Natalya Vorozhbit had four days left in the production of her sophomore film “Demons” when the bombs arrived.
The playwright-turned-filmmaker, whose debut “Bad Roads” was the Ukrainian Oscar submission last fall, was shooting “Demons” in the city of Myrhorod on Wednesday when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As airstrikes, tanks, and troops arrived across the country, the Myrhorod Air Base was among the targets. By then, Vorozhbit’s cast and crew retreated. On Thursday, Vorozhbit found herself in a makeshift bomb shelter with relatives on the outskirts of Kyiv, uncertain about the future of her project but committed to finishing it.
“A lot of people are leaving, but it’s my choice to stay,” she said in an interview through a translator over Zoom. “It’s very important for me to be here. I’m inspired and stimulated by being in Ukraine. I will only leave if Russia captures Ukraine — if I’m able to do that at the time.”
Vorozhbit is one of several Ukrainian filmmakers whose recent work reflects the gloomy political reality of Ukraine and the pressure that Russia exerts on everyday life. (On Thursday, she was one of several directors who signed an open letter appealing to “read and disseminate information” about the situation in their country.) “Bad Roads,” which premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, adapts her play into a quartet of unsettling dramas set in the country’s occupied Eastern region of Donbass, where Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin recognized separatist claims as legitimate shortly before ordering the invasion.
“Bad Roads” details a series of situations in Donbass that threaten to turn violent at any moment. These include an unnerving exchange between an inebriated school principal who arrives at a security checkpoint only to discover that he’s missing his passport, and a more disturbing moment in which a captive journalist rebuffs the sexual advances of an opposition soldier. As a whole, these segments illustrate the extent to which the contested region has been imprisoned by Russian tyranny for years.
Vorozhbit said even as the film generated a positive response on the festival circuit, the subject matter made it a tough sell.
“Many people didn’t want to watch it because it sounded traumatic to them,” she said. “I have had to explain that this is a real situation happening in the Eastern part of Ukraine, that the enemy is really close, and that enemy wants to destroy us. The real situation is actually much worse than in the film. Some people didn’t want to acknowledge that.”
She traces the current situation to the earliest days of Ukraine’s formation three decades ago. When Russians poured into the Donbass region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, eager to find work in the developing economy, that sowed the seeds of opposition. “The Russian sentiment — and the propaganda — was pretty strong there,” she said. “In all the years of Ukrainian independence, it was to some extent Ukraine’s fault that it allowed that region to be really under control of Russia and to have such a strong influence from there.”
Sputnik via AP
The movie is the second recent project about Russian ideology in Ukraine to serve as the country’s Oscar submission, following Sergei Loznitsa’s dark comedy “Donbass” that played at Cannes in 2018. Both titles demonstrate the corruption and totalitarian impulses of separatist troops in the region compelled by Russian propaganda.
Loznitsa’s film unfolds as a series of 13 vignettes involving the corruption and suffering at the root of daily life in Donbass. Memorable scenes include a prologue that features actors hired to provide fake news testimony after bombings and squabbling families in shadowy bomb shelters. In one sequence, a man arrives at the police station to recover his stolen vehicle, only to be told that it has been confiscated by separatists.
“As far as Ukrainians are concerned, the war has been going for eight years already,” Loznitsa said over Zoom from Lithuania. Though he left Ukraine nearly 20 years ago, Loznitsa returns frequently to work on projects and his parents live there. “In a way, psychologically, Ukrainians have become almost used to this situation of living in a potentially dangerous wartime condition,” he said.
He offered a bleak prediction for Ukraine’s fate if Putin’s invasion succeeds. “People will be subjected to the same kind of of corruption — moral and mental alike — as they did during the Iron Curtain,” he said. “The most important thing that happens during these times is what happens to people’s morals, as they become comfortable doing evil things, just like what the authorities are doing to them.”
No modern filmmaker has delved into Ukraine’s troubled history more than Loznitsa, who cranks out intricate archival documentaries about the region on a regular basis. These include last year’s “Babi Yar. Context,” about the German occupation of Ukraine during WWII (a history that Putin has used to falsely label Ukraine as a sympathetic to Nazi causes today).
“Donbass” draws its more outrageous incidents from videos posted to YouTube that capture the clash of values that Putin exploits with the Russian invasion. In one harrowing moment, a Ukrainian POW is tied to a pole while hordes of separatists lash out at him. The crowd eventually expands from a few boorish men to an elderly woman and even children accusing the man of fascist crimes in which he clearly had no role.
“The nature of the conflict has nothing to do with nationality,” Loznitsa said. “It’s Soviet versus anti-Soviet, not Russia versus Ukraine. It’s really about the conflict between past and present. Now, finally, everybody sees it.”
Despite its Oscar submission four years ago, “Donbass” never received North American distribution (a sales representative at Pyramide International said that rights were still available.) Meanwhile, Loznitsa’s two most recent films are set to make their North American premiere at the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival next month. “Bad Roads” landed a VOD release with Film Movement in January, and Vorozhbit said she hoped people who watched the film were motivated to act.
“You can go to protests, talk about it, appeal to your local government for stricter sanctions,” she said. “There are special charities where can donate to help the Ukrainian army. If people decide to leave Ukraine, give them shelter if the situation really goes to shit.”
She also cautioned against any reporting about the situation based on Putin’s statements alone. “Unite your efforts again Putin’s aggression. Don’t trust any propaganda,” she said. “We need your support.”
With “Demons,” the filmmaker is adapting another one of her plays, this one focused on the relationship between a Russian man and a Ukrainian woman. “To some extent, it reflects the uneasy relationship between these countries,” she said.
Filmmaking isn’t her priority at the moment. “This is obviously secondary right now,” she said, but added that these experiences would continue to impact her creativity, much in the way that Ukraine’s struggles with Russia catalyzed her work. “If you’re an artist in Ukraine, you wouldn’t want to talk about anything else other than that war,” she said. “We can dream about our future productions, but I’m pretty sure that our films will continue to be about war.”