Movies & TV

Venice films explore horrific war, brutality in Ukraine

A still from Oleh Sentsov's 'Rhino', about corruption in 1990s Ukraine. (© Arthouse Traffic)

VENICE: The ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s east is the subject of two films at the Venice Film Festival this year, underscoring the horror and futility of the simmering – and largely forgotten – war.

The festival premiered Oleh Sentsov’s “Rhino” about corruption in 1990s Ukraine, two years after the Ukrainian director was released from a Russian prison after being arrested for protesting the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“Reflection”, from Ukranian director Valentyn Vasyanovych, portrays the gruesome torture by pro-Russian separatists have inflicted in secret detention centres in occupied Ukraine.

A documentary by France’s Loup Bureau, “Trenches”, follows Ukranian soldiers inside their tunnelled defences as they deal with anxiety, monotony, and unpredictable artillery attacks.

Since 2014, Ukraine’s army has been locked in a protracted battle in the east with pro-Russian breakaway fighters, a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.

“I was deeply affected by the fact that in modern Europe nowadays these cruel, totally inhumane things can happen,” Vasyanovych told AFP Wednesday.

The torture – which the United Nations said in July was occurring daily – is “not less important than the war itself that’s going on”.

Using bleak, single-frame tableaus reminiscent of chiaroscuro paintings, Vasyanovych lays bare the torture inflicted on captured Ukrainian soldiers, and one former prisoner’s journey towards healing and salvation.

After surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) enlists in the war, he is soon taken prisoner. After first subjecting him to torture, his captors rely on him to tell them whether other mutilated and barely recognisable victims of their torture are dead, or still alive.

In one powerful scene, Ukranian soldiers who have been tortured to death are burned in a mobile incinerator inside a truck labelled “Humanitarian Aid from the Russian Federation.”

Shot mostly in black-and-white, Bureau’s documentary shows how front-line soldiers spend much of their time digging with pickaxes, carrying sandbags, waiting and worrying – interspersed among moments of fire from enemy trenches within eyesight.

The trenches’ lone female soldier – nicknamed Persephone, for the queen of the underworld – says her fellow soldiers, the same age as her own children, “look like grown-ups, but some of them are just kids.”

“They simply don’t understand that it’s no picnic,” she says. “They’re on a frontline. There are bombardments. People die and others are seriously injured.”

Man’s brutality is also a theme of the powerful period drama “Captain Volkonogov Escaped”, by Russian directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov.

Like “Reflection”, it is competing for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion.

A captain, played by Yuriy Borisov, escapes from the state security services in 1938 Leningrad where he and his colleagues have been charged with killing “terrorists, spies and saboteurs”.

“You know the times we’re living in,” the captain’s superior tells him, to justify the gruesome torture used to exact confessions.

“Yes, they’re innocent now,” he replies, “but they’ll be guilty later on.”

 

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