The sight of a wounded pregnant woman being evacuated from the rubble of a hospital earlier this week is one of the war in Ukraine’s most horrifying images yet. But as singularly awful as it was, it also struck me as strangely familiar—not from life, but from art. The Ukrainian director Maryna Er Gorbach’s film Klondike, which premiered at Sundance in January, climaxes with a scene that’s eerily similar in retrospect. The movie is set largely in the bombed-out shell of a house occupied by a couple who are expecting their first child. She is heavily pregnant, and he is desperately trying to avoid being conscripted by the Russian separatists who want him to join the war in Donbass. The woman’s perspective dominates the film; she wishes that men would stop squabbling over territory so she can start a family in peace, but peace is not forthcoming. In the last scene, her husband is marched off by the separatists, while she delivers her own child in the rubble that was once their home, her birthing throes unheeded as the soldiers go about their business. In the end, she has to cut the umbilical cord with her teeth.
It would be going too far to call Klondike, which was the first Ukrainian movie ever to compete at Sundance, prophetic, since part of its underlying point is that in a place like Eastern Ukraine, history never stops repeating itself. The movie is set in a specific time and place: July 17, 2014, to be exact, the day a Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a Russian separatist missile, killing all 298 people on board. But between the couple’s need to protect their own lives—it was also separatist fire that accidentally destroyed their house—and the difficulty of getting a straight answer about anything from anyone, that global tragedy initially registers as a distant event. It is simply oily smoke on the horizon, flatbed trucks rumbling by carrying rocket launchers and twisted pieces of fuselage.
In the documentary A House Made of Splinters, which also played during Sundance, history repeats on the familial level. Simon Lereng Wilmont, the director of 2017’s The Distant Barking of Dogs, returned to Eastern Ukraine for this portrait of a home for children who have been separated from their parents by the courts. During their stays, which are limited to nine months at a time, some receive visits from parents desperate to regain custody, while others use the communal cell phone trying to contact them in vain. More than one child registers the disappointment of hearing their alcoholic parent is drunk again with a mixture of disappointment and familiarity that is devastating to watch. There’s no mention of the country’s recent history in the movie, but the landscape feels the same as Klondike’s: barren, bombed-out, full of people who endure because they must.
The movies of Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Losnitza engage with that history directly, often by excavating and repurposing filmic evidence of the past. The war in Ukraine has brought a small surge of interest in his work: two documentaries, Mr. Landsbergis and Babi Yar. Context, screen as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival in Queens this weekend; the latter will open at New York’s Film Forum on April 1, and the belated U.S. premiere of his 2018 fiction film Donbass will follow on April 8. Mr. Landsbergis, a massive four-hour chronicle of Lithuania’s battle for independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, focuses on the former music professor who became the first head of the country’s new parliament. What resonates most strongly in the present moment is the footage of Soviet troops brutally repressing protests in Vilnius in January of 1991, driving tanks into crowds and ultimately killing 14 people.
Babi Yar, named for the site where over 30,000 Jews were massacred during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, occupies a trickier place, since Putin has used the lie of “denazification” as one of his justifications for the invasion of Ukraine. But the movie also includes footage of the Soviets turning the site into a lagoon of industrial waste in the 1950s, literally burying the country’s past, and eventually erects a monument that honors “the Soviet people who perished” with no mention that they were Jews. (According to Loznitsa, any attempt at even pointing out that fact in the Soviet era would have gotten you branded a Zionist.) There’s no better illustration of the delicate place an artist walks in a time of war than the fact that Loznitsa quit the European Film Academy last month, in protest against its tepid response to the Russian invasion. He was also expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy just yesterday for failing to support its calls for a total boycott of movies by Russian filmmakers.
Two such movies screened at the True/False Film Festival earlier this month, alongside Loznitsa’s Mr. Landsbergis. When the Belorussian director Ruslan Fedotow took the stage to introduce Where Are We Headed, which was shot entirely in Moscow’s underground subway stations, he seemed physically shaken as he assured the audience that neither he nor his friends had voted for “our current dictator, and just want this war to end.” After the screening, he seemed further rattled by his own movie. Its footage of Russians listening to Putin’s New Year’s address en masse or marching to commemorate Remembrance Day, dedicated to the dead of World War II, now carry an extra undercurrent of menace. The title question has been answered, and it’s not the answer Fedotow and his friends wanted.
GES-2, directed by Where Are We Headed producer Nastia Korkia, opened with a title card signed by Russian filmmakers protesting the war. The movie, which follows the project to turn an abandoned Moscow power plant into a cultural center, feels like the country’s attempts to modernize in miniature; the opening scene, set in a swanky shopping mall, recalled the more recent footage of upscale Moscow boutiques with their shelves stripped bare as European companies pulled their wares. The movie’s highlight is an extended deadpan sequence in which an un-renovated section of the plant is briefly converted into an exhibition space for a single Kandinsky painting, watched over by a beefy security guard that looks like a Russian Channing Tatum. Using fixed camera angles vaguely reminiscent of a Jackass gag, the film focuses on art-lovers entering the room in small groups and becoming instantly transfixed—not by the canvas on display, but by the guard’s rippling muscles and tight shirt. It’s deeply hilarious, but of course there’s the nagging reminder that neither the guard nor his goggle-eyed patrons signed their own reassuring statements; it’s like looking back at old family photos and remembering how each person in them voted in the last election.
Unlike other venues that have pulled Russian products ranging from films to mustard, True/False kept the movies in the lineup, issuing a statement pointing out that they were not subsidized by “Russian oligarchs or the government.” That gave Korkia and Fedotow a platform to condemn the war, and to show American audiences the faces of a country we understand so little, we can’t even figure out what to boycott. But Loznitsa canceled his plans to attend, and so his movie had to speak for itself.