- VENICE 2021: Loup Bureau immerses himself in an outpost of the Ukrainian army in the Donbass and takes the pulse of a war in a state of suspension, a strange mix of waiting and violence
"What are our friends up to? – The new ones are calmer, they rarely cause trouble, the ones before them were real brutes." In a bunker that forms part of the outpost of the Ukrainian army in the Donbass, on a frontline where enemy positions of the pro-Russia separatists are close enough to be seen, the electricity flickers and dogs sleep by the feet of soldiers as they clean their weapons. Since spring 2014, ceasefire agreements have followed one after the other, but “that doesn’t mean the war is over.” This is where French journalist Loup Bureau (know for having been detained arbitrarily for almost two months in Turkey in 2017 for “activities with ties to terrorism” while he was reporting on the conflicts in the region alongside the Kurds, and only freed after intercession from president Macron) decided to direct his first (and very well-made) documentary, Trenches [+see also:
film profile], unveiled out of competition at the 78th Venice Film Festival.
To film the war up close or the fragile suspension of hostilities is far from a novel idea, but the French filmmaker has chosen a singular angle that allows him to perfectly capture the atmosphere of the place and lends his film an indisputable artistic cachet (his past as a photo reporter and the fact that he shot the film himself no doubt playing a big part in what is a very organic mise-en-scene), all the while letting the emotions of the fighters shine through. Indeed, he paints a picture of banality, that of the real daily lives of soldiers who interminably walk through the trenches and their innumerable chicanes, tirelessly dig new ones with brutal shovel and pickaxe blows, and start all over again after landslides occur. A Sisyphean task interrupted by the enemy’s punctual violations of the ceasefire, by sudden explosions, by artillery bombings, by races to hide in the bunkers, by counter-attacks, anxieties, injuries or sometimes worse. And in the darkness of their covers barely pierced by the ambient light going through the slits, they pass the time, they cook, they do the dishes, they confide a few things to the filmmaker, they sometimes talk about God, about those they live and love far away, about the goals of this strange war… Then the radios once again make some noises and the routine gets underway again, monotonous and always menacing…
By opting for black-and-white cinematography (except for some rare sections of returns to civilian life), Loup Bureau underlines the incredibly timeless character of this conflict, whose rudimentary conditions recall the First World War. Logs, sandbags, mud, very slow walks through no man’s land, and most of all, the silent waiting and prayers that death may not land straight on you. A latent war at the antipodes of the type of advanced technologies sometimes in the news elsewhere and an atmosphere seen from ground level, at men’s height (and women’s height, as is the case with the soldier "Perséphone") which the filmmaker excellently recreates with small personal touches and fascinating one-take sequences roaming through the place. It’s an immersive approach that does not really bring forward any one particular character and which plays with stretching time to unveil the shivering and sudden terrors anchored at the heard of military routine on the frontline, and of an exhausting real/false war in the Donbass whose end sadly no one can yet see.
(Translated from French)
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