Ukraine in Focus at Toronto Film Festival

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More than 18 months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, documentary filmmakers who screened their latest work on the conflict at the Toronto film festival say it is more important than ever to keep the crisis in the public consciousness.

Oscar-nominated Egyptian director Karim Amer debuted his “Defiant,” which tells the story of the first year of the war from the perspective of Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and other top Ukrainian officials.

Polish filmmaker Maciek Hamela meanwhile took a different approach with “In the Rearview,” filming his own perilous road journeys to help evacuate Ukrainian civilians during the first few months of fighting in 2022.

From the United Nations to the White House, Amer follows Kuleba as he urges the West to back Kyiv to the fullest extent possible in the face of Russian firepower.

The film also focuses on Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, whose original remit to put all public services online morphs into an all-out cyberwar effort backed by a massive “IT army” of volunteer hackers.

“We didn’t fully understand what the story would be, but we knew we wanted it to be character-focused, based on things that the government was doing in its communication to the world,” Amer, 39, told AFP ahead of the premiere.

Amer, who produced Oscar nominee “The Square” about events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, said his team for “Defiant” focused on making a film “about the war as it relates to the world,” not one featuring battle footage or civilian suffering.

“There are other frontlines that we felt are equally important in a war, and that these frontlines are oftentimes invisible,” Amer said. “The people we followed had in many ways invented a new playbook in real time, inadvertently.”

At the outset of the film, Kuleba has met with US President Joe Biden, who he says appeared to be “bidding farewell to the entire Ukrainian nation.”

A year on, Biden now believes Ukraine can defeat Russia — a shift Kuleba believes is due in part to his globetrotting diplomatic efforts.

The film’s producer Odessa Rae, who won an Oscar last year for her documentary “Navalny” about jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, said Moscow was offered the opportunity to participate in the project, but those requests went unanswered.

“This is the most extraordinary political event since World War II,” Amer said. “What’s happening in Ukraine affects everyone on this planet even though it’s not talked about that way.”

As Kuleba says into the camera, “No one will be able to sit out this crisis.”

– ‘More intimate’ side of war –

With “In the Rearview,” which has screened at multiple festivals including Cannes since May but got its North American debut on Tuesday in Toronto, Hamela offers an intimate look at the suffering of ordinary people who board his van, headed for an uncertain future.

“I’m a filmmaker, but I stopped shooting films and doing any kind of work to drive. And I was focused only on driving,” the 40-year-old told AFP.

“People got to know that I was doing it, so they would call me, you know, asking me to bring out families of their friends, or friends of friends,” he added, estimating he made about 100 journeys over a period of six months, with some breaks to rest.

Once he decided to turn the camera on his passengers, the horrors of war played out in confessional-style interviews in Hamela’s rearview mirror — rape, torture, displacement, death, loss — against a backdrop of bombed-out bridges and homes.

“The first interrogation was tough. After that, you get used to it,” one male passenger said. Another woman described living for a month in a basement in Mariupol, the port city captured by Russia after a long and brutal siege in 2022.

Hamela said he hoped his film would “first of all remind everybody that this war is still ongoing,” but also show “an aspect of the war which is much more intimate,” which could help viewers relate to everyday Ukrainians on a human level.

“It’s important to make documentaries about all conflicts that raise awareness about the current state of the world we’re living in,” he added, citing the situations in Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen as fueling a global refugee crisis.


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