Reality is often harder to believe than fiction. And 2023 has been a year in which the lives of many Ukrainians have been as dramatic, tragic and heroic as anything you might see in a Hollywood production.

So, while the Ukrainian film industry has continued to produce feature films based on fictional stories, the harsh reality that ordinary people have been facing over the past two years has generated an explosion of raw, admittedly hard-to-watch documentaries.

The sheer quantity of combat footage available on social media is already overwhelming. Some filmmakers have taken up the challenge of presenting these raw images of war in a contextualized form, hoping to give events a meaning that can be transmitted – to educate, if not to entertain.

Others delve into the lives of those caught in the maelstrom of destruction, seeking a way to safety.

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20 Days in Mariupol

The film that has generated the most attention abroad is “20 Days in Mariupol,” directed by Mstyslav Chernov. As a reporter for AP press, he and his team spent the first 20 days of the Mariupol siege among the civilian population being bombed. They entered hospitals and recorded the harrowing first days of the war.

“It’s hard to watch, but it must be hard to watch,” Chernov said.

“20 Days in Mariupol” has been shortlisted for Academy Awards in two categories: best documentary and best foreign feature film.

Eastern Front

Yet another harrowing documentary is “Eastern Front” by Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko. The film tracks soldiers and medics, often from the first-person viewpoint recoded on the Go-Pro cameras attached to their helmets.

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Kyiv has in recent weeks been weakened by an ammunition shortage and vital US aid remains blocked by political wrangling in the US Congress.

You see the contrast between life at home in western Ukraine, with family, and action on the front, with brothers-in-arms risking their lives and medics tending to the wounded. It was presented at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival to much acclaim, but proved too harsh for many viewers.

In the Rearview

Of course, Ukrainians weren’t the only ones compelled to tell the stories of ordinary people dealing with the horrors of this brutal war.

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Polish film director Maciek Hamela gives an interesting twist to the documentary form with “In the Rearview.” As he steers through minefields to leave Ukraine, winding his way through one military checkpoint after another, Hamela offers us a seat in his van, which serves as a waiting room, hospital, shelter, and zone for confidences and confessions.

In the Rearview was also shortlisted for the Academy Awards best documentary category.

Under Deadly Skies

Another documentary is “Under Deadly Skies: Ukraine’s Eastern Front,” featuring John Sweeny, a bestselling British writer and former BBC journalist. The author of “Killer in the Kremlin” is an ardent supporter of Ukraine and he narrates his forays to the frontline with war correspondents Paul Conroy and Zarina Zabrisky.

Together they look for evidence of war crimes committed by Russian occupation forces. They find populated villages subjected to illegal phosphorus bombs and visit torture rooms with those who had been held there.

Slava Ukraini

There were also documentaries made by international celebrities who support the Ukrainian cause and want to parlay their fame to bring attention to it:

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French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has long been a champion of nations oppressed by tyrants. He has also been a supporter of Ukraine from days of the Maidan, more than 10 years ago.

In his latest film project, “Slava Ukraini” he tries to capture the spirit of the people resisting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny their very existence as a sovereign nation.  

Superpower

Academy Award-winning US actor Sean Penn has become an advocate for Ukraine as well. Penn was in Kyiv when the war broke out, shooting a documentary about President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Unexpectedly, the documentary caught those first dramatic moments of the war. The final result was “Superpower,” a testament to Ukrainians’ will to fight back against Russian domination.

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