Audiences on the Lido may be forgiven for thinking they’ve seen the Ukrainian entry in the competition, “Reflection,” before in Venice. Director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s somber study of the toll in the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine is shot in his trademark series of static, single-frame shots, like “Atlantis” – which won the Venice Horizons Award in 2019 – and his “Black Level” (2017).
Two years ago, one critic counted 28 static shots in “Atlantis”; according to Variety‘s count, “Reflection” has 29. And although both films draw from the same subject matter – the war in the east (“Atlantis” is set in 2025) – they present different messages in a format Vasyanovych maintains is closer to pure cinema.
“I find I am very comfortable with these rather limited – in terms of instrumentation – scenes and frames,” he tells Variety. “They give me the opportunity to create large-scale intra-frame mise-en-scène and show the nature of cinematography.”
He finds it “very comfortable working within” a style that maximizes “the visual component” and minimizes dialogue and close-ups.
“Primarily, the location carries its own emotional load. Therefore, I am very careful when selecting locations.”
The war in eastern Ukraine is an ever present reality – Vasyanovych sees it as a struggle for the survival of Ukraine itself, charging Russia with pursuing a policy to “wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth, to make it a part of the Russian Empire” – and that is why he is drawn to it as a subject for his work again.
It is unlikely to prove a big hit in Ukraine, he observes, nothing that “unfortunately in Ukraine a rather small number of people attend such films. In the art-house cinemas there were only around 10,000 viewers for ‘Atlantis.’ “
He admits that the challenges of his subject matter – a divorced surgeon who follows Andriy, his wife’s new partner, to serve in the east only to wind up in a torture center where he performs what looks like a mercy killing on his old friend, who has been left for dead by his captors – is unlikely to prove popular, although he is convinced it is an important subject matter.
“Regarding the topic of trauma received in war – unfortunately, we continue to live in this reality. War is the primary media story and one of the most traumatic events. Therefore, it is interesting for me to investigate, study and analyse this topic.”
The story is largely based on a true story of torture carried out in secessionist eastern Ukraine at a former Center for Contemporary Arts; he came across the story – much worse in reality than what he shows on screen – after meeting Ukrainian servicemen returned after a prisoner swap.
“With regard to an international audience, we certainly expect there will be an emotional reaction to the terrible things relating to torture, since it is hard to imagine that such a thing still exists in the 21st century. This question of how it can be taking place in the current day is actually the whole story.”
It is a story that “Reflection” attempts to find answers to; the second half of the film concentrates on the surgeon’s return to Kiev, harboring the terrible secret of the part he has played in death of his daughter’s step-father. The plot follows a path of his attempts to rebuild his relationship with his daughter and ex-wife as they come to terms with the fact that Andriy will never return from the east.
Vasyanovych believes the war will remain a topic for filmmakers for a long time after it one day ends – though he does not see an end in sight for now.
As for his next project, he says he has a number of ideas but has not settled on one yet.
“I have too many ideas and I am not yet ready to answer on which idea I will work on,” he observes. “These ideas are currently developing inside me, and I am waiting for one of them to absorb me in the end. This will take time, but I hope that soon I will start working on the development of a new film.”