Review 1. Iron Butterflies
Iron Butterflies is an experimental documentary film about the investigation into the causes of a Malaysian passenger plane crashing over Ukraine.
After his first feature War Note, which shows real found footage of Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the frontline of the war with Russia, director Roman Liubyi makes an important statement with Iron Butterflies. When he started to develop the idea in 2019, it was supposed to serve as a warning about the Third World War, but in the meantime the Russian invasion of his country had already begun. Poetic, informative, experimental and eye-opening, Liubyi’s latest work is an example of a documentary piece of art.
Following the armed conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine started by Russian-backed separatists in 2014, Russia deployed anti-aircraft weapons. This unrivaled equipment is advertised as something fascinating and people are mesmerized by the view of an airplane exploding in the sky after being shot down by their guardian. However, it is not the enemy that crashes, but the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 with its 298 civilian passengers and crew. This tragic event sheds light on Russia’s invasive aspirations and turns into an exasperating investigation.
The director skillfully plays with many different tools in order to explore this overlooked piece of recent history. He uses Russian TV news segments of an anchor giving contradictory information on the same day and a psychic offering her interpretation of what happened, as examples of the massive propaganda created by the government. There are also instances of photos taken in front of the wreckage and then posted on social media as badges of honor. These materials collected from different sources intertwine with archival data, audio recordings, Google Map captions and informative texts, quickly moving from one idea to another. That may be overwhelming at times, but as the story unfolds, it becomes easier to follow.
Among the factual evidence, Robert Oehlers’ testimony about the loss of his cousin in the crash throws an emotional punch and plays an important role in understanding the impact of the devastating tragedy. The director broadens the spectrum even more by pointing out the fact that six AIDS researchers got killed onboard instead of attending an International AIDS Conference and potentially saving lives. Such details drive home the fact that the MH17 incident affects humanity on a larger scale, but despite the verdict determined by a Dutch court eight years later, this war crime still remains unpunished while the situation in Ukraine keeps escalating.
The information-dense sequences are separated by poetic images, like choreographed scenes in black and white depicting unpleasant images of war, or the symbolic representation of the missile’s butterfly-shaped shrapnel which cleverly lingers over the whole film. In these instances the camera mostly trembles as an effective illustration of human frailty and anxiety in times of war. The music by Anton Baibakov and the piano fragments by Oleksandra Morozova create a tense and uneasy atmosphere, beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Though artistically rich, Iron Butterflies does not romanticize war. Thanks to the symbiotic relationship between the aesthetic bits and the more informative segments, Liubyi’s latest leaves a powerful impression and testifies about the consequences of reckless war actions that affect not only those directly involved, but the world at large.
© FIPRESCI 2023