On March 20 this year, the Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius travelled to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in order to embed himself with survivors of the ongoing siege. During the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and 2015, Kvedaravičius had shot a documentary in the city called Mariupolis, which followed its citizens’ efforts to get on with their lives against the backdrop of conflict between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists.
This return trip was to gather footage for what Kvedaravičius described as a “second part” to that earlier film: the same efforts, but this time in apocalyptic extremis. On April 9, three weeks after his arrival, he was captured and killed by Russian forces.
The material he shot in that time has been compiled by his fiancée and co-director Hanna Bilobrova and editor Dounia Sichov into Mariupolis 2, which premiered at Cannes earlier today. It follows a group of 30 or so survivors, from children to pensioners, who have taken refuge in the cellar of a brick-built Baptist church, and are scavenging for food and supplies as the Russian bombs and troops close in.
Explosions are an irregular but relentless background note in the film, like a giant fist being pounded on a desk in a never-ending temper tantrum. Some bombs fall streets away, kicking dust and smoke into the sky; one lands so close to the church it leaves a crater about 30 feet deep and 60 feet across on just the other side of the perimeter fence. With every thud, someone flinches; some are so loud you can see the walls shiver and doors shift in their frames. A dog who’s taken up with the survivors barks reflexively, then looks with apparent confusion at the rubble by his paws.
“They’ve been telling me to run,” one woman says to another. “Today they’ve just been firing everything.”
“At least it’s sunny,” the other replies.
In keeping with the speed and circumstances of its creation, the film is a rough and ready experience. The footage has a digital camcorder-like quality – the same visual texture as videos of school sports days, or family barbecues – and the everyday frankness of the format makes its content all the harder to take. Kvedaravičius’s camera doesn’t pore over trauma, but captures it almost in passing: as it pans across the street outside the church gates you may not even initially notice what look like blackened bodies lying in the road.
Other casualties are discovered while two survivors retrieve a generator from a nearby house; another man talks of having to pull his neighbour’s body off his roof. The owner of a house destroyed in the bombing wonders aloud why he had worked so doggedly for the past three decades, since forces beyond his control had violently stolen away the proceeds. Even most of his beloved pet pigeons have fled: of a flock of 300, just a dozen tough old birds have stayed put.
The church setting implicitly raises the question of God’s place in all this: there are no blessings to be counted, yet many of the shelterers are fervent believers, and attribute their survival to divine providence rather than their own earthly resolve. Two joke darkly about global politics while setting a fire to cook lunch. “Maybe we need a less honest government,” one observes, after pointing out that Ukraine’s embrace of democracy doesn’t seem to have brought much stability with it. “There are enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world 150 times,” the other says. “Once is enough. More than enough, actually.”
The film itself feels like wreckage, fragmented and strewn, and as hot to the touch as the chunk of scalding debris we see the survivors pass from hand to hand in amazed disbelief.
Cert tbc, 112 min. Dir: Mantas Kvedaravičius. UK release tbc