‘I can’t answer for the actions of the Luhansk People’s Republic’ Meduza interviews Beata Bubenec, the director of a documentary film about the war in eastern Ukraine, whose screening was derailed by protests
Alexander Utkin for Meduza
On December 9 and 10, Moscow's “Artdokfest” documentary film festival planned to screen “Polet Puli” (Flight of the Bullet), an 80-minute movie by Beata Bubenec chronicling the lives of volunteers in Ukraine’s “Aidar” Battalion. The film was shot in August 2014, at the height of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Supporters of “Novorossiya” tried to interrupt the first screening, and activists from the far-right SERB movement managed to stop the second show on December 10. Critics have also raised ethical objections to Bubenec’s film because of a scene where the movie shows a supposed separatist captured by Aidar combatants. Meduza’s Alexander Gorbachev spoke to Bubenec and discussed the controversy surrounding her film.
Beata Bubenec is a documentary filmmaker. A graduate of Marina Razbezhkina and Mikhail Ugarov’s School of Documentary Cinema and Theater, Bubenec has directed movies about Russian Christian Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo (“Bozhya Volya,” or “God’s Will”) and about the events of the Euromaidan protests. She’s currently filming “Candidate.doc,” a project about Ksenia Sobchak’s presidential campaign. Polet Puli was filmed in a single 80-minute sequence shot, cataloguing the lives of Ukrainian volunteers who fought in the “Aidar” Battalion. In an opening scene, the battalion captures a civilian suspected of aiding the separatists. In the film, the combatants interrogate the prisoner, and you learn the man’s full name, home address, and see his face. In another scene, one of the Aidar volunteers talks on the phone with his girlfriend. In the final part of the film, Bubenec talks to different Aidar volunteers.
“I wanted something more multi-dimensional”
You’ve filmed Enteo, a Euromaidan activist, and Ukrainian battalion volunteers. Now you’re doing a movie about Ksenia Sobchak. Is there some common thread for you that ties these characters together?
I think there’s a certain internal rhythm in which they exist that identifies them all. I don’t know how to explain it. Let’s say that Enteo does everything very quickly. Ksenia Sobchak, too. My internal rhythm is also fast. And in order to film someone, I think it’s very important that your internal rhythms coincide.
With all the discussions about your film [Polet Puli], there have been a lot of questions about your background. For example, Nikita Tomilin (whose reputation admittedly makes him difficult to trust) says you used to work as a commissar in the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi.
That’s a lie. I never did anything like that. I was never in Nashi, and I never worked for [Nashi founder Vasily] Yakemenko.
But you did work for [the state-controlled television network] Pervyi Kanal.
I used to work as a journalist. When I moved to Moscow, I spent some time trying to find a job with a national network, including Pervyi Kanal. I spent some time there as an intern, doing some videos for the show “Dobroye Utro” (Good Morning). Ironically, I ended up playing Mata Hari when some girl asked me to be in her segment. But it turned out that this wasn’t for me. I became disillusioned with journalism and I left.
Why did you become disillusioned with journalism?
I just realized that there wasn’t a single show on the national networks where I wanted to work. And I simply didn’t see any way I could be there, politically, as well. Before this, you see, I’d worked in journalism in Nizhny Novgorod. I understood the meaning of this work to be that I’d report on some kind of problem, and then after some period of time the problem would always be solved. That’s how it worked for me, and that’s how I saw my mission. But in 2009, the city abolished its direct mayoral elections, and this was the first time when I reported on something that wasn’t right, but I couldn’t influence the situation. After this, I no longer saw the point of being a journalist in Nizhny Novgorod.
Is documentary filmmaking really more effective in this sense?
Well maybe I also felt like I’d hit some kind of ceiling in my professional development. I tried various formats when I reported. I could do everything. I considered myself a top-tier journalist, but I wasn’t very satisfied in this work because it seemed to me that it nonetheless strived to simplify life. I wanted something more multidimensional.
Did you expect such a strong reaction to “Polet Puli”? Did you consider the potential risks?
Well, I understood that the film is ambiguous and that there would be questions. But of course I couldn’t have known that they’d disrupt the screenings and everything else.
Now that a week has passed since the film festival, have the reactions continued? Are you still receiving messages or threats?
Well, yes, of course. I’ve been getting lots of messages: threats, insults, and all that. Also there have been some strange segments aired on the network TV channels. And a lot of lies. If somebody raised real objections to my work, I’d be ready to discuss them, but what’s happening is just a bunch of lies. I don’t even know how to respond to all this. On the one hand, it makes no difference to me that somebody invented a story about me, but it’s insulting when people I care about start believing it.
“In war, there are no heroes and there is no noble behavior.”
The film Polet Puli has no titles, except for the epigraph. Can you tell us where and when the events in the film took place?
This was in the Luhansk oblast in August 2014, near the village of Trokhizbenka.
Did you intentionally avoid mentioning this in the film?
It didn’t even occur to me to add titles. For viewers who aren’t following this situation, I don’t think it makes any difference if it’s Izbenka or Trokhizbenka. I think it’s clear enough that this is in Ukraine. The action begins at a bridge that connects both sides. The other side is one territory, and this side is another.
I figured that the lack of titles was maybe meant to depict this as a kind of abstract war? Like this could be any war?
In a certain sense, yes. What I mean is that it didn’t make any difference to me that, on one side, people were fighting for Ukraine, and the other side was fighting for the [self-declared] People’s Republic of Luhansk. What mattered to me was what was happening there and the very nature of this world.
How did you actually link up with the “Aidar” battalion?
At first, I went to Kiev for the revolution because it somehow resonated with me personally. I was curious to see a revolution with my own eyes. And then — when things started developing further, when the situation in Crimea happened, and the war began — I couldn’t simply turn my back on everything. I already had certain characters [for a film]. You’re drawn into the story, and you begin to wonder what will happen next. In the summer of 2014, I traveled to the Donbas [eastern Ukraine] to look for the focus of what would become my previous film, “Chechen.” I’d lost contact with him, but I’d been told that he was serving in the Aidar battalion that was based in some village in the Luhansk region. And I ended up going there on my own. Usually you’re in a group with some journalists, but for some reason I was the only one there. I ended up being captured because they thought I was a Russian spy, but I managed to send a message to my friend, a journalist named Ivan Yakovin, and he raised hell [to get me freed].
At the time, Ruslan (the one-eyed man in the film) was serving in the Aidar battalion. This was the same man featured in [Alexander] Rastorguyev’s “Realnost” [“Reality”], where he filmed something for them, starting with the Maidan. When I got in trouble, the guys called Ruslan and said, hey, our Beata has been taken prisoner. We’ve got to help her and free her. So they came, got me out, and invited me to come with them. I agreed because I realized that I’d be safe in their company, and I’d have the chance to find a focus for my film.
What happened to you in captivity?
I was a prisoner for a day. What happened there? Well, I was interrogated. They accused me of being a spy. They didn’t let me leave the room (it wasn’t a basement, but some kind of school, it seemed), and there was a man armed with an automatic rifle sitting next to me. They searched all my things and asked me very detailed questions. I mean what else could have happened?
I don’t know. I’ve never been captured. Did they threaten you?
Yes, of course they threatened me. They were very aggressive. They accused me of being a Russian who brought them war. Stuff like that. But there were different guys there. For example, I was amazed that there was one guy who spoke up for me. He said: we didn’t start this revolution to end up being the same as our enemies. Our strength, he said, is that we’re a civilized state, and we should treat even prisoners of war with respect.
Did they listen to him?
Yes. He was persuasive. And apparently he remembered me, because later, when I’d already been released, he found me on social media and even asked me to forgive him for the whole situation. I think this was a very noble act.
When you were released, you met up with the Aidar volunteers and started filming them?
I just started living with them in hopes of finding a focus for my work. And since I had a camera with me, I just filmed everything that happened.
At what stage in your trip did the 80 minutes from your film occur?
In week two, probably. All told, I spent a few weeks there. From the very start, they weren’t the least bit camera shy. One-eyed Ruslan was known as “The Director” because he was always filming. And they got used to this, so they understood what a documentary film is.
How did you feel being around these people?
Well, I guess I felt generally safe in their company. They served as my protection.
Were they your friends?
At that time, they were more like my family. I trusted them, and they trusted me, too, which is why they let me film.
Did you ever discuss with them what they were doing, or judge their actions in any way?
No, I never argued with them. I didn’t condemn and I didn’t discuss anything.
Well, really it’s uncharacteristic for me to condemn someone.
Were there moments when you thought they were doing something wrong, immoral, or criminal?
Of course there were such moments, yes.
But you thought you shouldn’t interfere.
This was war. You have to understand that war is by default… I’m absolutely opposed to the fact that society makes heroes of the people who come back from war. There’s this concept that anyone who fought in war is a hero. I think the only thing you can feel about these people is probably gratefulness for them taking the weight of war’s sins onto their own souls. War is murder. If you won, it means you killed more people. So there are no heroes here, and there is no noble behavior. While I was filming them, of course, they committed many acts that were violent and immoral from a human perspective.
But you’re saying this was already a space of corrupted morals from the start?
Yes. I believe that it’s a crime when people kill each other, even in war, but of course the ones coming back [from war] aren’t sent off to prison.
You saw these people up close. What did you make of them? What I mean is this: was there something uniting them all? These were volunteers, after all. They made the conscious decision: we’re going to take up arms right now and go kill the enemy in battle.
You say that because you can’t imagine going to the Donbas to defend Russkiy Mir [ethnic Russians living beyond the borders of the Russian Federation]. I can’t imagine you there, either.
What’s the Donbas got to do with it? I’m not ready to kill anyone under any circumstances.
It’s a different situation there. War came to them — to their country. And they came to the decision that they needed to defend it. I don’t presume to offer some assessment or analysis that explains what unites them. They’re all very different people.
“I wanted there to be no manipulation and no distance”
You recorded about 400 hours of video. Why did you choose these 80 minutes, without any editing whatsoever?
I thought a lot about this, and I spent a lot of time formulating what my movie would be about. I could have made a lot of different films. When you edit, it’s always a choice. I wanted to make the most honest film I could — a film as close as possible to what happened before my eyes. I chose these 80 minutes because they capture what I wanted to say about war. I didn’t edit them because I wanted the viewer to be immersed and to feel like a part of the events, so there was no manipulations and no distance.
And what’s in these 80 minutes? For you, what is this film about?
For me, this film consists of three parts: in the first part, they capture this person and then they let him go; then there is the phone call; and the third part is about my relationship with these guys and our conversations at the school. I’ve heard a lot of criticism [about my film]. They say the first part is very powerful and it’s unclear why I added everything else. But for me, it’s like this: the culmination of this first part, judging by how it began, could have been him being shot. The murder of a human being. But that culmination didn’t happen. And the film is about that. It’s about the fact that the initial tension gradually fades away.
And war dissolves into ordinary life.
It seemed to me that the film, if not a love story, was at least in part about your relationship with Ruslan. From beginning to end, he serves as a kind of hero-leitmotif.
Well, Ruslan really was closest to me of all these people. He was the one they called [when I was captured], and he felt most responsible for me. Plus, he’s a director himself. He films on his camera, too.
So this is what we can see him recording in your film? This wasn’t tactical footage?
He was making a movie.
So he lied, when he said that it was tactical footage?
You know, I don’t know where this phrase about tactical footage came from. I mean it’s there in my film, but it wasn’t Ruslan or me who said it. It was David who said it. Apparently, he felt it was necessary to explain the situation like that. But he also knew I was filming a documentary film. I think this is a question for him, why he said it.
But you didn’t think it was necessary to correct him?
No. Because, you know, in a situation like that it’s simply not enough to clarify and say, oh sorry, actually I’m making a documentary film, and start lecturing them about how it differs from tactical footage. It seemed to me that this would have been inappropriate. Really, this was a very tense situation, and it was necessary to act very carefully. Any unnecessary movement or any accidental word could have had serious consequences — especially for the person whom they detained. So I didn’t interfere.
But they detained this person in some sense because of you. He stood up for someone they’d started harassing because he asked questions about you filming him.
I didn’t know that my phrase [Bubenec argued with the man about her right to film him] would lead to such consequences. If I’d known, of course, I wouldn’t have started arguing with that dude.
At that moment, did you feel any responsibility?
Of course. In that situation, I felt guilty that they captured him.
How did you establish a balance between, on the one hand, this moral responsibility and, on the other hand, your interests as a director and as someone removed from what was happening?
Even if I hadn’t been filming, I think I wouldn’t have had the opportunity at the moment he was detained to intervene in what was happening. If I had started arguing and complaining and fighting somehow, I think there could have been unfortunate consequences — not for me, but for the man they detained. When a sufficiently angry and emotional person is holding an automatic rifle and the safety is off, any careless movement can be the trigger. So I decided it was necessary in that situation to act as delicately as possible — not to take him in hand and say something, and not to try to intervene. I decided that this was the only behavior that would get him to calm down, so things ended well.
“I can’t answer for the actions of the Luhansk People’s Republic”
Let’s return to the main criticism of your film. I work as a journalist and I understand that there are certain journalistic rules and ethics. We have to verify information. We can’t put our sources in danger. And so on. Are there any ethics in documentary filmmaking? What are they?
The first rule is not to film anything by hidden camera. I always film in the open, and when I’m asked about it I always say that I’m filming a documentary movie. That’s my personal view. Also the characters in your story can’t interfere in the film’s creation process — in the editing. Usually. In the situation that’s shown in the film, I didn’t have an agreement with the man in question. There wasn’t the chance to agree on anything, and I didn’t even know that the film would end up like this. When I realized that the movie had come together like this, I tried to contact this person who was detained in the film, but I couldn’t reach him.
But you decided that you could show him.
You see, when I was making the film, I wasn’t thinking about the viewers. I wanted it to be an honest statement for me and from me. Later, when I started showing it to some people in the film community, they also recognized that this footage was the film. Latvian producers came to me and recommended contacting this person to get his written permission. This was purely legal, so we could sell the film to television networks. But I couldn’t reach the man. So if the movie is ever sold to the networks, they’ll probably have to cover his face, by law.
But you’ve said that you were told he died.
No. When I tried to find him, someone I know from the Aidar battalion told me that he’d been killed. When I tried to verify the details, he stopped answering. I don’t believe that he was killed. I think he’s still alive.
If you just google this person, you can surface documents showing that he was alive, at least, in May 2016.
I only recently saw this. I googled him before, but didn’t find anything.
If you knew reliably that he’s still alive…
It wasn't because I thought he was dead that I decided to show the film.
Because I didn’t think showing the film at a festival could harm him in any way.
Were you really planning to upload the film to YouTube after the second screening at Artdokfest was interrupted?
No. Vitaly Mansky [the festival’s president] invited me to show it on Artdokmedia, but I said no.
Во время показаОпубликовано Beata Bubenec 9 декабря 2017 г.
If you knew reliably that this man is still alive, let’s say inside the Luhansk People’s Republic, would you still show the film at a festival?
I would try to contact him. You know, six months ago I reached out to journalists, including Ukrainian journalists, to help me find him. And they didn’t react so kindly then. When I said I’d been told that he was killed, they laughed. “Ha ha ha, Beata spent three days looking for her dead film star.” But now, after this whole scandal, they turn out to be these high-minded, moral people who worry about the fate of this man and are now trying to find him. I really hope they’ll go about this in the right way, without endangering him with their investigations and their attention.
As far as I understand, they want to take him to a safe place, if he’s actually alive.
Well, look, that’s the issue. First, we don’t know exactly where he is, or if he’s actually alive. Let’s say he’s alive, living in the Luhansk People’s Republic, and he hasn’t moved to Ukraine in the past three years. You can understand, of course, that it’s hard for displaced people in Kiev. In central Ukraine, life is tough when you have to start over from nothing. But here [in Luhansk], it might be unclear what you’re living in, but at least you’ve got your roots, and people have reasons to stay. Apparently something is keeping them there. Relatives or something else.
So how are a bunch of journalists and human rights workers going to walk into this situation, intervene, and pull him out? Of course, if that’s his decision, if it would be better for him, and if they’d help him settle elsewhere…
It’s interesting that you think journalists are interfering in his life now. Didn’t your film interfere with his life? After all, you show his full name and you show him committing acts that…
What acts? You know, most people discussing my film right now haven’t even seen it.
I have seen it. I think he commits acts that the Luhansk separatists would consider a serious crime.
You saw the film and made your own conclusions. And someone else who’s seen it will draw their own. There are two points of view here about who this man supported: either the Ukrainians or the Luhansk separatists. Different people see it differently. We don’t know if the information he provided to the Aidar battalion was accurate. That’s number one. Second, well, this is a question for the Luhansk separatists. Based on what’s publicly available right now, no one has the right to accuse or condemn him in any way.
So, if they come for him, you’re not responsible for that?
I believe that no one right now has the right to come for him or do anything bad to him.
But what if they do come? Does that have anything to do with you?
I can’t answer for the actions of the Luhansk People’s Republic.
But you can answer for your own decision.
I can answer for my own decision. And I don’t believe that the fact that I showed the film at Artdokfest can have any negative consequences… Now there’s been this commotion from the journalists who also decided to get involved in this whole story. I hope that their intervention will lead to a favorable outcome for the main character in my film. That’s my hope. They’ve already taken on this responsibility.
They’ve taken it on, and what about you?
I’d like to save him, if I get the chance.
You don’t think you made a mistake? You don’t think you should have tried to find him, or withheld the film until you did?
I thought about this. I thought about it a lot. And I made the decision to show the film at the festival.
Do you think this decision was a mistake?
No. I don’t think this decision was a mistake.
[Long pause.] I don’t know. Why should I consider it a mistake?
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