Ukrainian filmmakers are here in Cannes and, in the words of poet Dylan Thomas, they will not go gentle. While some are here to promote films screening here in Cannes, many are here to drum up support for their country and ensure that their voices are not forgotten as media headlines about the Russian invasion begin to diminish.
For many, it’s a strange paradox to be swanning around the sunny shores of Cannes in a film festival that feels vibrant and full of life, a festival where the only fighter jets are ones kicking off Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick when their home country continues to be ravaged by war.
“It’s very strange to be here,” says Bosonfilm’s Aleksandra Kostina, producer of Directors’ Fortnight entry Pamfir, which premiered last night. Speaking to Deadline in the Village International, she gazes a bunch of delegates walking barefoot on the beach before saying, “It’s hard to understand how life just continues around the rest of the world when our world has completely changed and will never be the same again. It’s very surreal.”
Her director, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk feels the same.
“It’s amazing to be here and have my feature play in the festival but it’s not what belongs to my reality,” he says a few hours before the premiere of Pamfir, a drama about a man who faces small town corruption in Western Ukraine. “My reality is my country and it’s in the middle of an awful war.”
He says he’s been sleeping soundly each night he’s been back at the festival. “You know why?” he asks. “Because I can’t hear the fighting planes and the air raids. It’s safe here in Cannes. When my alarm on my phone goes off it’s not the alarm we get on our phones in Ukraine warning citizens of an air raid.”
Maksym Nakonechnyi says being here is like being in a “parallel universe.” The director’s film Butterfly Vision, about a young female soldier who returns home after being held captive for months only to discover she is pregnant after being raped by her warden, is playing in Un Certain Regard next week. He shows me the tattoos on his fingers with the Ukranian coat of arms and Cyrillic letters spelling out “freedom” and “will” on each hand.
But what becomes clear soon after meeting with these filmmakers is that they are continuing the good fight and they want everyone here at Cannes to know it.
Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk is particularly appalled at Kirill Serebrennikov’s statements made at the press conference for his Palme d’Or contender Tchaikovsky’s Wife, where the Russian dissident claimed Russian civilians are also victims whose lives have been affected by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“His words will be used very well in Russian propaganda,” he says. “If you invite someone [to a festival] even if they are a dissident, they are an instrument of Russian propaganda, even if he is a smart and talented genius. Russian citizens will defend their own citizens. And for him to make the aggressor a victim, that’s a huge lie.”
Nakonechnyi is clear that he thinks the inclusion of the film is entirely tone deaf, noting that the Russian composer’s family comes from Ukraine heritage. “I would ask the festival is it really timely to screen a film about a composer whose family were born in the territory of modern Ukraine, in a town that has now been destroyed by the Russian army? Is it timely enough to screen such a film without mentioning this or being aware of this context? The answer is no.”
He admits there is good intention in supporting dissidents and people who are fighting against the regime “but when they say it’s the Russians who need the assistance and not Ukrainians, whose women are being raped by Russian soldiers and whose children are being tortured, it makes me wonder why someone who is considered anti-regime would deliver messages that is useful for the regime?”
Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland, who is also president of the European Film Academy, has also condemned the Cannes Film Festival for its inclusion of the Roman Abramovich-funded project telling delegates at a Cannes industry roundtable, “If it were up to me, I would not include Russian films in the official program of the festival – even if Kirill Serebrennikov is such a talented artist.”
She added that her “bad feelings” were confirmed by Serebrennikov’s “bad words”: “He used [the film festival’s press conference] to praise a Russian oligarch and compare the tragedy of Russian soldiers to Ukrainian defenders. I would not give him such a chance at this very moment.”
Kostina initially fled Kyiv to a village in Donbass with her husband and 7-year-old daughter, choosing to volunteer in a hospital for premature babies that was shelled by Russian missiles. “These babies had nothing – no towels, bedding, pillows, nothing,” she says. “We did everything we could to help them as they have such complicated situations and special needs for medicine and other things.”
The producer is currently staying in Holland’s house in France with her family after her Pamfir co-producer Klaudia Smieja helped make the connection. She is using her time her in Cannes to actively try to drum up financial support and opportunities for Ukraine from the European sector. Kostina says that because public funding for Ukrainian filmmakers has dried up since February 24, it means the country’s filmmakers have little hope in their work continuing unless other European funding bodies introduce incentives for Ukraine to tap into. She’s meeting with the European Commissioner to see what can be done to protect Ukrainian filmmaker’s efforts going forward.
“I don’t know what to do if we won’t have the ability to work,” she says. “It’s understandable that our government will not support us right now because of course we need to rebuild hospitals, we need to care for those who need care, and we need to rebuild the country. So, from one side, it’s not the moment for culture to be financed, but on the other side if we do not rebuild our culture, we don’t rebuild our country because the two are so intertwined and connected.”
She adds, “We know how to do productions, we know how to develop our projects so that the world is interested but without the support from local funds, we can’t move forward. We need opportunities to access European funds, even just for development money, because without it there is no hope for Ukrainian filmmakers today. We’re not asking for handouts – we want to work.”
Nakonechnyi agrees that being an independent filmmaker in the circumstances of war with no access to financing is impossible.
“I don’t want to demand anything, but we are here because we are victims, and we have to remind the international society about the principles they claim to have and ask them to follow up on international laws that have been made.”
The director stresses that this war is not one that started on February 24 and rather, it’s one that Ukraine has been dealing with since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. It was while editing the documentary Invisible Battalion, which documented female Ukrainian soldiers, when he got his inspiration for Butterfly Vision.
“The experiences of the female soldier impressed me a lot,” he says. “Their optics, their approach to the war and what’s happening to their role in the war was so impressive.”
One female soldier in the documentary spoke of a deal she made with her fellow soldiers: if she was ever held hostage by Russian soldiers, she wanted her fellow soldiers to kill her if they had an opportunity.
“That impressed me so deeply so I thought about what could be scarier than a female soldier in captivity and that’s how the idea for the film came about,” he says. It was a tricky shoot that was marred by Covid and the start of the invasion in February. Locations had to be changed when Russian troops began assembling at the border.
While most delegates of the Cannes Film Festival will return to their homes and families, exhausted after a week of film-watching and deal-making, for these Ukrainians, the future isn’t so certain. Both Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk and Nakonechnyo will continue to document soldiers in the war, admitting that filmmaking is now their greatest weapon.
“Now we have to speak loudly about it through our culture, our literature, our cinema – on every platform possible because if we don’t speak loud enough, it will be a chance for our enemies to kill us once more,” says Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk.
Nakonechnyi knows now that he and his people are forever changed, and that the aftermath of the war will be felt for generations to come. “Once the firing is over, it doesn’t mean the war is over,” he says. “It lasts for a long time and stays with a person forever and they must learn to live with it. War influences art, culture – all spheres of us.”
For Kostina she urges the international film community not to forget about Ukraine and the filmmaking industry. She’s worried the attention is waning and that she and her fellow countrymen and women will be forgotten.
“This is a tragedy that is happening every day,” she says. “It feels like we are living one, long day and it’s a nightmare. We are just waiting for the moment we can wake up from this horror.”