appearance in the movie, Nikulin tells Chernov to record him. Nikulin tells Chernov the story of Mariupol, and says that everything that's going on needs to get out there so that what is happening can stop. 

Overall, I think that 20 Days in Mariupol was incredible. I can easily see why it won the Oscar for best documentary this past year. It's an amazing documentary that shows the real horrors of war physically and mentally while also showing how those horrors are circulated globally.

Maidan (2014)

The last of the documentaries I watched, Maidan, is a slow-burn documentary showing the events that took place during the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution from the perspective of filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa. The following information is the only information directly given to the viewer of Maidan, even though it's only the bullet points of what is happening:

EuroMaidan was a revolution against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych after he pulled the country out of a European Union trade agreement following a shadowy meeting with Putin. The conflict began as a protest of that, but as the government response to the protest became increasingly violent the protest's goals shifted towards the removal of Yanukovych from office. Eventually, after two days of deadly fighting between protesters and the military in February of 2014, Yanukovych fled the country.

Maidan tells the story of what was happening inside the town square or Maidan of Ukrainian capital Kyiv during the three months where the Ukrainian Insurgent Army was using it as a base of operations. The documentary is made up entirely of long passive shots of places within the Maidan. There is no narration, just raw footage placed end-to-end with minutes passing between cuts.

The documentary shows passive situations in the heart of the camp before moving out towards the edges where speeches are being delivered on behalf of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. As this happens tension slowly builds. The first time something really seems off is with a long shot of men passing by what appears to be a pile of garbage that someone is hammering, which is followed by a new angle showing the same pile from further away where it is revealed to be a tall and thick barricade blocking a major street. 

Later in the documentary, after many speeches delivered by insurgents, the violence escalates. Shots first show the conflict in the distance, but eventually the conflict's role becomes more overt as the conflict becomes more all-encompassing. The violence is only briefly the focus however, as once the conflict works its way close enough to where Loznitsa is filming, the focus is on finding doctors for the injured.

The documentary ends with about ten minutes of footage of the funerals for those killed. The massive crowds speak to the unity of those present after Yanukovych fled. Within a week of EuroMaidan, Russia annexed Crimea, a contingency plan in place for if Yanukovych, a candidate favored by Putin, wasn't successful. The events of EuroMaidan led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in this way, so though it isn't as recent as any of the other documentaries it is still relevant to current events.  My feelings towards Maidan are more mixed than for the other documentaries. It was very interesting to see what was happening at ground zero of a revolution, but it really was just raw footage. The lack of narrative led to a feeling of things being dragged out. Even as a sort of slow burn narrative, brevity would have helped make the documentary more impactful.

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