The world constantly sees videos of the carnage and suffering Russia is inflicting on neighbouring Ukraine, so what more could the Berlinale film festival have to offer to the understanding of the biggest war in Europe since World War Two? The answer, on the evidence of films and events at the 73rd edition of the festival, which opened on Thursday, is quite a bit.
Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky spoke by video link to the festival’s opening night audience of dignitaries, business people, artists and filmmakers. He said that Russia is effectively trying to wall off Ukraine from the rest of the world and appealed to the art community to speak out because otherwise “the voice of evil only becomes louder and more convincing”.
The festival has gone out of its way to screen films by Ukrainians or about Ukraine in the 10-day event. There is only one film that is identified in the programme as a co-French and Russia Federation production, despite Russia having a long history of art film production.
The films about Ukraine include the highly anticipated “Superpower”, in which actor Sean Penn goes to Kiev days before the war starts and interviews Zelensky at the outset of the conflict and on two later occasions. Zelensky’s main message, transmitted via his Hollywood bro, who drinks a lot of vodka in the film and seems to smoke non-stop, is if you don’t give Ukraine the weapons and fighter jets to beat the Russians now, “Americans will fight in some years with this enemy”.
Zelensky, the former actor turned president and global hero, is also defiant about the prospects of Ukraine prevailing over its much larger, and nuclear-armed, neighbour.
“If I fight I should win,” Zelensky tells Penn in the most recent of the interviews, in Kiev. “Because if you are not ready to win, don’t fight.”
Among the many talking heads is Alexander Vindman, the Ukrainian-born former U.S. National Security Council officer whose testimony to Congress about the Trump administration’s actions in Ukraine contributed to then-president Donald Trump being impeached. Vindman soberly assesses the risks the war poses to the entire world: “What happens if Russia starts to fracture, the Chechens start to break off, the north Caucasus start to break off? What happens to loose nukes?” He sees China and Iran as the likely beneficiaries of a Russian meltdown.
In some ways Penn, who is on camera almost constantly, becomes the film’s focus, rather than Ukraine. But despite the whiff of vanity project, the film serves as a basic primer on Ukraine, especially for what is probably its target American audience. And then there’s Zelensky — whose heroic leadership has made him the world’s latest “superpower”.
More focused on Ukraine and Ukrainians are the Ukrainian-German production “Iron Butterflies”, a documentary probing Russia’s role in the downing of a Malaysian passenger airline over eastern Ukraine in 2014, and the Polish-German production “W Ukrainie” (In Ukraine). The latter is a narrationless look at what Russia has done to Ukraine in the past year since the war began on Feb. 24, 2022.
“W Ukrainie” uses the power of the camera to illustrate what conditions are like in Ukraine day to day. There are segments you have seen before, of people lining up as they did in Soviet times to get food, or articles of donated clothing. But what you probably haven’t seen is the camera lingering in these places, giving a sense of being there. You see acts of kindness in a food queue as a woman in charge gives another woman extra because she knows it is needed. You watch as another queue gets out of hand and almost turns into a scuffle over boxes of cereal. The desperation in the voices needs no translation.
You see small motorboats ferrying people — and large parcels of goods — back and forth, night and day, across a river where the bridge has been blown up. And with Russia targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in missile and drone attacks that have thrown large parts of the country into darkness, you see what life is like when entire neighbourhoods use battery-powered torches to go about their routines at night. Outside the beams, there is total blackness.
Children, whose schools have been bombed, are taken by their parents to places where destroyed Russian tanks and cannons are displayed as war trophies. Instead of playground equipment, the children climb on military hardware.
There are also dogs — packs of strays that have been abandoned by people who fled or were killed. The strays are no longer anyone’s pets, they are hunters. The film shows the dogs being fed, as a humane gesture, but that does not diminish the threat they pose.
And of course there are the bombed-out buildings. Everywhere the camera lens turns, there is a hulk. One of them is behind a playground, where children are playing. The film ends with a picture gallery of wrecked homes and apartment blocks — so many, one after the other, that they take on a hideous beauty of their own. And there, moving about in the room of a high-rise apartment where the walls have been blown off, exposing it to the outside world, is a dog, with no humans in sight.
Perhaps that’s exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to see, all over Ukraine, not the film’s other images of Ukrainians heroically coping with what his invasion has wrought.
By Michael Roddy