In Cannes, the epic of a Polish filmmaker to the rescue of Ukrainian refugees
From our special correspondent on the Croisette – The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has damaged the country’s film industry, which explains its weak presence in the selection of the Cannes Film Festival this year. But that was without counting on the Polish director Maciek Hamela and his film “In the Rearview” which documents the fate of refugees fleeing the conflict. France 24 spoke with the filmmaker who himself organized evacuation operations giving a voice to people displaced by war.
The war still raging in Eastern Europe made a stark reappearance at the world’s biggest film festival late Sunday, when a woman dressed in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag covered herself in fake blood on the red carpet, before a gala premiere. The brief demonstration, quickly cleared by security, echoes a red carpet incident last year, in which an activist stripped naked to reveal the words “Stop raping us” written on her chest, side of a Ukrainian flag.
This year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a significantly less topic than in 2022, when President Volodymyr Zelensky opened the festival with a video speech urging filmmakers to challenge Russia, the “ Dictator” by Charlie Chaplin against Adolf Hitler. Films made by Ukrainians or about Ukrainians also occupied a very special place in the programming, with in particular “Mariupolis 2” by the Lithuanian Mantas Kvedaravičius, who paid with his life for his efforts to documenting the destruction of the city at the hands of Russian forces.
With the country’s film industry now virtually at a standstill, the absence of Ukrainian films at the Cannes Film Festival this year comes as no surprise. But the subject has not completely disappeared. At the opening ceremony last week, French cinema icon Catherine Deneuve, who graces the festival’s poster this year, recited a poem by Ukrainian Lessia Oukrainka, declaring: “I no longer have neither happiness nor freedom, Only one hope remained to me: To return one day to my beautiful Ukraine”.
At the heart of the Palais des Festivals, the heart of this great mass of cinema, the Cannes Film Market hosted a series of events in favor of the Ukrainian film industry. Panel discussions addressed topics such as wartime filming and the fight against Russian state-sponsored video piracy. Film projects in development also received a lot of attention, including the feature film “Bucha”, based on the true story of a Kazakh refugee who helped save dozens of civilian lives in the martyred city. located north of Kiev.
Polish filmmakers have played a leading role in depicting the conflict unfolding on their doorstep, reflecting their country’s heightened exposure to the aftermath of the Russian invasion. Among them is Lukasz Karwowski, whose film “Two Sisters” follows a duo of Polish half-sisters who travel through war-torn Ukraine in search of their father.
Maciek Hamela’s “In the Rearview” chronicles a different kind of journey. It documents the mass exodus of Ukrainian civilians sparked by the invasion of Russia. Shot over a six-month period, the film follows the van of the director through the war-torn country, as he collects hundreds of refugees stranded by the conflict and leads them to safety.
As the film’s title, which stands for ‘rear view’, suggests, Maciek Hamela’s onboard camera is primarily focused on the passengers in the back of the van, capturing their distress after harrowing experiences as they drive away fighting, leaving behind their sons, their husbands and their homes. Some passengers are seated calmly, mute, stunned. Others tell stories of destruction, torture and death. There are also lighter moments, when these people let loose to share their hopes and aspirations when the war ends.
Outside, the camera sometimes captures elements of the scenery from these disastrous stories: charred vehicles, checkpoints as well as a multitude of surrounding dangers such as mines across the road or a bridge gutted by bombardments, revealing the extent of the desolation.
This Polish-French-Ukrainian production was screened at Cannes as part of ACID, a parallel section devoted to independent cinema. France 24 spoke with its director about the experience of shooting a film in a war zone as well as the Polish response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Can you tell us about the first days of the war and the reasons that led you to cross the Ukrainian border?
Maciek Hamela: As soon as the war started, I started collecting funds for the Ukrainian army in Warsaw. Very few people believed that Ukraine could survive the war. There was a massive exodus of refugees who suddenly landed at the border. It was freezing cold and the Polish government was unprepared. On the third day of the war, I bought a van and drove to the border.
When I arrived I realized that I was not the only one. Hundreds of people had had the same idea. I picked up random people and took them to my apartment and my friends’ apartments. This is how we avoided the scenario that would have led to them being held in refugee camps.
After a few days, we organized ourselves on [l’application de messages] Signal, to find apartments, humanitarian aid, transport, etc. I was fluent in Ukrainian, so I crossed the border. From there, it all went downhill. My phone number popped up somewhere on Telegram and people started calling me from all sorts of countries, asking me to pick up their loved ones stranded in Ukraine. I moved closer to the front line and started doing shorter evacuations from villages to big cities and evacuation trains.
How did you find your way in Ukraine?
The beginning of the war was very difficult. There was no information, no maps, no journalists; we didn’t know where the Russians were. We could drive 200 kilometers and discover that a bridge had been destroyed, and then we would have to go all the way back to find another route. I relied on people I met along the way for information on roads, checkpoints, and where the Russians were.
When and why did you decide to start filming your evacuations?
At the end of March, I decided that I couldn’t go on alone for very long. It exhausted me, especially night driving. So I asked a close friend, who happened to be a cinematographer and also a very good driver, to help me out and we decided to take a camera.
We didn’t know it was going to be a movie. But I knew what was being said in the car was a unique testimony to what these people are going through and the process by which people become refugees. Is this the moment you cross the border or the last time you see your house? It is at this point in the journey that one begins to become aware of the situation, and this process is reflected in the conversations.
How did people react to the camera?
I was very surprised at how much the camera motivated some of these people to tell their story. Some had been exposed day and night to Russian propaganda, especially in the occupied territories. They wanted to speak to the world and the camera was the world.
We feel that the danger is going crescendo in the film as the proximity of the war becomes more and more evident. How did you structure your film? Wasn’t it scary driving through a combat zone?
We wondered how to maintain the tension for the duration of the film while being almost entirely in the car. That’s why we built this crescendo, both in structure and in passenger stories. Of course, there were many terrifying moments, but we decided to leave out the most dramatic ones. This is not a film about the dangers of driving in war-torn territories. I do not wish to compare my experience to that of soldiers who fight.
Were you surprised by the scale of the humanitarian response in Poland?
I think everyone was surprised. I thought I would be one of the few people at the border, but I saw long lines of cars, ordinary people picking up the refugees and taking them home. It was striking to see how reactive and mobilized society was at the start of the war.
There is no particular fraternity between Poles and Ukrainians, we have had a sometimes difficult past. But we also have a common experience: for centuries we have lived in the shadow of a starving neighbour, of imminent danger hanging over our heads. This made us understand that this war is also ours.
This article has been adapted from English. Find the original article here.