(Ukraine/Germany, 84 min.)
Dir. Roman Liubyi
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 was for some the first inkling that the skirmishes between Russia and Ukraine would have consequences of grave international concern. Seen here in the beginning of 2023, almost a year to the day since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine took place, it’s clear that this incident easily could have served as a wake-up moment. It illustrated not only the escalation of what was taking place in that region, but the way that truth would easily become one of the primary victims of war.
Roman Liubyi’s remarkable film Iron Butterflies uses the downing of this airline to paint a multifaceted portrait of not only the events surrounding the tragedy, but also how the history itself is shaped in real time via news broadcasts and the like. With access to forensic reconstruction, detailed analyses and even intercepted radio broadcasters from the alleged perpetrators, the film provides a chilling, fascinating deep dive into the situation well beyond the headlines.
The political and social situation on the Eastern portion of Ukraine is not easily accounted for in simple binary us/them, foreign/domestic, and for those of us outside it may feel all that much more overwhelming. What’s fascinating here is the way that the tools of modern technology – dozens of clips of dashcam footage from various sources, for example – can be used to retroactively illustrate the journey of one BUK missile detachment from their base over the border, only to slink back eastward after recordings appear to inadvertently misidentifying the nature of the aircraft.
Through animation, voiceover, news clips, and testimony, Liubyi’s film does an absolutely phenomenal job of not only taking us to this specific time and place, but how this event truly does speak for the nature of the larger conflict that even as I write continues to ravage in that part of the world. Dramatic interludes and dance sequences add new layers to the text as the film invites viewers to question images and their construction, much like some news reports featured in the film have their own knack for fiction. (Something we also see in Sundance’s other Ukraine doc 20 Days in Mariupol.) Only last December I flew to the Middle East, and there was an obvious detour around the entirety of Ukraine, while flying over the airspace of other formerly troubled nations proved to be inconsequential. The destruction of MH17 may be but one scar left in this conflict, but by dealing with the situation with such sophistication and nuance, the film proves to be a triumph of both subject and form.
Iron Butterflies is a remarkable film, tightly paced and beautifully realized. Liubyi takes on the incredibly difficult task of making sense of something nonsensical, and thanks to his acute eye for story, his impeccable skills of montage, and remarkable source material gathered for the criminal investigation, we’re treated to something as special as it is indelible. This film is an incredible achievement, and should be mandated viewing for anyone even beginning to make sense of what’s taking place this very moment in the region.