Review 2. Iron Butterflies

Cinema can revisit and reevaluate history with the surgical tools at its disposal, allowing it to reconstruct memories, events, contexts and emotions – much like assembling a complex puzzle. Iron Butterflies (Żelazne motyle) is the kind of documentary that adeptly combines cinema’s timeless, traditional techniques with the innovative integration of cutting-edge technologies that contribute to the narrative concerning the humanitarian crisis.

Ukrainian director Roman Liubyi delves deep into the 2014 case of a passenger plane brought down by Russian forces as it crossed the Ukrainian border. The incident unfolds as Russia denies any such attack, while other countries seek to investigate the tragedy. The cohesion of these two efforts actually highlights the absurdity of reality, and it shows how nothing has changed even today. The rapid editing is interrupted by impressionistic segments featuring contemporary dancers captured in silhouettes, choreographed harmoniously by the British-Australian artist Bridget Fiske. They effectively convey the intricacies of a war by conceptualizing themes such as the violation of personal boundaries and the issue of sexual assault against women. This is achieved through poetic gestures intentionally crafted to provide moments of reflection, allowing viewers to contemplate the multiple perspectives surrounding the incident and the broader context of interpersonal violence. The result is a deeper emotional resonance with the sensitive issues surrounding the plane crash and the violence between people.

The recurring use of fragments of utilitarian documentary material elucidates the technical aspects underpinning the investigation, shown mainly through amateur footage, materials from international television archives, photo collages, Google Earth archives, and the materials from the Dutch Safety Board team’s investigation and reports. Edited with intrusive cross-dissolves, the flow maintains an essay-like cadence as it harmonizes the style of journalistic materials with the black-and-white segments, accompanied by a mix of experimental sounds, repetitions of words, thoughts, and victims’ names.

At times, the material is altered – such as the zooms and crops applied to the faces and lips of the Russian presenters narrating propaganda news – but not to the point where the critical eye, or the hand of Liubyi in this case, distorts their original meaning. Such devices become increasingly evident, especially when following the airplane icon on Google Maps or during brief digital explorations that trace the path of evidence and speculation. These elements create the opportunity for the iron butterflies to serve as a poignant symbol, representing the victims falling from the sky like heavy metal pieces.

There is an urgency in the fact that many of the effects of social and political events are not adequately addressed. Even more, there is insufficient discussion regarding the fears and questions that arise from the loss of security, territorial dominance, and psychological and emotional trauma experienced by those in conflict zones, and refugees. It is becoming more apparent due to the war in Ukraine initiated by Russia, but it is not evident that these issues are prioritized in any way. Iron Butterflies powerfully highlights cinema’s enduring capacity to explore history and give voice to profound, silenced emotions.

Dalesia Cozorici