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Cannes: Ukrainian film depicts trauma of war

Scott Roxborough
May 24, 2022

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Maksim Nakonechnyi's feature portrays the trauma of a Ukrainian female soldier kept captive and raped by her Russian captors in Donbas.

A still from 'Butterfly Vision': a mirror reflection of a woman looking at wounds on her back, in a blue-tiled bathroom.
Rita Burkovska plays the lead role in Maksim Nakonechnyi's film 'Butterfly Vision'Image: Butterfly Vision

"Butterfly Vision" is about a female soldier who returns home after months of captivity, and finds out that she is pregnant, having been raped by her prison guard.

Ahead of the film's Cannes premiere on May 25, DW met Ukrainian director Maksym Nakonechnyi at the festival.

DW: How did you come to tell the story of "Butterfly Vision"?

Maksym Nakonechnyi: Since the very start of the Russian-Ukrainian war back in 2014, my colleagues and I have been trying to get involved and take action as artists and filmmakers. And we were making a lot of films on the topic.

I also had a lot of friends who were actually serving, and many women were among them. So I was just hearing their stories, their experiences.

And then I was also editing a documentary called "Invisible Battalion," which tells the stories of women veterans and women soldiers. While I was editing it, listening to some phrases and scenes again and again, I got deeply impressed by their perspective.

So it's a fiction film, but how much of it was inspired by real cases and stories you were hearing, for example while you were editing?

Maksym Nakonechnyi
Director Maksym Nakonechnyi Image: Tabor Production

I was deeply impressed by one of the phrases in particular; it was a woman soldier saying that being captured was the scariest thing for her. She didn't want the Russians to know that she is a woman. She had made a deal with her fellow combatants, asking them to kill her in a situation where she could possibly become a captive.

So, from this initial testimony, we started researching the topic; with my co-writer and then with my main actress, we talked to different participants, witnesses, or victims of war or of war crimes, and we collected their stories. And we were not only collecting the facts, but also observing their mode of survival with such an experience. All that would flow into the story's details, for example through the acting or the camera work.

Russian troops accused of weaponizing rape

The film itself was shot in the Donbas region. How difficult or how dangerous was it to work there?

While we were researching for the production, we visited our soldiers at the actual front line to observe details there, and back then we also had to take some measures just to be safe.

The locations that we chose were not at the actual front line. But the exchange scene in the film was shot in Donbas. We had chosen the location back in 2020, and we were shooting this scene in the beginning of 2021. And that was just about the time of Russia's first attempt to build up their troops around our borders.

So, when we were preparing to go to the location, we were contacted by the local authorities, who told us that this location was too dangerous and that we had to move a bit further from the border.

So, yeah, that was among the dangers; there was a possibility that the invasion would catch us in Donbas.

And, now as your film comes out, it has a broader relevance; we're in the midst of a full-scale war ...

Well, before the full-scale invasion started, when our war was still considered a "frozen conflict" by both the international community and a lot of Ukrainian citizens, too, I would say that there was a huge gap, even in Ukrainian society.

And that was a difficult situation for the soldiers or the people who had experienced the horrors of war and who were returning to peaceful civil life. What made it harder was that they would feel this indifference from the other people, who didn't have such an experience.

And now, when it started touching each Ukrainian citizen, each Ukrainian family and household, it became very clear that, as long as you don't experience something, you cannot fully get it. But you can at least be aware — and that is the key to living together as a united society.

That wasn't so clear, and that wasn't so present back then, unfortunately. And that was also one of the initial reasons why we decided to make that film.

Still from the film "Butterfly Vision": two people lying on a bed, head in opposite directions
The team behind "Butterfly Vision" will mark the Cannes premiere on May 25 with a protest on the red carpet, according to Screen DailyImage: Butterfly Vision

There's a lot of focus here in Cannes on Ukrainian stories and films. What do you hope people will hear?  

Well, first of all, Ukrainian artists being present on such a big and well-known cultural platform is a matter of our struggle and survival in itself, because our cultural identity is under attack. And that's why each case of Ukrainian culture being successful, being presented, being loud and noticed, is a part of us still being alive and developing.

So that's one of the conclusions I would love the international audience to make after seeing the film: that they know that we're present, not only where the actual hostilities take place. It's much broader; it influences many more spheres of life.

But, also, I would love our film to bring thoughts about the future, because it's a story of survival. It's a story of a will to survive and to keep standing and fighting. And I hope it will make its contribution to our general survival, standing and fighting as Ukrainian society, and to global progressive democratic society in general.

Previous to this war, the stories being told about Ukraine were perhaps understood outside of the country as being influenced more by Russian stories. Do you think the way people understand Ukraine outside the country has now changed? 

Ukrainian stories and the Ukrainian perspective could have been marginalized somehow, or there would be some kind of tiredness, let's say, because maybe there was this kind of misunderstanding.

For people abroad, the war [that started in 2014] was kind of over. So they were wondering, why would Ukrainian filmmakers keep telling stories about war?

And now it's obvious why.

Before this war, the Ukrainian perspective was marginalized or ignored, there was this false perception of us as just a part of a bigger, post-Soviet cultural field. Of course, that was the result of Russian propaganda. That's over now. There is no way back. The process has started where the world has begun to see us as a sovereign identity with all the aspects that entails: cultural, political, sociological, existential and metaphysical. A Ukraine with a separate postcolonial identity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier