This documentary couldn’t be less timely. It peers at the war in Ukraine, complete with footage which was gathered by co-director Yehven Titarenko, so what we get is something uninhibited, urgent and presented with direct, almost live, impact. It’s quickly established that Titarenko is a former volunteer, and one who founded the medical battalion frist hThe Hospitallers in 2014. What Titarenko brings to the forefront, or Eastern Front, is a sense of authenticity, every frame shot from the heart as much as it is from the head. Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky (the film’s other director) commends Titarenko’s spirit, and follows Titarenko headfirst into the conflict that has shocked so many across the globe.
The men mean business from the get go. Opening on a tank, the camera turns to Titarenko, standing bravely in front of a Russian tank on Kyiv’s main boulevard. This shot, it is said, was photographed on August 24th, 2022. The rawness permeates the film, and there are times it feels more like a piece of news journalism more than a feature. That is the film’s greatest strength, but also its Achilles’ heel. In its ambition to capture the immediacy of the conflict, Eastern Front occasionally loses its sense of rational thought, offering little to no space for contemplation.
Where the war will go is anyone’s guess, but there is nothing in this film to suggest the next logical step. Eastern Front takes a journalistic approach to its framework, but it makes the decision not to comment on the war. As a handheld/hat-held documentary, much of the individual moments are scintillatingly produced, curating a country torn down by armed forces.Indeed, there are explosions within a near distance of the camera crew, highlighting the perilous risks that were taken for the sake of the project. There are also calmer moments – much of the documentary takes place beside a river, where people discuss their experiences – and the Baptism of Subbota’s son is surprisingly tender moment that shows humanity’s willingness to carry on in the face of great evil. Humourously, a sperm bank is considered to be of equal value to children, as an emergency supply for future generations.
Another issue is the film’s runtime, a 97 minute documentary which feels longer because of the many pregnant pauses between shootouts. In a film as loud, visceral and immersive as this one, the quieter moments inevitably suffer by comparison, and some of the more interesting conversations lose some of their impact in the process. There’s also a shot of a herd of cows caught in the mud, which feels like an outtake from an abstract French film, and not the workings of a war documentary.
And yet it’s hard to fault the bravery of the camerawork, plunging viewers straight into the middle of the war. While the audiences have the option to walk out of the cinema, or pause the film (if watching at home), the people in this documentary must live it out; every nerve shaken by the advent of another bullet. When the commentators say that they are reminded of WW2, it doesn’t smack of self pity, but genuine shock and anguish.
As it stands, Eastern Front is a strong, albeit haphazard, look at Ukraine. It recognises the terror that is waging the streets, littering the skies with fear and disturbance. The guerilla-style footage never lasts too long to become overtly gimmicky, and the impression directors Yehven Titarenko & Vitaly Mansky create is one of trauma. War never gives easy answers, and as the war is still going on, the feature isn’t in the position to offer any. It’s not an easy film to sit through, but its importance is never in doubt.
Eastern Front just premiered in the Rebels With a Cause Competitions of the 27rh Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.