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Ukraine-Based Docudays Offers a Robust Slate of Human Rights Docs

By Lauren Wissot

From Alina Horlova's 'No Obvious Signs,' which won the DOCU/RIGHTS Jury prize..

The 15th Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival (March 23-30) presented 62 films from 36 countries, and brought together over 200 participants to the architecturally eclectic city of Kiev. This was my first trip to Ukraine, and I'll admit, I wasn't expecting a country that had just had a revolution four years prior, and was currently embroiled in a no-end-in-sight war on its border, would prove to be such an inspiring environment to watch and talk docs.

Yet after a heady five days of soaking in the surrounding sights, and the festival's engaging panels and strong selection of films, all doubt in my mind disappeared. The program even included a timely photo exhibit at the Triptych Gallery in Old Kiev: Swiss photojournalist Niels Ackermann and French journalist Sébastien Gobert's riveting Looking for Lenin. Their series of stunning photographs documents Ukraine's nationwide statue-toppling known as "Leninfall"—specifically, what became of these highly controversial monuments that once dominated the Ukrainian landscape after they haphazardly came down. In fact, since the recent "decommunization laws" of 2015, not one Lenin statue remains standing. Both beautiful and jarring, and creepily disturbing, the series could best be described as a visual record of historical erasure—one that we Americans in the process of wrestling with our shameful, Confederate past might do well to see. (Fortunately, there's an accompanying book for Looking for Lenin.)

As for the official, moving-image lineup, Docudays presented several of the standouts I'd caught at IDFA this past November, such as Simon Lereng Wilmont's The Distant Barking of Dogs, a gorgeous atmospheric meditation on everyday life in a war zone, told via a young Ukrainian boy who lives with his grandmother at the frontline. Unsurprisingly, the cinematic flick took the Student Jury Award (from an all-kids jury, naturally), prompting the thoughtful Danish director to humbly step aside and let the family themselves, who'd traveled all the way from Donetsk to attend, accept the award. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there was Vít Klusák's decidedly not heartwarming, downright batshit insane The White World According to Daliborek. Perhaps the most hated film of the festival, at least if the conversations I overheard were any indication, it is nonetheless destined to go down as one of my favorite docs of 2018—if it is ever released in the States. US distributors, take note!

I also sat through the seemingly endless awards ceremony at the Dovzhenko Center, specifically to see the closing night film. Leonid Mohylevsky's recently discovered Documents of the Epoch, which combines footage of early 20th century Kiev and Odessa with official archival Ukrainian history (which the avant-garde filmmaker once deemed "pre-revolutionary garbage"), was set to a live score by the inventive musical trio Son Sovy. I knew next to nothing about the Ukrainian director—also known as Leonid Mogi, who died over 40 years ago—other than the fact that Quentin Tarantino cited his work as inspiration for Inglourious Basterds. So I waited patiently through speech after speech, as well as their respective English translations. And that's when the ceremony itself took an unexpectedly touching turn.

Stepping up to the podium, a man introduced himself as the executive director of Current Time, a Russian-language, independent news service that was sponsoring an award—which he would present in English "out of respect for the audience." After the applause died down, the businessman announced that the $5,000 (USD—not rubles) prize would go to Alina Horlova's No Obvious Signs. The Ukrainian director then took the stage along with her female team, including the film's protagonist Oksana Yakubova—who earlier had won a new award for documentary subjects from the (festival co-founder) Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. After we were asked to stand for a moment of silence for the war victims, Horlova, both surprised and humbled, said the money would be put not towards her next film, but towards establishing a veterans' rehab organization, specifically for women. I decided right then and there that I needed to check out this female empowering awards-sweeper (the film also won the DOCU/RIGHTS Jury Prize).

"To survive after war is way more difficult than to die in action," proclaims the PTSD-suffering solider at the heart of Horlova's No Obvious Signs, the title referring to the unseen scars of war—"the look in their eyes"—of Ukraine's many veterans who are denied treatment since they present no physical injuries. The fact that this battle-scarred vet of the ongoing war against Russian separatists (and the Kremlin) on its border is female—in a society that long prevented women from officially serving in the military—is just one thing that sets Horlova's cinematic film apart from other recent war stories.

With exceptional access, not to mention an all-encompassing sound design and expert camerawork, Horlova paints a breathtakingly honest portrait of one female warrior's struggle to reintegrate into society. And Oksana Yakubova's heroism extends far beyond the front, as she agreed to be thoroughly exposed to Horlova's camera, raw and vulnerable, throughout the process—from recounting traumas in her therapist's office to writing down memories in a journal at home. Yakubova so clearly does not want the camera on her—but seems to view it as an extension of her duty to serve, to help her fellow soldiers and their loved ones know that they're not alone. Appearing onscreen becomes an act of solidarity, and a way to show others that there is nothing shameful in reaching out for help.

At one point the vet says that one shouldn’t fear shelling; one should fear loss. Survivor's guilt seems to hang like a physical weight on her small frame. "God save anyone from seeing this," she says while recalling a young woman, a medic, who was blown in half in front of her. She remembers the "piece of brain substance and a kitten who starts eating it." And yet she still longs desperately to go back to the front.

Describing her nightmares, she says they're "like a documentary." And all the while Horlova's camera stays close. The lens never widens—which creates a semblance of the claustrophobia this soldier surely must feel. Deftly, the filmmaker has trapped us in this mental nightmare with her.

There's a heartbreaking scene in which Yakubova meets up with a fellow female soldier and tries hard to hold it together. And then there's that powerful subway sequence towards the end, in which the soldier has to face her terror of riding the metro. Horlova's sound design—the loud noises of the metro, mixed with the soothing words on a meditation tape (which she listens to on her phone in order to cope), intermingled with her own disturbing recollections in voiceover—makes us truly feel her fear. "I am not afraid to die anymore. At all. It even became interesting," is the very last line in voiceover. We don't even learn until the end titles that this still mentally fragile woman is a much-decorated war hero. But then again, we never doubted it in the first place.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Documentary and Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the international features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.