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In the Rearview

Almost entirely set on the director's own minibus, documentary about Ukrainian refugees impresses with its non-intrusive and casual approach - vital piece of filmmaking wins the top prize at Sheffield Doc Fest

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly a third of Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes after Russia’s illegal invasion in 2022. Over eight million have fled the country altogether. As the war rages on it’s easy for those of us far removed from the conflict to become numb to these rising numbers, to lose sight of the very human cost of Europe’s largest refugee crisis since WW2. A simple concept supercharged by the breathtaking empathy that courses through every scene, Maciek Hamela’s remarkable In the Rearview is an antidote to desensitisation.

Premiering at Sheffield DocFest last week, where it went on to win the Grand Jury Award in the International Competition, In the Rearview is a co-production of Ukraine, France and Hamela’s native Poland. Set almost entirely in the filmmaker’s own minibus as he takes thousands of refugees to safety, the film’s intimate yet non-intrusive approach is the very definition of ‘less is more’. Despite the extraordinary circumstances in which its subjects find themselves, the film is incredibly effective as a slice-of-life documentary, a testament to the resilience and courage of the normal people this conflict has affected, as well as Hamela’s determination to tell their stories as truthfully as possible.

For much of the film’s runtime, its dialogue is decidedly ordinary and often very funny. A man discusses packing an iron for the family he is meeting, a woman brings her journey to an abrupt halt to let her cat out to defecate, one passenger implores his wife: “Stop talking about the cow, you’ll just cry again”. In many ways, Hamela’s film resembles 2021’s Hit the Road (Panah Panahi) the fictional Iranian road movie full of bittersweet joy and humour as a family seeks the safety of a border. Similarly to Panahi’s film, In the Rearview allows the underlying horror that has created its circumstances to bubble up to the surface in subtly devastating ways.

Between quotidian conversations are moments of pathos, from older relatives seeing their families off on their journey, to passengers recounting the horrific treatment of loved ones by Russian soldiers. What is most striking is the nonchalant tone with which the most traumatic events are discussed, especially when it comes from the mouths of children. “Such beautiful buildings,” says one young girl as she admires a relatively untouched part of town, “not bombed at all.” The silence that ensures, as we are left to consider what kind of a world leads a seven-year-old to make such a comment, is deafening.

The same child gives us one of the film’s most haunting visual moments. Late in the night, she explains to a younger boy has the definition of the word “worrying”: it’s something your granny does when your home and family are under attack. The younger child’s face is basked in the orange glow of street lights, the rest of his body and the minibus obscured by darkness. We imagine the cogs turning behind his eyes as he contemplates this information and a new concept, worry, forms in his mind in real time. ‘I love my granny,’ he replies.

That the filmmakers manage to craft a single moment of cinematic significance, where the volatility of reality meets genuine visual artistry, is impressive. To do it several times across this immense humanitarian undertaking is nothing short of masterful. This is all to say that, considering the conditions of its production, In the Rearview is exceptionally shot. The camera’s stillness allows us to devote ourselves to Hamela’s passengers without disturbance or distraction. When it deviates from the rearview of its title, we are forced to peer through mirrors and windows, distorting our understanding of events. Even if this is only a matter of necessity – often the camera is turned away as the driver presents documents to officials or waits for a family to say their goodbyes – our inability to see things unfold clearly is a fitting reflection of the obscurity of war to those untouched by it.

This is one of those films that remind you just why documentary filmmaking is vital. With astute editorial judgement and a dedication to raw human experience, the man behind the camera, and the wheel, handles this weighty subject matter with the skill of a seasoned professional and the hands-on passion of an exciting new talent. Yet it would be contrary to Hamela’s mission to place too much focus on his role. The stars of In the Rearview are its subjects: the courageous, complicated, real people of Ukraine.

In the Rearview premiered at the Sheffield Doc Fest in June, 2023. It won the Grand Jury Award, the event’s top prize.

By Louis Roberts - 22-06-2023

Louis is a freelance writer and digital communications professional based in Liverpool. His love affair with independent film began at Manchester’s dearly departed Cornerhouse in the early 2010s, an...

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