Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Mariupol in the presence of love and death

At the Berlin Film Festival, the Panorama parallel competition presented the premiere of a documentary Mariupolis – the full-length debut of Mantas Kvedaravicius, 39-year-old Lithuanian
25 February, 2016 - 10:52

The film, which was shot in Mariupol during the spring past year, has employed the methods of observing and recording the daily life and therefore does not have an overarching plot, or a protagonist. Right Sector volunteers are standing on watch at checkpoints. An ambitious girl is trying to start a television reporter’s career. Her father – a phlegmatic cobbler, prone to philosophizing – is leading a theological dispute with an eccentric client. A violinist plays in a Greek folk ensemble. A seasoned fellow is trying to catch gobies by a luggage rack, which is illegal. A local theater is preparing to celebrate May 9. Tram drivers, patient women of middle age, drive their cars from the depot early in the morning with good news: it was promised that today would be no shelling, so the day’s shift will work on the route.

The director does not emphasize his position, he does not indicate right and wrong, does not address the causes of the war, and does not show the war itself, except for several bombings in the coastal area near Shyrokyne. The entire movie is not about war, but about the city on the verge of unrelenting danger. Kvedaravicius is only staring into Mariupol, and sometimes does it too literally: the abundance of close-ups often interferes with the overall imagery of the film.

However, at moments when the author’s intention is more consistent with the material, Mariupolis is built like a perfect visual narrative. In the poverty of industrial and abandoned neighborhoods, Kvedaravicius finds its own beauty and high drama; he is not hunting for exotic, not speculating on the topic, but employs high-precision optics. The culmination of the film, of course, is the episode of shelling the “Eastern” neighborhood, done virtually in the silent image, with all the sounds barely audible, as if in a state of concussion. In terms of content, the story ends here – but the director does not stop, it is important for him to show the survival of the city even after this nightmare. The final idyllic moments seem out of tune, compared to the picture’s general mood. The film however, for all the shortcomings, presents a convincing portrait of a not so simple city.

After the premiere, the director answered questions from the audience and from The Day’s journalist.

Why did you choose Mariupol as the place?

“I think it’s the place. If you come there, you see the river, you see the sea, you see the fishermen, you see people working at the factory, you see their smiles, you hear the beautiful violins, and after that bombs are falling.”

How long were you there?

“I came in the spring of 2015, in March, and I met our heroes, and then we came back with the cinematographers and the sound crew, and I spent 20 days, maybe. And the guys stayed longer, till May.”

What proved to be most difficult during the filming?

“I couldn’t say that it was easy, I mean I don’t have a word for it.”

What was the artistic purpose you envisioned?

“To put it very simply: Mariupol is a place to make a film. Of course, one has to separate what is artistic and what is not. Sense-making is important, but sense-making in a sense of sensual. It has to be sensual, and it has to somehow cover this distance within presentation, and what we sometimes call reality. How we cover this distance might be artistic.”

The film looks impressionistic, as if it was created as separate strokes. Was it a decision you made before the shooting or was it something that manifested itself during the editing?

“No, that wasn’t editing. We started already with a vague idea that we want to have a certain look at the world. Of course, the editing is partly impressionistic because the city is a space, it exerts quite a serious effect.”

What compelled you to finish the movie with Roberto Bolano’s poem “Godzilla in Mexico”? It sets a notable mood of anxiety.

“I read this poem quite a while ago, and it stuck to me, and I think it’s something I found, you know, gently disturbing, true to some way of life as I understand it.”

It is difficult to understand on which side you’re on. Why is it so?

“At some point – because of this word which was very important, they call it peremyria (truce), and if you want to translate it more literally, it is something like ‘in between peace.’ So, the concept itself sounded very awkward to me: what does it mean, ‘in between peace’? And at the same time I have been thinking about how one becomes social, how we live together. I am being constantly pounded by ideologies, whether it’s nationalism, or whether it’s our cultural codes. And I think then we become something, out of this being pounded upon.”

By Dmytro DESIATERYK, The Day, Berlin – Kyiv