Defiant| TIFF

Defiant Review: Inside Ukraine’s War Room

TIFF 2023

7 mins read

(Ukraine/UK/USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Karim Amer
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


“Every war ends in actions on the battlefield and at the negotiating table,” says Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba in Defiant. “Every war ends in a diplomatic way.”

The fight for Ukraine’s freedom receives a gripping behind the scenes take in Defiant. The latest doc from Karim Amer, who produced the Oscar-nominated The Square and co-directed The Great Hack, offers a complex portrait of the political wheeling and dealing entailed in negotiating peace. Defiant observes four key Ukrainian politicians working various angles to end the war. Kuleba makes diplomatic efforts and pleads cases both emotional and logical for the world to assist Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk tours the country and fights for Ukraine’s children. Peace negotiator Rustem Umerov lobbies world leaders for resolution. Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, finally, finds innovative ways to harness technology in their fight.

Defiant affords airtime to the players in the war room who usually operate on the sidelines. It might not be as flashy as docs with more recognizable names, but by zeroing in on these players, Defiant offers a firsthand look at politics in action. The film situates the fight for Ukraine within a global context and offers audiences worldwide a better sense of their implication within the story. It’s another essential piece of history in the making from Ukraine.

The War Rooms

Defiant contextualizes the war room dealings with the situation on the ground. The film offers more of the harrowing, heartbreaking images of violence and devastation that Putin’s regime has wrought on Ukraine. There are now-familiar images of splintered families, devastated parents, and bombed-out homes. Amer trains his eye to the solution for this problem.

The film offers a wider look into the efforts to cease said violence. From observing citizens tear down a monument erected in celebration of Ukraine-Russia relations, to countering the sea of misinformation spread by Russian media, Defiant summons the will of a people to stand up to a violent monolith. It finds extraordinary heroes in the four politicians who form the core of the film. They’re simply doing the jobs for which they were elected, all while gathering testimonies from their fellow Ukrainians to put as much of the war story on record as possible.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gets some airtime, but Amer trains the lens on the players who don’t usually get the spotlight. This means that instead of well-phrased soundbites, the characters go longer and express perspectives rooted in policy and diplomacy, rather than public relations. (Nobody minces words here.)

Featuring a who’s who of producers and executive producers that includes Mike Lerner (The Square), Jake Swantko (Icarus), and newly-minted Oscar-winner Odessa Rae (Navalny), Defiant might invite expectations for a docu-thriller take on the war in Ukraine. However, this doc is less The Square or Navalny and might be in better company with Collective, Alexander Nanau’s gripping verité journalism tale. Defiant similarly follows many parties chasing a similar goal with parallel storylines that collide with cinematic vigour. It’s a story of many players in a united front.

Economic Versus Emotional Arguments

The best material, though, comes when the political animals engage with international leaders. Their negotiations reveal the lip service paid to human lives. More often than not, pleas to help Ukraine are most successful when relayed in economic terms. For example, movement happens to ensure the flow of grain from Ukraine. Parties work to provide safe passage of goods from Ukraine’s ports in order to avoid worsening the global food crisis. Full ships of Ukrainian grains are saved, but there’s no talks about filling boats with Ukrainians and ferrying them to safety. On talk shows, meanwhile, pundits ask why Ukraine doesn’t simply concede Crimea to Russia, as if they’re somehow in the wrong for defending occupied land. The longer they hold out, the more they risk the world economy. Ukraine’s defiance is, unfortunately, an inconvenience for the financial analysts.

Meanwhile, negotiations offer reminders that Ukraine already compromised with nuclear disarmament despite the graver threat of Russia. Defiant observes the politicians lobbying for weapons in Washington, but also countering anti-war protests from Americans who don’t quite understand the reality on the ground in Ukraine. The documentary provides fascinating insight into the new realities of fighting a war. The battle isn’t merely one of human resources, might, and machinery. It’s one of information, truth, and attention spans.

The quartet of politicos is smart, though. They harness every tool at their disposal. A tweet to Elon Musk brings bounteous Internet back to Ukraine, while engagement with social media helps to correct the spin doctors’ lies. What Defiant captures is an intricate battle plan: there are many ways to win a war, but they must ultimately be a united front. This army may be small, but it’s fighting to win.


Defiant premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Read more about the film in our interview with Karim Amer and Mike Lerner. 

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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