“Mariupolis 2”, a raw portrayal of Ukrainian civilians’ struggle for survival, was completed after the death of Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius. FRANCE 24 spoke with his partner and co-director, Hanna Bilobrova, about the message of the film and the importance of its screening in Cannes.
Russia’s war in Ukraine was once again in the spotlight at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday when an unidentified woman stormed a red carpet premiere and stripped off her clothes to reveal the words “Stop raping us” across her torso. written, next to the blue and yellow colors of the flag of Ukraine. It was the latest in a series of references to the plight of a war-torn country whose president opened the festival earlier this week with an emotional appeal to the power of cinema.
Films by and about Ukrainians feature prominently in this year’s lineup, directed by artists who have chronicled the war in the former Soviet bloc over the past decade and warned the world of the threat of escalation. Among them was Lithuanian Mantas Kvedaravičius, who paid with his own life for his efforts to document those of wartime Ukrainian citizens.
Anyway, “Mariupolis 2” is an extraordinary achievement, a real-life, real-time chronicle of a devastating war now being fought, on the other side of Europe. The director’s tragic disappearance has made the screening in Cannes even more urgent – an emotional highlight for a festival set in the shadow of war.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Kvedaravičius made a documentary in Mariupol, which was released two years later, in which he recounted the citizens’ efforts to continue their lives against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas. In March this year, when Russian tanks drove into the city itself, he returned to Mariupol to film “Part 2” of his documentary. But he did not live to see it completed. In early April, just over two weeks after his arrival, he was captured and killed by Russian troops.
The material Kvedaravičius shot was put together by his fiancée and co-director, Hanna Bilobrova, and their editor Dounia Sichov, in a month-long race against the clock to ensure it could be selected for selection at Cannes. It follows a group of about 30 survivors, women, children and men over 50, who have taken refuge in the basement of a Baptist church as bombs and Russian troops approach.
“We did not choose the church; the church has chosen us,” said Bilobrova, who accompanied Kvedaravičius to Mariupol and retrieved the statues after his death. The original plan was to reach the Mariupol Theater which served as the city’s main shelter until Russian bombs destroyed it, burying hundreds of civilians trapped inside. “The church was our second stop and after this stop we couldn’t move,” she added. “We were literally stuck there with this community.”
At the film’s premiere in Cannes, Bilobrova fought back tears as she paid tribute to her late partner. Kvedaravičius was both a filmmaker and an anthropologist, she said, explaining the film’s naturalistic and distinctly unspectacular view of the human experience of war.
Landscapes of Destruction
“Mariupolis 2” was shot entirely on the grounds of the church and its immediate environs, following the temporary residents as they hide, wait, pray and endlessly sweep up the debris scattered by relentless bombing. Completely devoid of storytelling, it offers only landscapes of destruction interspersed with scenes from the mundane, in which the resilience of the community – rather than individual characters – is the subject.
The film exposes the harrowing banality of war in a region scarred by nearly a decade of conflict, in which hapless civilians talk in the same breath about the sunny weather and the kind of shell that has just exploded nearby. As people scour the rubble in search of utensils, the camera reveals the shocking proximity of life and death – in one case, standing for a long time with two men working to remove a generator while the owner’s dead body is in view. .
“There’s my house,” says a man in his sixties, pointing to rubble surrounding a huge crater across the street from the church. “I worked for 30 years to build it, now I have nothing,” he adds. “We lived well in Soviet times,” sighs another, marveling at the absurdity of a war fought by “idiots on both sides.”
In the distance, seen through the shattered windows of bombed-out buildings, columns of smoke rise between huge factory chimneys, signs of the fierce battle raging around the Azovstal steel mill. Between the blasts and bursts of gunfire, an eerie silence reigns. There are none of the normal sounds of city life – just bombs, gunshots and dogs barking.
“We always experience war without the experience of war, because someone (tells) us that’s what war looks like,” Bilobrova said, reflecting on traditional portrayals of war, both in fiction and in the news. “It’s a portrayal of war by someone else, (…) talking about war, not about people. No one shows us people living in war.”
“Mantas always looked at us, at people, with great freedom and without preconceived ideas,” added Nadia Turincev, the film producer. “We’re thrilled to have his vision on display and to share here, at the largest film festival in the world,” she said. “It means his vision will now have a wider echo.”
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