YIDFF 2023 International Competition

Eastern Front
Yevhen Titarenko (Director)

Interviewer: Kato Takanobu

Filmmaking on the front

Kato Takanobu (KT): I was profoundly moved by Eastern Front. To say nothing of the realistic images gleaned from body cameras, smart phones, and other gadgets, I was surprised by the raw cacophony that would resound from the screen. In the opening of the film there is a sequence in which a wounded soldier is rushed to a hospital, and when I realized that I was hearing his faint, strained breathing from somewhere on his pale body, I felt chills go down my spine. How was this audio recorded in such a severe environment? And, how did all of this effort roll into the cinematography process? Could you please share?

Yevhen Titarenko (YT): When we record, we use all the tools that we can to get the shots and sound. For audio we utilized a Blackmagic Design camera, a shotgun mic, and a sound recorder. Depending on the situation, there would be times when we only record sound from bodycams.

When it came time to edit the sound, we provided the sound director with the audio elements, and once he was done editing as he saw fit, including adding various sounds, I listened for the first time and remarked, “What is this? This is not what we are looking for.” We pulled out everything that the sound director had added, leaving only the original sound. There is no other way to reproduce the sound of reality, so we used that which we recorded as was.

There was more than enough time to capture scenes that depict everyday life, so we had the luxury of testing various camera angles and ways of recording sound, but on the battlefield there was no such flexibility, so we had to use what was there. Close to Kharkiv, when the Ukrainian counteroffensive had attained success, Russia struck back, and we had to withdraw all personnel in order to survive. We felt under pressure to choose what gear we didn’t have to abandon, realizing we just had to stick with small, lightweight equipment that could be carried anywhere on foot. Of course this would vary by situation. In the morning, when setting out, backpacks shouldered, we already knew what we could hold. We weren’t about to die surrounded by gadgets.

KT: Despite having recorded in such a harsh environment, you have so many stunning shots. The captured convoy of Russian armored vehicles painted with the letter “Z” headed into a magnificent sunset would not have been easy to capture, even if it had been planned. You also endearingly depict the small joys felt in the trivial events of everyday life, like the tastiness of nibbled oranges, a man blowing dandelion seeds to celebrate Mother’s Day. On the other hand, there are a few shots that suggest allegory, like that of the beetle writing on its back.

YT: The convoy shot was thanks to the sun. Everything lined up such that the light was just splendid.

In this situation in which one wrong step can kill you, your senses are honed to an exponentially high level; the trifling things that one could easily ignore become the focus of deep feelings, for example the shots of the orange and the bug. Normally, you do all kinds of things without thinking, but when you think you might have only ten minutes left, you focus your entire mind on what you know you have to get done in that time. That’s the difference, I think. Until the invasion started, in Ukraine there was also discontentment with the government and high taxes. Now that these times of hardship are underway, it is easy to become nostalgic and represent the prewar past in a good light, but rather than this, rather than the past having been good, I believe that living for the now should be held as the greatest happiness in its raw feeling. Surely, we have paid a high cost, but one gets what they pay for.

Joint-production with director Vitaly Mansky

KT: This piece was made with Vitaly Mansky, wasn’t it? What were the particulars of your coming to work with him, and how did you divide your roles for the project?

YT: We broke down the roles such that I would record the battle scenes, Vitaly would record the various other scenes, and we would edit the footage. We almost never fought, and as we shared common views and goals, there were no problems.

It has been about six years since I first met Vitaly. We met because he offered to screen a film of mine years ago at a Russian film festival. That became a big issue, and we were both sued by the Russian government. It was intimidation aimed at our attempt to screen a film in contradiction with the propaganda barrage against Ukraine. With all the false information spread by the Russian government, they feared one truthful rebuttal might be all it would take to change public opinion.

Also, the state’s strategic messaging agency savagely slandered Vitaly and me on prime time TV, deliberately selecting horrendous-looking photographs of us. As I was in Ukraine at the time, I was relatively unscathed; if anything, I remember it seeming nothing more than silly, but it was difficult on many fronts for Vitaly in Russia, including his family facing severe threats.

Ultimately, the film was banned from screening in Russia, and with that Vitaly got the idea of screening it at the Czech embassy in Moscow. But the Russian authorities pressured them into losing their will and in the end there were no screenings in Russia.

Regardless of all the pressure by Russian authorities, Vitaly did not waver in his opinion, which I truly respected, so when production began, we were certain that we wanted to work together.

KT: You finished this work in a very short time, didn’t you?

YT: Filming began when the Russian army launched its military invasion on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, ending about nine and a half months later. The completed film premiered one year later, on February 23, 2023.

Bringing the project to completion no matter what became an inexorable personal mission for me, and I worked my utmost toward this goal. The news provides various general information, but not all that much. However, in creating art like this film, though I do not believe we can change the world, there was the sense of mission in that we could change, even just a little bit, how our viewers think and feel; it goes without saying that there was a lot of motivation behind the project.

Everyday life on the homefront

KT: The realism of the battlefield scenes cannot be overstated, though the poignancy of the everyday life scenes inspired a deep interest as well.

YT: I shot everyday life scenes together with Vitaly. The battlefield scenes make you feel you are watching professional soldiers. The fact that they are soldiers makes it seem like that is their normal life, when in fact the battlefield is not where they really should be. That’s what we wanted to show. They are not special forces soldiers or anything, just ordinary people who do things like have meals or put on bathing suits and swim, who have been launched into these abnormal roles. I discussed with Vitaly about how it should be expressed that their place is not on the battlefield, the result being this film.

They are very normal people, not actors, so it is not as if they were directed and would speak accordingly, and to the greatest extent possible we honestly recorded the conversations that actually occurred in those places. As directors we could have guided the topic of conversation in the direction we wished, for example in the picnic scenes in which friends and family gather around a table or on the grass to share a chat, but we left things natural, without such interference. I sat with Vitaly and everyone at the same table, eating and drinking while talking, shooting as things went.

KT: Mr. Titarenko, you happen to appear in other scenes, as well. Aren’t you also an important character yourself?

YT: In a previous work in 2014, I stayed on the other side of the camera, but I felt that I must evolve, that I must change, so I thought it best to also position myself before the camera.

KT: On that note, right after the film ends, there is an intertitle that gives the important indication that the characters in the film speak both Russian and Ukrainian. I felt that there was a deeper implication there than a simple communication of a fact; could you please share your intent in including this intertitle?

YT: For one, it meant all around that the Russian government’s propaganda that “Ukraine oppresses Russian speakers” is blatantly false. It is shown that people spoken to in Russian often respond in Ukrainian, that both parties do speak Ukrainian, that even without interpretation they both understand each other and live in the same society. However, people from outside the region cannot hear the difference between Russian and Ukrainian, so to assist their understanding we included the intertitle.

As all things end

KT: Finally, I would like to ask about what happens at the finish. Eastern Front ends in an extended depiction of aid given to the wounded, beginning in a relatively relaxed tone that in time gives way to the first-person camera being thrown into the chaos of the battlefield. The surrounding tumult gradually disappears, the ragged breathing of the camera only remains, and the screen eventually fades to black, leaving you with a lingering and indescribable aftertaste.

YT: I think a finale is just another new beginning, so that is why the ending takes that form. The very first thing I said at the Q&A following the screening was that I believe this film is a work that summons various doubts from the audience, who take the time to digest and breathe it. This is the kind of meaning the ending carries.

KT: Before this sequence begins, there is a brief scene in which it is asked, “How do you think this film will end?” It struck me as if it were being questioned how the end of the invasion and war were anticipated.

YT: Those kinds of questions we received first. I discussed how to end the film with this scene with Vitaly, but that was only about half a year after the conflict had begun. However, the reality is that the conflict still continues today, and no one knows its outcome.

Compiled by Kato Takanobu
Translated by Kyle Hecht

Photography: Abe Taisei / Video: Kusunose Kaori / 2023-10-08

Note: This interview was done for an online interview collection that was only to be in Japanese. Therefore, the text was prepared in Japanese based on a transcription of the words of the English-to-Japanese interpreter. When funds were found to create an English version, the Japanese text was then translated into English. Please thus be aware that the text above will not necessarily reflect the exact words spoken at the time of the interview.

Kato Takanobu
Cinematographer. Joined Ogawa Productions in 1989. Since 1992 he has been a freelance cinematographer. Films he has worked on include No Man’s Zone (2011, dir. Fujiwara Toshi); Okinawa: The Afterburn (2015, dir. John Junkerman); The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories (2017, dir. Daishima Haruhiko); Soup and Ideology (2021, dir. Yang Yonghi).