Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection is a look at war and its aftermath. The film is part of Film Movement’s Ukrainian Film Collection being released in theaters. These films give us insight into the country and culture that has become such an important part of world affairs. Ten percent of the gross ticket sales of the collection will be donated to Ukraine Crisis Fund, administered by Americares.
While it may seem that the Russo-Ukraine war is very recent, this film takes place in the first year of the war, 2014. At that point, the fighting was limited to the eastern part of Ukraine. In the first scene of the film, we see two men at a girl’s birthday party. They are the girl’s father and step-father. The two talk about the war. The step-father, Andriy, is a soldier who has been to the front. The father, Serhiy, is a surgeon who is dealing with war injuries that overflow the military hospitals. Then we see the children at the party take part in a paintball battle. This is clearly meant to disturb us with such play happening in the midst of real war. Soon Serhiy is also at the front, where he is taken prisoner. In the prison, he experiences torture by the Russian commander. He also witnesses Andriy being tortured to death.
At the midpoint of the film, Serhiy is returned home as part of a prisoner exchange. This is an abrupt change in focus. Instead of seeing the horrors of war, we now return to the (then) more peaceful world of Kyiv, where children play in the snow. Serhiy’s ex-wife is worried because there has been no news of Andriy. Serhiy is trying to readjust to civilian life and deal with his PTSD.
One day when his daughter is staying with him, a bird flies into the apartment window and is killed. This event leads to some interesting discussions about death, the soul, the body, and afterlife. These are concepts that are just now becoming real for the ten year old daughter. For Serhiy, the concepts have a much different meaning. In a sense, he has already come through death (and perhaps a bit of Hell). Some of the conversations that Serhiy has with his daughter about the dead bird could just as well have been about Andriy.
Vasyanovych has designed each scene to be framed in such a way that we are drawn to watch. Even when horrific things are happening, we are unable to avert our eyes. He also makes each scene uncomfortably long, not letting us move on too quickly to something else. Even in the few scenes that are not done without a static camera, the framing keeps us centered on what is happening. Part of the director’s goal is to make us see the terrible things that happen in war. He also wants us to know that the aftermath of war can have its own harrowing effects, not just on those who are in the war, but the people they love as well.
There were times as I watched that I had a sense of sorrow, especially seeing Kyiv as a peaceful, happy city filled with life. That time is gone for Kyiv. As we watch now, we know that much of what we see has probably been destroyed or damaged by more recent fighting.
This is a film not so much about the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people as about the suffering that the war has brought to them—and is bringing yet again. The wounds to the souls of soldiers and ten year old girls continue to cry out for healing.
Reflection is playing in select theaters.
Photos courtesy of Film Movement.