The pigeons sit ragged on the fallen roof. After being hit by a Russian bomb, the house is just an uninhabitable heap of rubble. The man who lived there was about to start repairing war damage. His neighbor found the tattered body and buried it in the garden.
Now, like many in the neighborhood, he has taken refuge from the constant shelling in the basement of a church in Mariupol. From the outside, the brick building, framed by two large trees, looks like a factory. Debris is swept up in the yard and soup is made. A few streets away, against the backdrop of a burned tower block, two men are trying to get a generator out of a house past rotting corpses.
The moving camera accompanies the men with the device to the church grounds. “Watch your step, mantas,” says one of the two (according to the English subtitles). This refers to the man behind the camera, the Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius. He had already filmed in the city in 2015 for the documentary “Mariupol”. He wanted to bring the war raging in the Donetsk region and the people affected by it closer to the world. When Kvedaravičius found out about the worsening situation in the city in March 2022, he spontaneously stopped shooting a feature film in Uganda and traveled to Mariupol again with his Ukrainian partner.
They wanted to help the people they met during their first stay – and continue the film work from back then. But just a few weeks later, on March 30 of this year, Kvedaravičius was first arrested by Russian soldiers and then murdered (according to reports from employees, friends and colleagues that differed in detail but were essentially the same).
Mantas Kvedaravičius consciously accepted these dangers. It was important to him to show what was happening in the sealed-off war zones from the perspective of direct participation.
The fact that this film was made despite his violent death is thanks to the commitment of people around him. They viewed the collected material and brought it into a carefully processed form. Crucially involved were his partner Hanna Bilobrova and editor friend Dounia Sichov, who credit Mantas Kvedaravičius as director in the film’s end credits and refer to themselves as assistant directors.
They organized images and sounds into a 150-minute film which, in addition to a direct dedication to Kvedaravičius, also shows respect for the legacy of the dead filmmaker in the restrained montage with many long shots. Also worthy of recognition is the gesture of the Cannes Film Festival, which included the work in the program out of competition at the last minute in May.
The film shows oppressive images. You meet people who are brutally torn into the abyss at the beginning of spring. And you see a place that’s in ruins across the board. The wide-screen view of the camera also repeatedly goes into long shots out of the windows over destroyed roofs into the distance, where the gigantic complex of the besieged Azov steelworks and other industrial facilities can be seen. Sometimes the camera zooms around obsessively like in a horror movie – and sometimes the vast cityscape even looks romantic in the evening light and the rockets hurtling along the horizon like glittering shooting stars.
But there is the violent thunder of battle that has permeated the film from the first minute and also hurts in the cinema chair. Near and far more fires blaze and squadrons of black smoke rise into the sky. At the end, a representative of the church urges those who have fled to the church to leave. But where to?