If you’re going through hell, keep going. Watching this film reminded me of that old piece of advice, sometimes attributed to Churchill. The Eastern Front: Terror and Torture in Ukraine, is a documentary road movie that follows American and British journalists as they strive to comprehend and document the events unfolding on the Eastern Front of Ukraine.
Their journey involves tracing the path of tragedy and seeking answers to a pressing question: do Russians solely target military installations, as they claim through their propaganda, or are Ukrainian civilians indeed the intended victims of Russian military forces?
Ignoring the war does not mean the war will ignore you
The filmmakers traverse the eastern Ukrainian cities that have suffered damage and occupation by Russian troops, including Dnipro, Bakhmut, Siversk (near Bakhmut), and Kherson, among others.
The film touches on the issue that opinions on supporting Ukraine vary among Americans, Europeans, and UK citizens. Some strongly support Ukraine, seeing it as protecting not just itself, but eastern Europe, from Russian territorial and political ambitions, and doing so at the cost of many Ukrainian citizens’ lives. Others, however, question the extent of support and whether there should be a limit.
The western world’s weariness towards the war, and its longing for peace, are perhaps understandable, but Ukraine’s ability to defend itself will weaken if the war is ignored. Without continued support, Russian forces will breach Ukraine’s defenses as they breached the dam at Kherson, plunging the region into further bloodshed. This timely film, then, carries a powerful message: ignoring the war does not mean the war will ignore you.
Though the filmmakers do not venture onto the frontlines, the war is palpable. Gunfire can be heard, both outgoing and incoming. John Sweeney and his team, visibly apprehensive, continue their journey from one devastated city to another, from one shattered soul to the next. Their focus remains on the civilians who endure inhumane conditions. Each person has their reasons for not leaving their location.
Sweeney’s most poignant statement encapsulates it well: “The thing about ordinary Ukrainian people is that they are so extraordinary.”
The film feels like a frenzied sprint through hell, leaving no time to stop and truly gaze into the eyes of those captured on camera or to delve deeply into any one character, a traditional strength of the documentary format. Instead, the filmmakers adopt a rapid-fire approach, seeking to present news-style investigations and information delivery. However, they go beyond that; they become heroes themselves, stringing together the kaleidoscope of faces, compiling a critical mass of evidence for skeptical viewers who question the necessity of supporting Ukraine.
The Eastern Front
It is evident that the filmmakers pass through the region tangentially, as if holding their breath underwater until they can breathe freely once again upon returning home or reaching a safe place. They move through the lives of individuals as if touching scorching walls. As a viewer, you begin to understand the contrast between ordinary Ukrainians, wearing their everyday clothes, and visiting foreign journalists donning body armor. This creates the true documentary drama of the story. The journalists themselves become characters in this narrative. How many reporters like them have those people seen since the war began?
Seeing Sweeney, amidst the mud and destruction, in a bulletproof vest adorned with floral appliqués, prompts you to imagine how the journalists acquired such protective gear. These minute details, suggesting emotional helplessness in the face of hellish reality, lend force to this rapid journalistic investigation. You realise that the western world is ill-prepared to face such circumstances, while Ukrainians possess an incredible will to resist. This has become their reality in the 21st century, and the film explains why.
Outstanding direction from Caolan Robertson
The work of Caolan Robertson, who is not only the director but also the director of photography, is outstanding, especially considering the nature of reportage shooting. Adhering to the genre’s standards, the camera captures the essence, breathing in each significant moment. At first glance, the camera’s movements may seem chaotic, but they are selective, generating an immersive experience.
With the director, you explore the surroundings and create the effect of being there for the viewer, grateful for the opportunity to witness more than just the individuals being interviewed. The shots predominantly depict close-ups and details, evoking a sense of claustrophobia. However, aerial drone shots provide a respite, allowing us to breathe a bit apart from this human-induced hell on Earth.
I believe it is crucial for this film to be screened and watched by western audiences, particularly in light of Russian forces’ recent breach of the dam on the Dnipro River. When revisiting the Kherson story through a different lens, you become akin to a fortune teller, foreseeing the future of those individuals captured on camera, a future they were unaware of during their interviews. It leaves you contemplating whether this war crime of killing civilians will ever come to an end. When will the perpetrators be punished? What is waiting for those people who were interviewed?