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Rita Burkovska in Maksim Nakonechnyi’s film ‘Butterfly Vision’Wild Bunch
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Cannes at War

The specter of Russia’s assault on Ukraine haunted the famously politics-averse festival, which featured a spate of gritty, genuine films about the invasion

Vladislav Davidzon
May 31, 2022
Wild Bunch
Rita Burkovska in Maksim Nakonechnyi's film 'Butterfly Vision'Wild Bunch

There are various ways that veteran attendees of the Cannes Film Festival signpost their attendance from year to year. Perhaps the most obvious marker is the annual organizing scandal, or global historical trauma, interceding on the hedonistic and hermetic inner world of the festival. Each iteration of the festival is distinguishable from its predecessors by its own annual scandal, which generally has to do with sexism or women’s rights—the fallout of #MeToo arguably lasted two years, and no festival attendee will likely forget the popular furor of a half decade ago when women were forced to wear high heels on the red carpet. Last year’s Cannes was not marred by sexist scandal, but by plague—though it was paradoxically one of the best in living memory, as the crowds were thin and the films were great.

This year, Cannes is very much at war. The ramifications of the major war unfolding in Europe have arrived in the south of France despite the festival’s reflexive distaste for national politics. A video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was beamed to the glittering crowd on the opening night of the festival. Advertisements for Ukrainian co-productions and relief funds appeared in every program and newspaper. Even Sharon Stone popped up dressed in a blue pantsuit with yellow silk lining. Yet, in fitting fashion, a festival insider informed me that Zelensky had only been allowed to deliver the opening remarks on the condition that he would speak about the power of cinema and not mention the war directly.

The Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov—who had not been allowed to participate in previous iterations of the festival while serving house arrest for politically charged accusations of embezzlement—was behind the only major Russian film represented at the festival. The inclusion of his film Tchaikovsky’s Wife (which incidentally most everyone agreed was the weakest of his last three) had been fiercely resisted by the Ukrainians and their allies. Many had argued that Russian high culture should not be used to whitewash a political regime that was at the same time busily raping, murdering, looting, and destroying its liberal democratic neighbor. Many Ukrainians, including many native Russian speakers, had called for a total ban on Russian citizens participating in prestigious international conferences and festivals like the famed film event in Cannes. A fervent debate about the nefarious use of Russian culture is still ongoing, with some Ukrainians calling for the de-Russification of the country. A young female activist with a Ukrainian flag and the slogan Stop Raping Us painted over her exposed breasts ran onto the red carpet during the start of Tchaikovsky’s Wife.

For his part, Serebrennikov had previously been a darling of the international film set. But upon his release from house arrest, he decided to use his press conference to call on the West to lift sanctions on Roman Abramovitch, the Russian financier and part-time back-channel negotiator for the Ukraine war. Serebrennikov followed up this bizarre request with even more outrageous commentary on the need to empathize with the families of the Russians fighting in the ‘special operation,’ essentially comparing the plight of Russian soldiers committing war crimes to that of the Ukrainians. His performance left the Ukrainians understandably livid.

Many speculated that his comments were part of a deal that Serebrennikov had struck with the Russian authorities to be allowed out of the country. The Ukrainian intellectual Anton Shekhovtsov wrote, “For some bizarre reason, Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov was allowed to participate in the Film Festival. And instead of using the opportunity to talk about his responsibility for the Russian crimes against humanity, he exploited the extravagant kindness of the organizers to call for the lifting of the Western sanctions against a Russian businessman.”

The most charitable position in my circles was that Russian dissidents should be banned from taking part in such events for their own good. With the intense pressure on them and their families back home, the dissidents would be placed in unenviable positions or would show themselves to be no real dissidents at all. “It is not every day that you see a Russian dissident shooting himself in the foot like that,” said Ukrainian film critic Daria Badior. The Polish member of the jury, Agnieszka Holland, publicly struck out against the tin-eared political demagoguery and harshly criticized the organizers of the festival for including Serebrennikov.

Remarkably, this would not be the last faux pas committed against the Ukrainians by festival organizers this year. In another deeply questionable decision, the festival allowed a flight of French Air Force fighter jets to overfly the city in celebration of the unveiling of the new Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick. Many Ukrainians who had spent the past three months at war were taken aback by the decision. As the fly-by took place, my Ukrainian producer wife, Regina Maryanovska-Davidzon, was in the midst of a conversation in the American pavilion with another Ukrainian producer friend. As the jets flew overhead, the other producer, who had spent most of the war in Kyiv under Russian bombardment, began having a full-blown panic attack induced by post-traumatic stress in the middle of the American pavilion. France 24 reported that Hanna Bilobrova, editor of the posthumous war documentary Mariupolis 2, had the same reaction to the stunt and began to cry while standing on her hotel’s balcony.

Mariupolis 2 was a late inclusion in the festival program under the rubric of a special screening, as the documentary, which spotlights the Azov Sea Ukrainian port town that had been wiped off the European map by that Russian carpet bombing, was completed only days before the commencement of the festival. The film is a very rough posthumous edit of harrowing real-life war scenes shot during the siege of the city. The cut uses the footage from a projected sequel to a documentary by the Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravicius. He was fatally shot by Russian troops in Mariupol in the early days of April while he was attempting to leave the city. I knew Kvedaravicius a little over the years in Ukraine—some years ago my wife and I had put the intense young filmmaker in touch with others in the Ukrainian film world while he was working on his first documentary, which is now considered an important historical document. I had lost track of him over the past few years and now regret not keeping up with him.

From the author's notebook, a collage of images from the red carpet at Cannes, May 22
From the author’s notebook, a collage of images from the red carpet at Cannes, May 22Courtesy the author

Cannes, in one thoughtful decision, had allowed Kvedaravicius’ fiancée, Hanna Bilobrova, to submit a deeply unfinished cut of the film out of respect for the death of a promising European filmmaker. It is an affecting work to be sure, but to judge the fundamentally unfinished work by conventional aesthetic measurements is unfair. The British critic John Bleasdale shared his opinion with me after leaving the theater.

“I do not even know if it is moral to criticize it as a documentary. It is obviously not a polished film, and it bears significant evidence of its incompletion. It is not a finished documentary as such; it has no voiceover or any editorializing. It follows the citizens of the city who remain crouching in basements while the city outside continues to be pulverized. It is not a film about wanting to see war—rather it is a film about not wanting to be seen by war. The loss of war is interspersed with the practicalities of war—how do we cook and how do we keep the lights on while the bombing continues?”

The most powerful document of the war showin at the festival was Maksym Nakonechnyi’s fictional portrayal Butterfly Vision. During the premiere, the crew of the film turned on the sound of the Ukrainian air-raid warning system. The blaring sound was one that Ukrainians had become accustomed to during the course of the war. Hearing it on the Boulevard Croisette was disturbing and brought many of us back to the dark days of wartime. The festival authorities had been unhappy about the planned action but had reluctantly allowed it because of the moral pressure. Despite that, the tuxedoed security guards continued to vigorously chase the Ukrainians in order to brusquely demand that they put away their Ukrainian flags (this included your faithful correspondent who was told to put it away or have his badge confiscated), as the hoisting of national flags along the red carpet and inside the festival palace is strictly against festival rules.

After playing the air siren, the production team of the film unveiled a long black banner that read “Russians kill Ukrainians. Do you find it offensive and disturbing to talk about the genocide?” In deference to the Ukrainian moral authority, the festival authorities had to acquiesce in allowing them to engage in the sort of political gestures that are usually categorically forbidden here. However, a valiant Polish friend of the production team continued to play the siren long after being ordered to stop and was detained by three French policemen.

The film’s director, Nakonechnyi, is at the vanguard of talented young Ukrainian filmmakers who are beginning to formulate thoughtful responses to the Russian war against Ukraine. The intelligent film critic Todd McCarthy correctly judged the film to be “a somber and sobering document … Arguably the most timely film in Cannes this year … but one that was a tough sit, a veritable parade of misfortune, sorrowful history, nasty deeds, needless suffering and death.”

The film follows the grim events following the release of Lilia, a young Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance officer who had been launching drones in the poetic form of a butterfly, from Russian captivity. She is released in a prisoner exchange and flown back to Kyiv, where, like many other POWs, she has trouble reintegrating into civilian life. Lilia has also become pregnant after being sexually tortured by the Russian soldiers who had held her in captivity. The matter-of-fact scenes of her being checked on by her gynecologist are likely unprecedented in the history of Ukrainian cinema. She refuses an abortion, and the humiliation drives her patrolman boyfriend into a rage. Like her, he cannot recover from the war, and after delivering an inchoate political speech, he becomes involved with an ultra-right group that patrols the city while looking for trouble. They carry out an attack on a Roma encampment in a park in the middle of Kyiv, killing a Roma man. (The scene of the attack on the Roma camp is an exact replica of a video that had been filmed of a real-life incident carried out by a far-right vigilante group C-14 in 2018.) The horrors and misfortunes continue to pile up in the film, as they have for the Ukrainians in real life.

Many of the scenes in the movie will be all too familiar to close observers of Ukrainian politics and the war. The film is notable for its realistic processing of the events of the previous years. The processing of the trauma by society has already begun, even long before the guns have fallen silent. A young blonde Ukrainian actress sitting next to me during the screening kept her hand over her mouth with horror and sobbed throughout the second half of the film. At the after-party for the film I saw and embraced my Kyiv-born friend, the journalist Yaroslav Trofimov, for the first time in three months. I had not seen him since the night the war in Kyiv started, when he instructed me to leave the capital in case I was picked up by the invading Russian forces and they checked my passport, since burned in cinematic fashion on live television, at the filtration camp. For his part, Trofimov had just returned from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, having been rotated out after having spent weeks reporting on the war. “The film looks prophetic considering that it was finished before the war,” he told me. “And it brought me right back to Donbas—wiping off the one-day decompression I had enjoyed in Cannes. It is gritty, genuine, and sparse.”

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.

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