Vitaly Manskiy and Yevhen Titarenko's ground level documentary about the ongoing conflict is harrowing, though not without hope
Many of the images in Eastern Front are harrowing and distressing. They are, after all, real images, of real people suffering, bleeding and dying. The images are put together by Vitaly Manskiy, a renowned Ukrainian documentarian, who currently lives in Riga, and the editor Andrey Paperny, but they are captured by Yevhen Titarenko, the co-director here, a medical volunteer who has documented the action on Ukrainian frontlines since 2014.
With Titarenko’s fellow volunteers, they are called out to battlefields and bombing sites to rescue survivors and bring them to aid: they do so not as fully-trained soldiers (though they are armed), nor as medical professionals, and they do so often in simple retrofitted vans or ambulances, not in properly armoured vehicles, risking their lives every time they step out. They are simply a group of young men involved in a war which has been thrust upon them by the Russian invasion.
Again, it bears repeating: the film’s most distressing scenes are potentially traumatising, but they ultimately remain – for us, at least – just images, consumed at a remove, a far distant from the reality of war. No amount of replication can compare to the actuality of real combat and the traumas it inflicts on its victims. Sitting in the comfort and privilege of the cinema, viewing this film with a festival crowd whom, you would assume, almost all stand in solidarity with Ukraine, I wondered what the impact of these images might be. As acts of solidarity go, watching a film is maybe one rung above adding a Ukrainian flag to your Twitter profile. But then again, I suspect the film has not quite been made for us per se, but for the more overarching importance of bearing witness. Eastern Front is incredible reportage, ensuring that there is a first-hand account created and dictated by Ukrainians. It is the first draft of history.
Vitally, Eastern Front does not focus exclusively on images of such pain and suffering. Manskiy and Titarenko include long, discursive scenes of Titarenko and his fellow volunteers on days off. They sit outside with their families with good food and drink. During the summer they swim in the river. One has his child baptised. They discuss the Russian invasion. Many of Titarenko’s friends have Russian heritage, flitting between Russian and Ukrainian in conversation. They discuss how the invasion has torn apart families both politically and geographically, and the insidious power of Russian propaganda.
These scenes form the central emotional impact of the film. They showcase a group of young people trying to come to terms with what is happening to their country, both emotionally and intellectually. They are often thinking out loud, and in doing so – however chaotically and imperfectly – they are, in a way, working on the building blocks of a new Ukraine that will emerge after this war is over. Hopefully, even a new Russia.
Eastern Front is not intended to be an all-encompassing overview of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is very much a ground level view, and it is a powerful and highly impactful one.
Eastern Front was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch