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Everyday challenges in a pro-Russian battalion in Ukraine

Their Own Republic caused quite a stir at the Lisbon Film Festival last year, due to the film's somewhat pro-Russian stance. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting insight into a side of the Ukrainian conflict that is rarely mentioned in Western media.


Questioning assumptions through film and debate has an invaluable value, something that Doclisboa – led by Cintia Gil and Davide Oberto – still takes seriously. Their stand was temporarily put to the test this year when two embassies demanded changes to this year's film program. While the Turkish embassy objected to the written reference to the Armenian genocide and atrocities committed against the Kurds, the Ukrainian embassy demanded that the film Their Own Republic, directed by Russian-born Aliona Polunina, was to be removed from the watch list. According to the Ukrainian Embassy, ​​the film did not reflect what the international community has characterized as Russian combat operations in the country. Doclisboa not only rejected this interference from outside, but also publicly stated that they considered it an "area for discussion and non-censorship". At the world premiere of Their Own Republic half a dozen activists from the Ukrainian community in Portugal showed up to protest the display and hand out leaflets with the headline "Doclisboa supports terrorism!". In a conversation, they admitted that they had not seen the film yet, but denied the validity of the term "civil war", which was used in the trailer. Afterwards, they brought their loud protests against the annexation in general, to a very heated session with questions and answers (Q&A).

No neutral approach

Their Own Republic was filmed last year, taking us into the daily lives of a pro-Russian battalion in Jasnuvata – a war zone in Donetsk, which is currently controlled by Russian separatists. It is not at all the first time that Polunina has used the film format to explore how politics in the region influence the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. The film The Revolution That Wasn't (2008) – award-winning at many festivals, including Ukrainian Docuday's UA – followed Russia's banned National Bolshevik Party for a year. Her medium length Varya (2014) followed a Moscow math teacher with sympathy for Maidan as she traveled to Ukraine to meet friends she had made online.

The Ukrainian enemies remain voiceless all the time, and are perceived only as the dumb drills of artillery fire.

Although this year's film has received support from the Russian state, there is nothing in her series of independent productions that would indicate that she is a tunnel vision propagandist. That said, it is clear that her approach to the battalion i Their Own Republic can't be said to be neutral, even though her intentions to make fly-on-the-wall footage push her own presence in the background.

A Russian loophole

The director does not present a glorification of the men she documents, but it seems that she is nevertheless fascinated by their macho-enriched activities. Her pride in being accepted as a confidant in this very special place is to touch and feel as they clean their weapons and set up for inspection. Soldiers' weaknesses cause a lot of dry humor, especially in the case where a full soldier deserts and eventually gives up hiding. The situation shows the absurdity and confusion of what has now become the life they live in this outpost. The scene helps give the soldiers a human face. By contrast, their Ukrainian enemies remain voiceless and are perceived only as the dumb drills of artillery fire.

In the Q&A session, Polunina was delighted to glorify her support for the Russian side of the conflict, along with her enthusiasm for the soldiers. This is a common symptom in a trench situation that does not involve much contact with the civilian population and the opposition. She is protected from the actual battles at the front, but is still largely dependent on them to be safe.

Admittedly, stronger films have been made about the conflict in Ukraine – first and foremost the films of the half-Belarusian, half-Ukrainian director, Sergei Loznitsa. From Maidan, a careful look into the heart of the revolution in Kiev, to Donbass (released this year), which features surreal footage of the war as a media-manipulated distorted hell landscape.

But the vast majority of such films that go around the festival rounds have turned to the reverse, by presenting a strongly biased, pro-Ukrainian perspective to predominantly sympathetic audiences. Watching a movie from a Russian separatist loophole provided a fresh and new experience – although I had a hope for clearer insights.

Interesting shortcomings

While films like the ones Loznitsa has made are almost overloaded with ideology in their judgmental accusation of a corrupt Russia, Polunina offers the opposite. She has a subdued representation of the environment with a restrained, observant approach that takes soldiers' presence for granted. In sum, it appears as a carefree depoliticization of the separatist occupation. Life is logistics and not so much more in this vision of soldiers in their daily treadmill. The emphasis the director puts on the physical work – men who chop wood, stack bricks, take care of livestock – keeps us firmly in a very concrete existence and a rough worker mentality.

There is nothing in Polunina's series of independent productions that would indicate that she is a tunnel vision propagandist.

A small and uncommented portrait of Putin hanging on the wall is the only reference to a line of opinion outside the military conduct regulations. The feeling of the slightly glamorous banality of the ongoing war is informative, and in an almost beckoning way, the film is experienced to the seventh and last yet as unfinished. The documentary nevertheless testifies to the work of someone who lacks a mature grasp of what is really at stake. But the way the film fails is precisely what makes it interesting. It makes you sit back, pondering the extent to which a movie should be hostage to all it omits, such as the carnage on the other side of the front line, and which Polunina refuses to try to justify.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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