Programmed by Gabrielle Ouimet
Ukrainian, Russian, Greek
Silver Crane for Best Documentary 2016 - Lithuanian Film Awards
Mantas Kvedaravičius maps the city of Mariupol in Ukraine, situated to the east of Crimea, where life is punctuated by bomb threats. He depicts the war that was raging there at the time the film was shot in 2014 through the smallest events of everyday life. It is a visually powerful homage to a city in crisis, dedicated to its poets and shoemakers. Mantas Kvedaravičius died on April 2, 2022 in Mariupol while documenting Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory.
A word from Tënk
“My films are not about war, but about life next to war, life lived in spite of war,” the late Mantas Kvedaravičius, social anthropologist-turned-filmmaker has said. Watching his documentary Mariupolis, opus and ode to his beloved Mariupol—a city where he met his own untimely end at the age of 45 less than a month ago—these words are resoundingly true. For someone who dedicated so much of his life’s work to trying to document and understand armed conflict, the film is almost eerily emptied of actual war, though of course, the viewer understands very well that this is the context through which we come to his lens’ view of the Ukrainian city and its people.
Normal life in abnormal times might be a tagline for Mariupolis. The mundane is shown in an illumined light, showcasing ordinary people’s daily lives, with bomb sirens and shelling dotting the soundscape. Whether we are watching beautifully attired youth folk dancing impeccably in rehearsals for a theatre production, or a father playing with his beloved young daughter Katiushka and a big stuffed tiger, another father and young adult daughter out on the water fishing, a red-hot metallurgical factory where restless workers sit in a safety training session, everything but combat is shown. In the subtext, all is revealed with nary a need for guns: Katiushka is told that she can’t go play outside because “it’s raining,” though the viewer well understands that the provenance of said “rain” is artillery and not clouds. Even the actual soldiers depicted make jokes, one of them asking: “Why were not all fools killed in war?” Not waiting for an answer to the rhetorical, he follows up with, “because not all fools went to war!” And the whole battalion cracks up, laughing.
“Do you want me to read you a fairy tale?” The young girl’s father asks, and the viewer is left wondering about all of the tales that we tell to both children and our own grown selves in order to survive the everyday unimaginable. But this seaside town in spring has survival as a bedrock and simple pleasures to partake in, nonetheless: a gleeful dog swims in the sea, an artful cobbler tends and mends, in an ad hoc church in an ad hoc barracks, people sing and pray, at a wedding with a glowing bride, hope and neon lights fill the room—the poetry of the quotidian in sights and in sound abound.
In the spring of 2015, when Kvedaravičius was shooting this film, during the period of the unsuccessful takeover of Mariupol following Russia's occupation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, it was unfathomable that I would be writing this in April 2022 with Mariupol now a city levelled to the ground, under months-long siege, a place from which “last pleas” are being sent out into the world from the once-glorious steel factories of the Soviet Union, future-looking ideas of progress and unity turned into bunkers where the last surviving civilians sit starving and shivering, awaiting their fate. As we, far away, await news of what we can’t yet confirm but suspect, holding our breath, hoping that all our worst fears might not be true—exactly how many are dead, how were they killed, what atrocities occurred, including, of course, Kvedaravičius’ death itself—and what and whom, if anything and anyone, survived to tell the tale?
Kvedaravičius, in his film, does not emphasize a political position, does not address the causes of war, nor even contextualize for the viewer who, here, is fighting whom, and why; far more important, to him, it’s clear, is to depict how, somehow, we live, nonetheless. His stunningly beautiful work, at least, will live on to tell that story.
Writer, translator, cinephile