The war in Ukraine takes centre stage at Swiss documentary film festival
Switzerland’s most prestigious documentary film festival, Visions du Réel, which opened on Thursday, puts a special focus on the war in Ukraine. It features several Ukrainian productions and is setting up live online talks with Ukrainian filmmakers on the ground.
The ongoing war in Ukraine is having repercussions in the Swiss film world, with various events putting the spotlight on the humanitarian tragedy. Last month, the Fribourg International Film Festival paid tribute to the country multiple times during its closing ceremony and the Ukrainian film Klondike, set during the Donbass war in 2014, won several awards.
The Fribourg festival also organised a charity screening of Elie Grappe’s film Olga, which had previously won the Swiss Film Prize in the main category, prompting another wave of emotion among the public as the war was brought up in acceptance speeches.
Given its commitment to films depicting everyday reality, Visions du Réel, held in the western Swiss town of Nyon for the first time since the start of the pandemic, is also dealing with the war directly. The selection of the 53rd edition (April 7-17) includes four films with clear ties to Ukraine.
At the last minute, the festival announced the inclusion of Mariupolis, a documentary shot in 2016 in a city that was already in the fringes of the Donbass conflict, before being razed to the ground by Russian forces in the past weeks. The Lithuanian director of the film, Mantas Kvedaravičius, was reportedly killed in the besieged port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine on April 2.
In parallel, the organisers have also scheduled live online talks entitled “Filming in Resistance” with young Ukrainian directors and producers based in Ukraine. The aim is to reflect and discuss with them how to resist the ongoing invasion with images that document it. The talks are planned for April 14 on the festival website.
Resisting with images
While the line-up was mostly complete by the time the war broke out, one film was added after the start of the war. “We chose the closing film, The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, specifically to stand in solidarity with Ukraine,” says Emilie Bujès, the festival’s artistic director, in a conversation with SWI swissinfo.ch via Zoom.
“It was supposed to be our closing film in 2020, as a Swiss premiere, but the pandemic forced us to go online and the film was not aired. So, we decided to screen it this year, as a response to what is going on in the region.”
First shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, Irina Tsylik’s first feature-length project has also enjoyed screenings at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Berlinale, and other festivals, including an in-person Swiss premiere at the Zurich Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Mention in the International Documentary Film Competition.
The Ukrainian director’s film deals with the conflict head-on – it is centred around a family that films its daily life as a way of coping with the trauma of living in a war zone. The tragic consequences of war on children’s lives is also the subject of Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters.
Both movies serve as a stark reminder that Russia’s current campaign against the people of Ukraine didn’t begin this year but is the escalation of a problem that began years ago.
In the crossfire of bans and phobias
Someone who is well aware of this is Sergei Loznitsa, arguably the foremost Ukrainian filmmaker working today, and also the most controversial one right now. A few weeks ago, when he opposed the global boycott of Russian films, Loznitsa was expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy. He then argued that not all Russian film directors are part of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda.
Ironically, the ban came right after Loznitsa himself resigned from the European Film Academy for its initially weak response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Loznitsa, who has dealt with the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine and the ensuing Donbass war in both documentary and fiction form, is part of this year’s Visions du Réel programme with his film Mr. Landsbergis, a four-hour portrait of the eponymous leader of the independence movement in Lithuania in 1990. “It doesn’t deal with Ukraine directly, but there’s definitely a contemporary subtext,” says Bujès.
A Ukrainian selection of films is also present in Nyon for the “Opening Scenes” section, which focuses on short films from international film schools.
Filmed in 2020, Olena Kyrychenko’s The Earth Is Spinning is about the Ukrainian director’s relationship with her parents in the wake of the first Covid lockdown. The mother is depressed, while the father resorts to alcohol to cope with unemployment. In its own small way, the 20-minute film perfectly encapsulates the transition from one major worldwide topic of conversation to the next.
Bujès agrees: “We still have a few pandemic-related films in the selection, and then this one comes along, and it happens to be set in Ukraine. This is bound to happen when you deal with films that capture reality.”
War vs pandemic
This will be the first edition of the Swiss documentary film festival since 2019 to not have to deal with any pandemic-related health restrictions. In 2020, the festival was entirely digital. In 2021 it adopted a hybrid model, with online access for regular viewers and limited physical screenings for press, industry and jury members.
Bujès is pleased with the return to a 100% in-person event in 2022, although there was still some concern at the beginning of the year as to whether the festival would be able to go ahead.
As part of the aftermath of the pandemic, some films will still be available online to viewers.
The programme’s focus on Ukraine is not opportunistic, says Bujès. The country would have had a strong presence at this year’s festival regardless, given its position in the documentary world, she adds.
“Visions du Réel has always had a strong connection with Ukraine,” explains Bujès. “They’re a powerful and interesting voice in documentary cinema. In some previous editions, in 2018 and 2019, we had four to five Ukrainian titles in the programme.”
At the Locarno Film Festival’s “L’immagine e la parola” spring event held on March 12-13, Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice International Film Festival, said in the near future festivals would probably screen more films about the war in Ukraine than the pandemic. Bujès agrees: “Let’s hope the pandemic is in the past, in our lives and in cinema. As far as Visions du Réel is concerned, I imagine that we will receive a lot of war-related submissions for at least the next two editions.”
Film festivals such as Berlin, Cannes, Locarno and Venice have all taken a stand concerning Russia. Films from Russia will be admitted on a case-by-case basis, but no delegations or people with ties to the government will be welcome as long as the war continues. “We have a similar policy,” says Bujès. “Because we deal with documentaries, we are unlikely to select films that don’t align with our values.”