Already met with its fair share of controversies, Beata Bubenec’s third focus on the Ukraine, Flight of a Bullet is a documentary unlike most others. Consisting of a single take, the film depicts an 80-minute slice taken from a much larger volume of recordings the Russian filmmaker made whilst undercover with soldiers in Ukraine’s Aidar Battalion. The piece opens at a checkpoint in Ukraine’s heavily contested Donbass region; and within moments a man is held at gunpoint, bundled into a car, and taken for interrogation in nearby facilities, all under Bubenec’s continual watch.
Presented largely without explanation – save for an introductory piece of onscreen text that reads “life lasted only while the camera was on, so I kept it rolling” – any attempt to identify Bubenec’s involvement in this action, her reason for documenting it, and her motivations for being there, proves as interesting as the developing events. In this interview Bubenec details how she came to be involved in this tense, complex situation, and examines what it means to depict conflict – in all of its drama (and tedium) – as it unfolds.
Beata Bubenec’s Flight of a Bullet screens on Thurs 6th September at Regent Street Cinema as part of Open City Documentary Festival 2018, where the director will be present for a Q&A.
Laurence Avis: You are referred to as the maker of a “special ops video”. Did you have a documentary in mind when you began? What was your initial purpose for filming?
Beata Bubenec: Yes. I had a documentary in mind when I began filming. I started during the revolution in Maidan, then I filmed during Crimea events and then I continued on Donbass. My initial purpose for filming was discovery of the reality.
LA: Your rapport with the soldiers felt quite natural – with Ruslan particularly. How was your relationship with the group established? And how much time did you spend with the soldiers before filming?
BB: I started to live with them in the school building on frontline after my liberation from Ukrainian captivity because I realised that it was safer for me to be with them than to be alone on the frontline. Ruslan was a character that my friends knew, and they asked him to protect me. So these soldiers were my protectors during the war. I was with them for several weeks.
LA: How did you decide that from all the footage you had, this ‘slice’ was the right one for viewers to see?
BB: I took this decision out of despair. I had so many unique and very vital videos from this period of my life that I wanted to make a great film about it. I met a very talented editor from France who I felt could help me to make this film. I found Ukrainian producers who were interested in this story, and we started to work out a film. There was many international producers and filmmakers who helped us, and who believed that it would be a great film about “me, men and war”. The Ukrainian government allocated a large amount of money to our project but at that moment my producers became scared that they would face problems due to this film because of the difficult political situation between Russia and Ukraine (I am a Russian citizen), and they just stopped.
I was trapped. I was already deeply involved in the process of creating the film, but could not continue without financial support, because I needed the help of a powerful editor to deal with this great array of material. I realized that I could no longer rely on my producers. And I did not have the strength to start all over again. But equally, I could not abandon what I had started either. I began to look for a way out of this stalemate. At that moment I remembered that during discussion of the film, my editor asked me to send him a piece of my recordings so that he could become acquainted with the situation, to work out what film I wanted to make. I choose for him this 80-minute episode because it includes all of the main characters, and shows what the film is about. When he watched it, he was in shock, but also he insisted that it was a high-grade film and that I didn’t need to edit it.
So when I factored in this problem situation I was facing with my producers, I remembered about this episode. I sent it to some great filmmakers to check it was right. All of them were excited. And I decided: anyway editing is just choosing some minutes from 400 hours of video, so why not to choose these 80 minutes if they in themselves contain everything I want to say about “me, men and war?”
LA: There are moments where you seem uncomfortable with the soldier’s treatment of the innocent captive. Did you at any point feel compelled to intervene, or was capturing the situation on film your priority?
BB: I think it was one of these difficult situations when its better to act very carefully not to provoke more aggression. Sometimes intervention only aggravates the situation. I didn’t have enough power to give them direct orders but I think I have intuitively chosen the correct behavior because in the end everything was resolved in a happy manner for all participants. This result is more important for me than how I would appear.
LA: There is a moment in the film where you can be heard saying, “I want to film them getting in the car.” Was it intentional to demystify the filmmaking process through your one-take technique? Your presence is always clear.
BB: I didn’t want artificially hide myself or make myself more attractive (how usually filmmakers do when they include themself in their films). I think it’s a little bit deception towards the other characters.
LA: There is very little female presence in the film, and a focus on male dominance and masculinity. Repeatedly, women – including you as the filmmaker – are being subjected to male aggression, and the camera does not shy away from this. Was this important to you? Why
BB: Yes, it was important for me to show it. For me it is ordinary communication between men and women. Just in my film, it’s shown very bluntly and transparently. But people usually feel a little bit confused when they see and hear these things so forthrightly, and prefer not to see it.
LA: There has been some criticism surrounding the ethics of filming these people during a very volatile situation in the region. Could your presence be perceived as irresponsible?
BB: Certainly my presence influenced the situation as much as any presence or observation has an influence on a situation, and it was also important for me to show it. It’s an illusion that documentaries only observe without intervention. Usually they hide this with editing tricks. Any documentary is an act of interference in someone else's life and sometimes it is impossible to calculate what kind of repercussion your words or acts, or even just your presence, can have.
I know that my film didn’t hurt any of the characters involved in it. So I can’t think that my presence should be perceived as irresponsible. Some criticism was surrounding the ethical issue regarding whether it’s possible to film and then show a captured person. But this man (who was shown in the film) himself says that he has nothing against filming. I think that sometimes it's easier for people to protect themselves with an ethical indictment than facing that which may cause them to ask themselves uncomfortable questions.
LA: The screening at ArtDocs before was raided. Do you agree that this shows that this film is showing something important? Are there more plans for it be seen more widely in the region?
BB: The people who raided the screening didn’t see a film. They had just heard that it was about Ukrainian soldiers. I think this only shows that the Ukrainian question is too difficult for many Russian people. My producers and I decided not to do public screenings in Russia for now.
LA: How does this film fit in with the other films you have made before?
BB:It is better to ask this question to film critics. I'm not inclined to analyze my work. I just make what I feel.