In the summer of 2022, the war in Ukraine is omnipresent and yet at the same time all but disappeared. The Russian invasion began in February with an advance on Kyiv that proved unsuccessful. Large swathes of the country have returned to a kind of normality, while a fierce battle for Mariupol waged in the far south-east. This normality of daily life caught in a war zone is one of the key aspects of the documentary W UKRAINIE (In Ukraine) by Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski. They drive through a country bearing the scars of widespread destruction, while everyday life is gradually seeping back. In the first frame we see a destroyed bridge next to an asphalted bypass already replacing it. The rubble gives international television reporters a good backdrop for reporting on the current situation. The streets are lined with the husks of tanks once belonging to the Russian army. Ukrainian women let their husbands take snaps of them posing on this military hardware that has lost its menace. For now at least.
Almost a year into the war, which most people in Ukraine tally differently: for them, the war actually began in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and the paramilitary forces who established a regime of terror in the region around Donetsk and Lugansk. Russia under Vladimir Putin has created a number of territories on its outer fringes whose status is precarious: Transnistria, Abkhazia, parts of Georgia, parts of Ukraine's Donbas. This might be one of the outcome scenarios for the war in Ukraine: that it never really comes to an end, but simply leads to a stalemate that people somehow have to come to terms with. Pawlus and Wolski record events caught in a no-man's land where war and post-war are hard to distinguish.
This distinction is eventually brought to a dramatic end: Their film moves towards the war, they gradually approach the front. Hailing from a country neighbouring Ukraine right on its western flank that feels both directly implicated in and threatened by Russian aggression—these two Polish filmmakers now head east. In many images, we sense a tension between the foreground and background that seems to sum up the war in Ukraine: in the foreground scenes of life seemingly unaffected (once again or temporarily)—children's playgrounds or sports fields, for instance—while in the background we see apartment buildings scarred by the impact of war. The degree of destruction that Pavlus and Wolski casually chronicle is vast and rekindles an awareness of the devastation wrought by war in central Ukraine along the upper Dnipro River and in cities like Kharkiv or Chernihiv.
Only by correctly pronouncing words like “Ukrzalianytsia” (Ukrainian railway company) or “Paljanyzja” (a traditional bread) will dispel any suspicion someone might actually be on Russia's side.
Checkpoints are a reflection of the ambiguity of the current situation. Pawlus and Wolski keep coming up against checkpoints like these where sometimes it is just children who decide whether you pass or get turned back. Car drivers have to prove they are Ukrainian by way of a vocabulary check: Only by correctly pronouncing words like “Ukrzalianytsia” (Ukrainian railway company) or “Paljanyzja” (a traditional bread) will dispel any suspicion someone might actually be on Russia's side. The children at war all the time, even in conditions of a near actual war. A pipe serves as a grenade launcher.
Food is handed out in Kyiv, people still sleep in underground stations for safety. In many scenes, the solidarity in society is reminiscent of similar images from the Euromaidan, when Ukraine staged a massive demonstration in 2013/14 demanding better government and a shift towards the liberal democracies of Western Europe. It is against these efforts for democracy that Putin's war is directed first and foremost.
The further east Pavlus and Wolski travel, the more present the war becomes. Volunteers are taught how to use weapons. Women still make sure their hair looks good even if they are in uniform; they have time because they are not right at the front. The “orcs”—the name for Russian soldiers as a nod to the ugly, bloodthirsty creatures from J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy tale “The Lord of the Rings”—are now close at hand.
Films about war usually have to “embed” themselves in some way. Mantas Kvedaravicius, filming in March 2022 in the embattled Mariupol, connected with a needy community in a church amid already destroyed buildings. The French philosopher Bernard Henry-Lévy went to film alongside fighters during this period but kept his distance from the actual front and the fighting in Mariupol (which he shows in images). Pawlus and Wolski use W UKRAINIE to suggest a movement that they have defined at their own discretion and on their own terms. We can also see this movement as a metonym for European commitment: Anyone witnessing the conditions prevailing in the country, anyone breaking away from mere photo-ops, will find it hard to deny support for Ukraine. In the summer of 2022, when this film was shot, the situation felt suspended in limbo for a while, although even in that phase the death and destruction continued. W UKRAINIE by Piotr Pawlus and Tomasz Wolski will serve as a document in a future history of this war, also revealing where indecisive European policy might lead—to a deceptive normality.
Bert Rebhandl lives in Berlin as a freelance journalist, author and translator.
Translation: Claire Cahm