Featured Article

Nothing but the truth: 10 war documentaries

Published on Apr 18, 2024

Read the original article here.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Online media outlet Rubryka presents a selection of movies in Ukrainian and English, filmed by Ukrainians about the full-scale Russia-Ukraine war

The problem

Russia has a track record of distorting history and resorting to lies and manipulation to serve its own international policies. Today, the Russian Federation is once again trying to distort reality through film, and trying hard to force their propaganda into the international infosphere, and weaponising their movies against Ukrainians. In Mariupol, a city destroyed by the Russian troops, they filmed a movie about the city’s “liberation”. Some believe that Ukrainians do not have the tools to counter the Russian propaganda machine, but this is not the case. During the full-scale war, Ukraine has produced many documentaries gathering millions of views and been represented at both Ukrainian and international film festivals. The narrative they’re offering is the truth.

The solution

Watch Ukrainian movies, get to know them, and spread awareness about them. Today, Ukrainian documentaries on the war offer first-hand insights into those living through those experiences, and help us learn from the mistakes that have been made and our achievements. These documentaries rally the people, and honour the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for Ukraine’s future.

Ukrainian documentaries, created to depict events as they are, must become reliable and truthful sources of information for Ukrainians and the rest of the world. Films by Ukrainian directors can help spread global awareness about the scale of Russia’s military aggression, shape global opinion on this war and rally international support.

Rubryka offers a selection of ten Ukrainian documentaries filmed and released during Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine.

1. ‘One day in Ukraine’

Directed by Volodymyr Tykhyy.

Follow the link to watch the trailer (complete with English subtitles).

‘One day in Ukraine’, Babylon'13’s first documentary feature since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, depicts one day in the war, specifically the 14 March 2022. This date is the Ukrainian Volunteer’s Day, which has been commemorated in Ukraine since 2017. In 2022, there were no festivities due to the full-scale invasion. This was the moment when the Russians broke into Ukrainian homes on the outskirts of Kyiv, and many Kyivites moved into the city’s subway to seek shelter from Russian bombardment. The film depicts one day in the life of a pop singer, a visual engineer, a historian, a restorer, a polar scientist, and a retired woman, all of whom were forced to drastically change their lives.

The film premiered globally in June 2022 during Sheffield DocFest 2022, the world’s third largest documentaries festival, where it received a special mention. In the Warsaw Film Festival 2022, One Day in Ukraine won the best documentary award. It was also the first-ever Ukrainian film purchased by the BBC.

In the documentary, one can see activists and volunteers, including Roman Ratushnyi, Ihor Lutsenko, Dasha Astafieva, Evhen Dykyi and Ihor Mazur ‘Topolia’. Ratushnyi, an activist known for his efforts to preserve the capital's forested area Protasiv Yar from overdevelopment, was killed in action near Izium in June 2022. Later, one of Kyiv’s streets was renamed after the hero.

2. ‘20 days in Mariupol’

Directed by Mstyslav Chernov.

Watch the trailer (complete with English subtitles) here.

Photo: a still from ‘20 days in Mariupol’

In his documentary, director Mstyslav Chernov depicts the events that unravelled in the besieged city of Mariupol in February and March 2022. Chernov was part of a team of Ukrainian journalists working for the Associated Press. He arrived in Mariupol on the eve of the full-scale invasion and chose to stay as the Russians approached. Chernov and his colleagues did their best to continue with their work, documenting the atrocities of the Russian invasion, including the children killed, mass burials, the work of doctors, the aftermath of the bombing of the Maternity Hospital No. 3, and other horrors.

20 days later, the journalists managed to leave Mariupol. They were lucky to be lost in the chaos of a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands. One Mariupol policeman, at the risk of his own life and those of his family, drove the journalists — complete with their filming equipment and hard drives containing their recorded material — through 15 Russian roadblocks. Those materials were later turned into a film, depicting a clear image of civilians who found themselves under a siege. The sound design was created specifically for this film. The director admits that it had been a difficult process that lasted for over a year because Mariupol is a special city with a distinct sound. In addition, the documentary depicts what it’s like to be reporting from a conflict zone, as well as the role and influence that kind of journalism has around the globe.

The documentary is already touring the world. In June 2023, it was presented at Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival. In the Sundance Film Festival (USA), it won the Audience Award, [and in March 2024 it won the Oscar for Best Documentary].

“The goal of this film,” says its director, “is to keep reminding people all over the globe about the cost the Ukrainians have to pay just to live another day in this titanic effort of fighting off the invaders.”

3.Mariupol: The chronicles of hell’

Directed by Liza Tatarinova

Watch the full movie (complete with English subtitles) on YouTube.

Photo: a still from ‘Mariupol: The chronicles of hell’

This documentary on Mariupol, released in May 2022, is based on the stories of eyewitnesses who fled a city that became a real hell at the beginning of thes full-scale invasion. The city was in flames, and its people were trying hard to survive under never-ending shelling and bombing, deprived of food, electricity, water, medication and any means of communication — the film-makers shot over 11 hours of interviews with the survivors. The film also shows many images from pre-war Mariupol, filmed in the summer of 2021.

Overall the documentary depicts 11 people, including the Mariupol journalist Nadiia Sukhorukova, who kept updating her wartime diary on her Facebook page. The documentary has already been shown in Estonia, Canada, Poland and Taiwan.

In July 2022, the director announced another documentary, depicting the chronicles of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This one is dedicated to the city of Kherson and is called ‘Kherson. Silent terror. The chronicles of hell’ (watch on YouTube complete with English subtitles). It consists of recollections of the citizens of Kherson reminiscing about life in the city that was seized in the early days of the full-scale war, the crimes of the invaders against the civilians, and the resistance that the people of Kherson offered to the Russian criminals.

4. ‘Life to the limit’

Directed by Pavlo Peleshok

Watch the official trailer (complete with English subtitles) on YouTube

Photo: a still from ‘Life to the limit’

‘Life to the Limit’ is the project by producers Pavlo Peleshko and Yurko Ivanyshyn, whose previous film ‘Winter on fire: Ukraine's fight for freedom’ was a 2016 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary.

This film covers the events from the Revolution of Dignity to the full-scale invasion, a period during which the film-makers joined the army as volunteers and went on to be deployed to various flashpoints of the Donbas. They carried both arms and cameras, trying their best to make a true-to-life record of the horrible reality. From the fragments of recollections and their personal film archives, veterans Pavlo and Yurko pieced together ‘Life to the limit’ like a puzzle, covering the cause and effect of the Russia-Ukraine war from late 2013 until this day.

“The main aim of our storytelling logic was to make an adaptation that was suitable for not just the Western audience, but any audience trying to understand what went down in Ukraine,” explains director Pavlo Peleshok. “We initially intended to make the film 90 minutes long, but ended up with a cut that was 17 minutes longer, due to us having a hard time finding something to edit out that was less important. In the war, every event is important, which made it really tough for us to handpick specific moments.”

‘Life to the limit’ was released in Ukrainian cinemas on 16 March 2023. The film-makers are planning screenings in Taiwan, Canada, China, Turkey, Japan, Australia and European countries. In one of his interviews, Pavlo Peleshok shared that he was offered to withhold the documentary until 2024 so that it could be submitted to film festivals. “I wasn’t interested. All I want is to do my best here and now, because it’s baffling to me that we still have to prove that we were attacked by Russia, and that Russia is our enemy,” he says.

5. ‘We will not fade away’

Directed by Alisa Kovalenko

Watch the trailer (complete with English subtitles) here.

Photo: a still from ‘We will not fade away’

Filmed before the full-scale war, the doc tells the story of five teenagers from a frontline settlement of the Luhansk region which remained under Kyiv’s control, who suffer a grim reality, but refuse to let it break them. They still dream, seek adventures, and take a stand against everyday dullness. An invitation from the adventurer Valentyn Shcherbachov to join his expedition to the Himalayan mountains presents the teens with an opportunity to discover a world beyond the warzone. However the Stanytsia Luhanska, where the filming took place, was later captured by the Russian army in February 2022. The nearby town of Zolote was ultimately seized in June of the same year.

“Personally, this is a very unusual project for me,” says director Alisa Kovalenko, who is currently defending Ukraine from the Russian invaders on the frontline. “Due to multiple central characters, the storyline is pieced together like a mosaic. We kind of tried to merge the depiction of those five characters into a portrait of an entire generation and offer viewers a feeling of the place, despite all five teens coming from different towns of the Luhansk region. This film is very musical, as we were trying to depict the energy of teenage years. What makes our film stand out is that it isn’t centred on the dull and depressive life in the towns of Donbas, but rather on the power of dreams.”

In August 2023 Alisa Kovalenko was nominated for a Gold Fellowship for Women-2023 from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the one handing out the Oscars), while the film itself received an award at Crossing Europe Film Festival Linz in Austria. The national competition of the 14th Odesa International Film Festival recognised the piece as the best documentary on human rights, and the piece won The Best Ukrainian Documentary at the Golden Dzyga-2023, an award given by the Ukrainian Film Academy.

6. ‘Follow me’

Directed by Liubomyr Levytskyi

The film is available on YouTube in Ukrainian and English.

Photo: a still from ‘Follow Me’

‘Follow Me’ shows a unique military rescue operation with drones involved, carried out by the Ukrainian military in the summer of 2022 during the fierce fighting in the Kharkiv region, and premiered online in January 2023. ‘Follow Me’ is based on real footage, and includes interviews with the real participants of those events. The people who were rescued kindly agreed to be part of this documentary and relive that horror, so that the rest of the world could learn about that incredible feat of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The film depicts how the personnel of the 93rd Brigade ‘Kholodnyi Yar’ used quadcopter drones to rescue a civilian couple who accidentally drove into the middle of enemy positions, and came under heavy fire from the Russians. The military personnel from the 93rd Brigade spotted their car from a drone. Unable to safely approach the couple, the military conducted an unprecedented rescue operation using drones. Another central figure in the film, a first lieutenant whose cover name is ‘Sid’, was the drone operator who figured out how to lead the civilians towards the Ukrainian military positions.

‘Follow Me’ is 30 minutes long, however, the tension is so palpable that it’s not something one can forget for a long time. The director managed to combine documentary footage with artistic solutions to enhance the storytelling. At the same time, the author believes that the film’s title and meaning are much deeper than it may seem at first glance. “It’s like we’re inviting the world to follow us in courage,” says Liubomyr Levytskyi.

7. ‘Bucha 22’

Directed by Vladyslav Vasylchenko

Watch the full film (complete with Ukrainian and English subtitles) on YouTube.

Photo: a still from ‘Bucha 22’

Bucha is a town that has become a symbol of the war crimes committed by the Russians. At least 461 people were killed during the Russian military occupation of the town, with the overall number of those murdered by the Russians in Bucha and its surroundings reaching 1,137.

This investigative film by online media Suspilne tells the story of the Chikmariov family. Before the full-scale war, Marharyta and Oleksandr had to flee their native Donbas, to escape the advancing ‘Russian world’. Unfortunately, the Russians caught up with the family in Bucha. On 5 March 2022, when Bucha was seized by Russians, the couple, along with their sons Matvii and Klym, decided to flee. However, on their way out of town, their car came under fire from the invaders. Marharyta and her young children were killed on the spot, while Oleksandr was saved, although he ended up losing his leg. On that day, the Russian military seized the town. The man’s family were left in the burnt-down car, and their bodies were not recovered until moments before the full liberation of Bucha by Ukrainian forces.

Thanks to witnesses, the journalists linked a specific Russian military regiment to the crime.

The film won an award at the Heart of Europe International TV Festival & Forum and also won the National Competition of Special Reporting and Investigations.

“We can’t be happy about winning those awards, as Marharyta, Matvii and Klym are dead, along with thousands of other Ukrainians,” shares Inna Biletska, investigations editor-in-chief at Suspilne. “Such investigations pave the way to punishing those Russians [guilty of the crime], because when they simply leave this is not enough for us, they have to be punished for what they did. All of them, from Putin to the lowest ranks of tank crews, paratroopers and marines.”

8. ‘Faraways’

Directed by Artem Hryhoryan

Watch the full documentary (complete with English subtitles) on the SLUKH YouTube channel.

Photo: a still from ‘Faraways’

The film depicts Ukrainian women who were forced to flee Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion, seeking refuge from shelling and military occupation. Every one of them had a difficult decision to make: should they leave or should they stay? The women in this documentary have various ages and origins, and come from different walks of life: a vlogger schoolgirl from Mariupol and her mother, a photographer from Kharkiv, a student from Kyiv, and a stand-up comic and taekwondo coach from Cherkasy. While filming, the crew covered over 13,000 kilometres to speak with those Ukrainian women in Austria, Luxembourg, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

“Before 24 February 2022, our associations with the word ‘war’ were battlefields, trenches, blood and death,” says Artem Hryhoryan, the director. “However, after the full-scale invasion that word was more fraught with meaning… people found themselves in situations and places that they would have never thought to be in. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch, and get settled in new places, learning the local languages, and starting anew. They are ready to embark on a new journey, something that is interesting to observe. This is what our film ‘Faraways’ is about.”

To create the documentary, the crew went through over 200 questionnaires and video presentations of women eager to share their stories. The film creators recall that that was a mentally daunting task, as every story was unique and many women needed a safe space to get their feelings off their chests. The final cut covers five of those stories, with several more stories released on YouTube as individual episodes, which have amassed two million views in total.

9. ‘Warriors’

Directed by Vlad Levkivskyi

Watch the six-episode series at Megogo (complete with English, Polish and Ukrainian subtitles).

Photo: a still from ‘Warriors’

This series is also a collection of stories, yet this one is about military personnel. The people featured in this film worked different jobs until their life was drastically changed on the day of the full-scale invasion, when all of them stood to defend their country. Megogo Originals filmed them all unscripted.

Featured are an IT Project Manager, with the cover name ‘Armour’, dentist Andrii Turkiv, founder of the Cultural Forces of Ukraine and military serviceman Kolia Serga, entrepreneur Oleksandr Huts (cover name ‘Balu’), and production designer Denys Vlasenko.

On 23 August 2023, the documentary was screened at the Odesa International Film Festival (most of the event was held in Cheernivtsi due to safety considerations).

10. ‘The battle for Kyiv’

Directed by Serhii Sotnichenko

Watch the full documentary (complete with autogenerated Ukrainian —> English subtitles) on YouTube.

Photo: a still from ‘The Battle for Kyiv’

This documentary on the Ukrainian Ground Forces in the Russia-Ukraine war depicts the first days of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. The Russian invaders thought they would seize the entire county in just three days with no resistance, and had prepared their execution lists and plans of taking over the Government buildings. However, their plans were wrecked due to the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian defenders. By late March, the enemy started their rout. The Armed Forces of Ukraine, along with Territorial Defence and volunteer battalions, paid the high price with their lives to stop the invasion, and on 2 April 2022, the Ministry of Defence reported the full liberation of the Kyiv region. The film combines archive footage, and comments from participants of those events and military experts alike.

Director Serhii Sotnichenko personally spent one month under enemy fire in Irpin, with his home remaining the only standing private residence in the entire street. Without waiting for a safe passage out, he put his 77-year-old mother in a garden wheelbarrow and evacuated her from the town engulfed in fire. The director recalls the moments of his mother praying in that wheelbarrow, repeating through her tears, “I am strong, I am strong…,” and then adding, “I’ll never forgive the Russians for this!”