A Film a Week - One Day in Ukraine / Den' Dobrovol'ca

 previously published on Cineuropa

A darkened Metro station. Suspenseful music in the background, and a textual info card that says so much with just a few words and numbers: 13 March 2022, or the 2,943th day of the Russian-Ukrainian War. This is not some kind of speculative fiction along the lines of Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis, but merely a matter of perspective. While for the global public, the war started this February when the Russian troops invaded Ukraine, for the Ukrainians, it is a phase in the conflict that is in its ninth year now, having started when the Maidan Uprising took place. The camera moves to the better-lit, deeper layers of the station, which provides shelter for the women, children and elderly people, and continues observing life there in an unbroken, five-minute, dialogue-free, hand-held shot.

The day referred to in the title of Volodymyr Tykhyy’s One Day in Ukraine is actually the following one, 14 March, or the 2,944th day of the war. The movie directed by the filmmaker behind Maidan: Rough Cut (2014) and the founding member of the Babylon ‘13 collective, which serves as its principal production company, had its world premiere at the recently concluded Sheffield DocFest, where it bagged a Special Mention in the main competition. The topic itself and Tykhyy’s fitting direct approach to it should be enough to secure the film a future on the documentary festival circuit.

The Metro station and the people taking shelter there are just some of the things that Tykhyy and his co-cinematographers (all 12 of them) focus on. The second narrative thread follows a group of drafted soldiers and members of the territorial defence guard in their duties, from fighting to drone reconnaissance and policing the disaster-stricken areas in order to prevent looting. The third one revolves around a young woman who copes with the situation through activism, from cooking meals for the defenders to feeding stray dogs and taking part in efforts to save the pets that owners have had to leave behind.

One of Tykhyy’s points is that almost everybody does their best to support the defence effort in their own way and by their own means, but this kind of discourse focusing on the ideals of patriotism and solidarity is standard for any defensive war. What is more interesting here is something even more universal: the way our perception changes in times of distress. The things that had been unimaginable just a month ago have become the facts of daily life, while things considered quite normal, or even mundane, like video adverts and a Stop-Zemlia movie poster in the Metro station, seem like relics from the distant past.

Operating with material from different sources, Tykhyy and his co-editor Ivan Bannikov still manage to find a sense to it all and a certain style in welding it together, sometimes to considerable emotional effect. They also incorporate shots of the actual combat and the devastating consequences of it, which are usually obtained by the reconnaissance drones belonging to one group of our protagonists, and in those moments, the harrowing musical score by Mykyta Moiseiev, consisting of a pulsating beat and a synth drone imitating wind instruments, is especially effective in filling in the soundscape.

In the end, we even learn that the day has not been chosen randomly, because it also has a certain symbolic significance: in Ukraine, it is Volunteers Day, which is connected to the Maidan and post-Maidan events. Nor does One Day in Ukraine feel random, like an ordinary chronicle of wartime events, but rather like a valuable testimony of the unbreakable human spirit.

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