Sniper: The White Raven is the story Ukraine wants to tell about itself in the midst of its war with Russia. Director and co-writer Marian Bushan leads us to see those fighting for their country as heroic and determined. Certainly, this is in line with the accounts we have seen in news accounts. But I also think, whether it is intentional or not, that the film also shows a cost of such actions.
In 2014, Mykola and his wife Nastya are living as close to nature as they can. A local news crew comes out to film these “eco-settlers” whose home is carved into the side of a hillside. This is portrayed as an Edenic existence. The colors are vibrant and vital. It’s not at all unlike the vision of 1960s American hippies. They look the part. They even have a peace sign in their landscape (although it is described as the footprint of the white raven).
This all changes when a pair of Russian soldiers come into this paradise bringing violence and death. They kill Nastya and burn the home, leaving Mykola beaten. When local soldiers find him and take him to their base, he is determined to drive the Russians from the land. He begins training as a soldier and eventually as a sniper. He excels at this training, even with an inferior rifle.
His is a specialized job. He and his cohort kill suddenly from a distance, often to allow others to fulfill their missions. But we see that Mykola has changed. This is especially true when we note his lack of remorse when a former student is among the Russian soldiers he kills. The film continues through years of his actions, showing us that he is still at it in 2022.
When a nation is at war, their films often are more about how they want to be understood than just a simple storytelling. If Mykola is a stand-in for the Ukrainian people, we see them as peace-loving and seeking to live in harmony with the world around them. But all that changes when Russia invades. Now everything revolves around ridding their country of the invaders.
This is not unlike the films that were made when the US was at war (best examples are during World War II, although there are films late that strive to do the same thing). It is certainly a legitimate use of filmmaking to try to define who a nation is in such a difficult time. I hesitate to use the world “propaganda” because of its negative connotations, but this film is clearly a declaration of how Ukraine thinks of itself at this time.
It is much harder, however, for such a film to also be self-reflective about the cost of this transition. If the Eden of the first act was what life was meant to be, how will that ever be attained again? Bushan makes use of his color palate throughout the film, beginning with the colorful land when Mykola and Nastya live. Then browns and grays of military life dominate. By the end everything is ashen and colorless. Sadly, I think this in many ways also reflects Mykola’s (and by extension, Ukraine’s) soul. The joys of life have been completely eroded. All that is left is rage and death. When the conflict is over, will there be any peace?
Sniper: The White Raven is in select theaters and on digital.
Photos courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment