Valentyn Vasyanovych • Director of Reflection
“Inhuman torture takes place not somewhere far away, but right here in Europe”
by Marta Bałaga
- VENICE 2021: There is no looking away in this, the latest take on the ongoing war in Ukraine, which comes on the heels of Atlantis
Following his win with Atlantis [+see also:
interview: Valentyn Vasyanovych
film profile], named Best Film in the Orizzonti section in 2019, Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych presents Reflection [+see also:
interview: Valentyn Vasyanovych
film profile] in the Venice Film Festival’s main competition. This time, he focuses on a surgeon (Roman Lutskyi), captured by the Russian military forces and forced to witness horrifying torture and violence. But he can’t really talk about it once he returns home, especially not to his young daughter.
Cineuropa: There are many stories about men who come back from war, not as heroes but as broken people. How did you see this guy, Serhiy, who doesn’t discuss his experiences that much?
Valentyn Vasyanovych: Compared to my previous film, Atlantis, in which the war couldn’t break down the hero, in Reflection, I show a simple man who makes an emotional decision, understandable to many people in Ukraine – he wants to help, saving the lives of the soldiers on the front line. He is a simple civilian surgeon, not a hero in the conventional sense, but he wants to be useful to his country. Such people always comprise the majority, in any country. They’re people who want to be useful to society in critical situations, but they aren’t necessarily ready to die. Upon their return, they can be treated in various ways, but society isn’t ready to accept their traumas. They are left alone with their problems. With my film, I wanted to pay attention to them and evoke some empathy, even despite their ambiguous actions that can be interpreted in completely different ways.
What was the hardest thing about talking about this war, now? And why did you decide to show its brutality to such an extent?
Regarding the cruelty, I only show a small part of what has happened, and it is still happening in the prisons controlled by the Russian special services in the occupied territory of Ukraine. This has been confirmed by the people who actually returned home. Our consultant was Stanislav Aseev, a Ukrainian journalist who used to work as a correspondent for Radio Liberty in Donetsk and spent two-and-a-half years in a prison called “Isolation”. Later, he wrote and published a book about these events [In Isolation: Dispatches from Occupied Donbas]. He was detained on espionage charges and tortured. The decision to show these harsh, traumatic scenes was prompted by the desire to show Europe – and the entire civilised world – the inhuman torture that takes place not somewhere far away, but right here. It occurs in the 21st century; it’s the result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and no one is immune to this aggression.
You tend to be quite self-sufficient as a filmmaker [Vasyanovych also wrote the script, shot it and edited it], but what did you want to capture as a DoP? How did you want to lens this story?
It is difficult for me to separate the work of the cameraman and the director. The logic of building a frame is born during the rehearsal. Everything happens organically and, in my case, doesn’t need verbalisation – I don’t need to explain to someone else what I want. All my decisions are made intuitively, and when the concept of a shot is finally born, I always feel satisfied.
In order to open up to his daughter, your protagonist basically needs to admit that the world is full of horrors – horrors everyone wants to protect their children from. Was this relationship, and the way it changes, interesting to you?
What drove me to make this film was an incident my daughter witnessed: a dove flew into our window and crash-landed. This event caused my eight-year-old girl to have many questions. Questions I’ve tried to answer, just like my main hero. They were about life and death, about the soul and the body. About what happens after we die. People look for answers to these existential questions all their life. But when I was watching my daughter, I saw her try to find these answers sometimes, in a playful way. For example, it is both terrible and interesting to watch children who – imitating adults – play war and then “bury the dead”. Initially, I wanted to make a film about this instead. But when prisoners began to return from these hidden prisons, sharing what had happened, I decided to combine these two themes.
This conflict has been going on for so long, yet fewer people are talking about it, it seems. Was this something you noticed and wanted to rebel against?
Of course. Everyone is tired of this news story: both in Ukraine and all over the world. But if you don’t resist the aggressive policy of Russia, then Ukraine will disappear as an independent state. The next step? The Baltic countries and the countries of the former Socialist Bloc. Perhaps this sounds like an exaggeration, but the imperial ambitions of the Russian leadership will lead to a redivision of the world as we know it. It’s not for nothing that Russian President Vladimir Putin called the disappearance of the Soviet Union “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe”. He is methodically working on creating a new union, using both economic blackmail and military expansion.
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