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Must Watch: The Best Ukrainian Documentaries

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Photo: The Best Ukrainian Documentaries, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko
Photo: The Best Ukrainian Documentaries, Source: Collage The Gaze \ by Leonid Lukashenko

Ukraine has been burning for the third consecutive year under the pressure of Russian occupation forces in a war that makes no rational sense, yet seems "sacred" in the consciousness of the sickly chauvinistic and fascist Russian society. Despite everything, Ukraine withstands the onslaught and gives a worthy rebuff to the Russian aggressors, documenting and telling the world horrifying and incredible stories of the struggle for its own existence.

We offer you four documentaries that will help you better understand the terrible tragedy unfolding in the heart of Europe right now and find answers to the questions of who the Ukrainians are and what they aspire to, what gives them strength in the fight, and with whom exactly and for what this fierce war continues.

Us, Our Pets, and the War / Saving the Animals of Ukraine


A powerful, poignant, and very enlightening documentary by Ukrainian travel blogger and journalist Anton Ptushkin. Watching this film will evoke tears and laughter, but most importantly, it focuses on resilience and humanity, which despite all the horrors of war, remain the driving force of Ukrainians.

With the start of the full-scale invasion, numerous Ukrainians abandoned their homes to save their lives. Often, people fled without being able to take the essentials, but they did not leave behind their beloved pets. Some were convinced they were leaving for just a few days, leaving their animals at home. Dogs chained up, cats locked in empty apartments, and animals from zoos locked in secure cages—all wanted to live and needed human help. And compassionate people responded.

Anton Ptushkin, the creator of the movie, served as the screenwriter, director, and in many episodes the cameraman himself during his travels. The project lasted one and a half years. Initially planned for Western audiences, the film unexpectedly set several records when it premiered in Ukraine, which is a true miracle for a documentary film. But the highest box office results after the first day of release and the first weekend proved that documentaries can be as commercially successful as blockbusters.

Foreigners were also involved in the project, and the film itself was produced in cooperation between Ukraine and Canada. This is Ptushkin's first feature film and his first work not to be posted on YouTube.

20 Days in Mariupol


As Ukrainian director Antonio Lukich said in a 2023 interview with Playboy magazine, "it's a great curse to become the hero of a film." Perhaps worse is to become the hero of one's own film—this is what happened to the team of Ukrainian journalists from the Associated Press, who found themselves trapped in besieged Mariupol at the beginning of the Russian invasion in 2022 but continued their work, documenting the atrocities of war—mass burials of civilians, the work of doctors, Russian crimes, and the consequences of bombings (including Maternity Hospital No. 3, footage from which circulated worldwide). When the filming crew left Mariupol on March 15, 2022, through a humanitarian corridor, they were the last journalists in the city.

"20 Days in Mariupol" is a documentary about the Russian siege of Mariupol in February-March 2022 during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Created by a Ukrainian team consisting of AP military correspondent, videographer Mstyslav Chernov, photo correspondent Yevhen Maloletka, and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko. It won an Oscar in 2024 in the "Best Documentary Feature" category, becoming the first winning film from Ukraine.

The film also won a BAFTA award for "Best Documentary" and was nominated for "Best Foreign Language Film." It won the Directors Guild of America award for "Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary." Overall, "20 Days in Mariupol" received more than 20 awards and 40 nominations. The film was screened before the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023. It became the highest-grossing Ukrainian documentary film.

Peaceful People / Intercepted


Intercepted, directed by Oksana Karpovych, was showcased at the Berlin Festival in February 2024, where it emerged as one of the most important and shocking testimonies to the horrific crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, posing a real challenge for viewers. Despite its festival title, this film was released in Ukraine under the name Peaceful People. However, this isn't about Ukrainians suffering every moment from Russian aggression and defending their country. It focuses on "peaceful people" on the other side of the border—civilian Russians whose relatives are currently serving in the occupying Russian forces, engaged in criminal and shameful acts. Instead of a soundtrack, the film features recordings intercepted in 2022 by Ukrainian intelligence services of conversations between Russian occupiers and their wives and mothers. In these conversations, Russian servicemen confess to murders, rapes, and torture of civilians in the occupied territories. The response to their crimes from their relatives is not horror, but words of approval. Here is one quote from the film:

"Mom, I really enjoyed torturing! I can tell you about the tortures I became aware of and participated in," says one of the occupiers on the phone.

"Son, that's normal. If I were there, I would also get a kick out of it, how else?" responds his mother.

Everyday telephone conversations are interspersed with scenes of destruction in Ukrainian cities and villages, depicting for viewers a chilling picture of the real "Russian world"—dehumanized, steeped in impunity, and characterized by brutal cruelty. This film leaves no illusions about the intentions of Russians who, in 2022, came to "liberate" Ukraine from mythical Nazis that exist solely in their poisoned, Putin-propagandized consciousness. Therefore, this film is incredibly important for viewing worldwide.

Porcelain War


This film was part of the documentary program at the American "Independence" festival, highly praised by critics and the festival jury, and won the Grand Prix for "Best Documentary Feature" at the Sundance Film Festival. At the center of the story are three Ukrainian ceramic artists—Slava, Anya, and Andriy—who encountered the full-scale invasion of Russian forces in Kharkiv, which at that time (as well as now) was subjected to continuous rocket and artillery bombardments. Together with American Brendan Bellomo, the film's main characters also became its co-creators—the idea authors, directors, and producers.

Each of the heroes faces a series of trials—Slava Leontiev fights and trains soldiers, Anya Stasenko stays in the deadly city with him, and Andriy Stefanov tries to evacuate his family abroad. But there is something common that unites them despite everything, even in the darkest times of the war unleashed by Putin's Russia—art.

Even before the full-scale invasion, the American part of the filming crew learned about the ceramic figurines of strange mythical creatures made by Slava and Anya. Therefore, initially, this was supposed to be a story about talented artists and their creations, but with the onset of the acute phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war, it became clear that the film's focus needed to shift. The metaphor of porcelain as a fragile but enduring material came to the rescue. It withstands very high temperatures, it's easy to break, but it can be restored even after millennia in the ground. Similarly, Ukrainian resistance and society in the film resemble porcelain: human lives and homes are fragile against the power of aerial bombs and artillery shelling, yet the destruction does not stop the struggle and does not extinguish hope.

In his review for Variety, film critic Guy Lodge writes about the powerful metaphorical image of Ukraine, akin to porcelain, but also notes that the horrifying reality of life in a ruined country outweighs any metaphor.

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