The Unwomanly Face of War

in 24th goEast IFF Wiesbaden

by Bojidar Manov

The heading above these lines is a quote from the title of the first book of Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich published in 1985. Later she wrote other books, including Boys in Zinc (1992) about the Soviet army in Afghanistan. And in 2015, she received the Nobel Prize for literature. A worthy career path of a talented writer and honest woman.

War, whatever it is, does still not have a ‘womanly face.’ And it never will. The beautiful mythology of the Amazons will remain in ancient texts and oral traditions. But today, at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, three women make their documentaries dedicated to one theme and pierced by the same pain: three films about three wars that blow up our civilization. All three films were duly selected for the competition programme of the 24th edition of goEast, the Festival of Central and Eastern European Film (24–30 April 2024). Since its set-up in 2001, the festival has presented a competition with 16 films (feature and documentary). In this year’s edition, there were 7 documentaries, among them three anti-war films by three talented women filmmakers, devoted to their profession and honest principles of life.

Indeed, Shoghakat Vardanyan from Armenia is not at all a filmmaker in the professional sense. She has performed classical academic and contemporary music and has also been playing free improvised music since 2017. Therefore, she has never studied filmmaking. But when her brother Soghoman disappeared without a trace in the brutal military conflict on the territory of Artsakh region in July 2020, she did everything possible to find at least a sign of him or about him, using her phone to document this investigation. And so, ‘unintentionally’ she became the director of extremely moving and painful visual documents, with sisterly sincerity, which turned into the film called 1489. Under this cold and ominous number, she will find only the mortal remains of her beloved brother, recognized and authenticated by DNA analysis. A cruel, unbearably heavy blow, especially for the devastated parents, who in a touching, pure and incredibly emotional frame caress some small pieces of bone as the only real contact with the unjustly lost beloved son. Thus, a talented musician – pianist, composer and saxophonist – tragically passed away. Inconsolable are the parental sufferings, but alas, the tears wept cannot bring back the cheerful boy, in love with music, with the purest youthful hopes. The family tries to continue to lead ‘normal’ lives. But all of these situations have two things in common: the pain of uncertainty and simultaneously the inexorable continuity of lives that must go on. It is no coincidence that the film has an exceptional audience and festival success, with the highest honour awarded as Best Film and FIPRESCI Prize at IDFA (8–19 November 2023, Amsterdam). Shoghakat Vardanyan was also awarded the Armenian Prime Minister’s Award, but she refused it because she believed the film should not have any political connections.

Every war has its face and back. Debutante Nicole Philmon filmed the usual Victory Day celebrations on May 9, 2022 in St Petersburg as a newsreel for this first full-length documentary called 09.05.2022 (Netherlands, Romania). But this time is different, because less than three months ago, the military invasion of Ukraine began, and this inevitably left its mark on the otherwise traditional march of the descendants of the fallen soldiers of the Great Patriotic War. The seemingly impartial objective reporting of the documentary camera inevitably captures some brutish chanting of xenophobic slogans in a multigenerational choir. Because war always (including the current one) has its terrifying, merciless face, which has no justification, only a blind ‘logic’ against life, reason and the essence of civilization. Alas, such is the eternal truth about war, where human euphoria, cynical and terrifying, inevitably gives the film a status as a hopeless and paradoxical document. Let’s not forget that the film’s producer is filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, well known for his uncompromising feature films and documentaries.

Yet another full-length documentary debut, the work of a female filmmaker, completes the anti-war theme segment in the competition. Olga Chernykh’s A Picture to Remember (Ukraine, France, Germany) comes after her useful experience with three short films, which established her as a documentarian with her stance on the anti-war theme. She grew up in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine – today the site of violent battles with countless victims. When the war started, she was still in Kyiv and experienced her homeland primarily through the news or in regular video-calls with her grandmother. The audio and visual recordings of a disturbing present are accompanied poetically by archival materials drawn from her personal history. The past comes closer with every memory. The film blurs boundaries – between back then and today, as well as between reality and remembrance. The film is an intimate documentary journey through the war from a director’s point of view.

Three documentaries created by female filmmakers illuminate the screen not only with the horror of the pain and destruction of war but also with the individual sensitivity of their makers. And this undoubtedly gives them exceptional credibility and powers of persuasion!

By Bojidar Manov
Edited by Birgit Beumers