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Art Of War: Ukraine Explores Donbas Conflict On Screen, In Books

Three and a half years after the conflict began, Ukraine is beginning to document and explore in art form the war it is fighting it its east against Russia-backed forces.
Three and a half years after the conflict began, Ukraine is beginning to document and explore in art form the war it is fighting it its east against Russia-backed forces.

KYIV -- Following a fierce shoot-out with Russia-backed separatists at Donetsk airport, a Ukrainian soldier beats a badly wounded militant taken captive and berates him for fighting against his fellow Ukrainians.

A Ukrainian commander steps in and stops it; he asks the Donetsk militant what he is fighting for. The man responds, "For freedom and independence." The commander says he's fighting for the same.

Instead of continuing the beating started by his subordinate, the commander lights a cigarette for the militant and asks him whether he's willing to die for his cause. "Yes," the militant, his face bloodied, replies.

Then, in a show of mercy, the commander lets the man go, giving him an opportunity to prove his devotion to his side. He gets up and limps across the battlefield in the direction of his pro-Russian separatist comrades, and is promptly shot and killed.

Steeped in symbolism, the encounter is not real life, but a scene from Cyborgs, a new feature film about one of the Ukraine war's fiercest and deadliest battles that opened in theaters nationwide on December 7.

WATCH: Trailer for Cyborgs

Three and a half years after it began, Ukraine is beginning to document and explore the war it is fighting it its east against Russia-backed forces in art form.

More than 10,000 people, including at least 2,750 Ukrainian soldiers, have been killed since armed conflict broke out in April 2014. Despite a cease-fire deal brokered in February 2015, the war continues to simmer, with casualties on a near-daily basis. There is no end in sight.

'Patriotic' Movies

In 2016, with the state's support, 35 new Ukrainian movies were shot and screened, the largest number since independence, the president's office said last week.

In a meeting with representatives of the national television and movie industry, President Petro Poroshenko himself said that the number for 2017 is likely to surpass last year, and plans to produce more than 120 movies -- a majority of them "patriotic" -- are already under way.

Cyborgs, the latest film -- and perhaps the most ambitious -- dedicated to the conflict, details the wartime lives of five Ukrainian brothers in arms fighting for control of Donetsk airport. The five men represent various social strata, professions, and beliefs for which they are willing to kill and prepared to die.

The film, said to be based on actual events, sticks close to the Ukrainian government narrative. Half of the film's 47 million-hryvnya ($1.8 million) budget came from the state, and significant help was provided by the Defense Ministry and the General Staff.

"In the film, we wanted to show the strength of the spirit of our heroes and how important was their desire to stand in this war for the sake of creating a new free and happy country," director Akhtem Seitablayev said in a recent interview with local media.

While clearly meant to drum up support for the war effort, Cyborgs isn't entirely propagandistic, containing more nuanced scenes than one might expect, and Russian is spoken nearly as much as Ukrainian throughout the film.

In an early scene, a psychologically traumatized Ukrainian soldier is seen committing what would likely be considered a war crime -- dragging a wounded and disarmed separatist captive out of a vehicle and shooting him dead. Much screen time is dedicated to the mental stress of combat.

Notably, the film stresses the fact that Ukrainians are fighting on both sides of the line, while highlighting the role of Russian regular soldiers. That said, it does not make a point to humanize the Russians.

A memorial to the defenders of the Donetsk airport was opened in Kyiv in June.
A memorial to the defenders of the Donetsk airport was opened in Kyiv in June.

The film was mostly well received by viewers during screenings over the past week. A screening that RFE/RL attended on December 4 ended with a standing ovation for the actors as well as the "cyborgs" they portrayed

Some Ukrainian soldiers who fought at Donetsk airport, though, have lightly criticized the film for not portraying events with total accuracy.

One soldier, Yevheniy Zhukov, wrote on Facebook that his comrades who fought at the airport saw the movie and said that, besides some of the clothing and set design resembling reality, "it was nothing like this."

Daria Badior, a film critic and culture editor for the Ukrainian news outlet, was not impressed. She told RFE/RL at the film screening that its narrative was weak.

"It's too early to respond objectively" to the war, Badior said. "It's too painful; it still hurts." She added, "Maybe the biggest flaw is that you almost forget the film the minute it ends."

Presidential Stamp Of Approval

Among the film's fans is Poroshenko, who attended a screening on December 6, the Day of the Armed Forces, and presented director Seitablayev with a state award.

"It is difficult to overestimate the uniqueness of the work that was done [on the film]," Poroshenko told an audience after the screening. "The name Cyborgs, which our enemies, aggressors, wanted to use to offend us, on the contrary, became synonymous with courage, persistence, and patriotism of the Ukrainian warrior."

Poroshenko has on several occasions honored the "cyborgs" and their families, with whom he met inside the presidential administration on January 16, 2016. "We must do everything for these heroes to be with us not only in our hearts, but also in books and movies," he said at the time.

The Battle For Donetsk Airport

The shimmering, glass-walled terminal at Donetsk Sergei Prokofiev International Airport -- named after the 20th-century composer who was born in the region -- was opened with great fanfare five years ago for the Euro 2012 soccer championship.

Two years later, it became ground zero for the deadliest armed conflict since the Balkans wars, and Europe's only active land war today.

The tenacity and apparently superhuman ability of Ukrainian soldiers who fought at Donetsk airport and endured near-constant heavy bombardment from Russia-backed separatist artillery earned them the respect of their nation and struck fear in the heart of their enemies -- hence the nickname "cyborgs."

Donetsk's airport was left a shattered ruin.
Donetsk's airport was left a shattered ruin.

At times, Ukrainian and Russia-backed fighters held positions on the same floors or were stacked atop each other inside. Tanks and heavy artillery decimated its walls.

Against all odds -- and the might of the Russian armed forces at times, evidence has shown -- the Ukrainian "cyborgs" held on for 242 grueling days, eventually admitting defeat on January 21, 2015.

Today, reduced to a blackened, worthless skeleton of rebar and concrete, Donetsk airport has little strategic value, but skirmishes around it persist.

On Big Screen, In Books

Films that document recent events in Ukraine have been aplenty since the three-month-long Euromaidan protests in winter 2013-14 ousted Kremlin-friendly leader Viktor Yanukovych. Perhaps the most notable was the documentary Winter On Fire, which told of the bloody revolution. The film was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Film Oscar at the 2016 Academy Awards.

Recently, the focus has shifted to the war. Another film, Invisible Battalion, produced by the Kyiv-based Institute of Gender Studies with support of USAID, was screened in November. It highlights the stories of six female Ukrainian soldiers.

"You will not only see the way Ukrainian women combatants fight on a par with our men, but also how they surpass Russian soldiers," reads a description of the film on its Facebook page.

The war is being documented in writing, too. Two of the most popular published works telling the story of the war were Sergei Loiko's books Airport, about the battle for Donetsk airport, and Flight, about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

Another book will be presented on December 7 in Kyiv. That work, a collection of 22 Ukrainian veterans' firsthand stories of war and sacrifice, is titled The Voice Of War: The History Of Veterans.

The soldiers-turned-writers were mentored for two months by some of Ukraine's top literary figures, including author, musician, and songwriter Serhiy Zhadan, whose written work includes the book Voroshilovgrad -- the former name for the eastern city of Luhansk, which remains under separatist control -- about a man who returns home in search of his missing brother.

Russia has also made its own films related to the Ukraine crisis, including Crimea -- which flopped.

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