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Shoulder to Shoulder with Ukraine

Vitaly Mansky’s latest film Eastern Front (Austrumu fronte) is a collaboration with Ukrainian filmmaker Yevhen Titarenko and has been selected for the 2023 Berlinale’s competitive section Encounters.

By Kristı¯ne Matı¯sa

Eastern Front is just one of the latest examples of a process that has been developing steadily over many years, namely the cooperation between Latvia and Ukraine in the documentary field.

Born in Lviv, Ukraine, director Vitaly Mansky (1963) has been living and working in Latvia since the end of 2014. He has, however, participated in theoretical documentary film conferences in Latvia since the late 1980s. Mansky has been making films that have received international acclaim since the early 1990s, but has never previously worked with a co-director. In Eastern Front, Mansky’s experience is complemented by young Ukrainian director Yevhen Titarenko’s starkly documentary, diary-type footage from inside the brutal war in Ukraine. The two directors got to know one another in 2020, when Titarenko’s film War for Peace caused a scandal and provoked a backlash from the authorities at Mansky’s documentary film festival ArtDocFest, which at that time could still take place in Russia. The director had spent a year in Ukraine working as a paramedic volunteer in a military conflict zone and filming whenever possible. This resulted in a rare and honest documentation of a brutal war that continues in Europe still today. Titarenko now calls himself a medical battalion veteran and has not stopped filming, gathering material for a new film.

Mansky and Titarenko met in Latvia in the summer of 2022, where Titarenko had come to drive donated cars back to the front. He showed Mansky the material he had filmed for his “war diary” and eventually invited him to co-direct the film. Eastern Front is thus made up of two equally impressive layers: the harsh documentary footage of the war, often shot with the most rudimentary image capture techniques, and scenes and conversations filmed by Mansky’s team behind the front lines. Here, other facets of the film’s characters reveal themselves and death is not standing as closely by yet has clearly affected the world around them.

Mansky has already dedicated several internationally acclaimed documentaries to his native Ukraine. In 2004, for example, he made the documentary Gagarin’s Pioneers (Наша Родина), searching in different countries for 30 of his classmates from Lviv, and exploring how the concept of “homeland” has changed as the Ukrainian nation was taking shape. The most personal of Mansky’s films dealing with Ukrainian sovereignty is Close Relations (Родные, 2016), which was made in collaboration with the Latvian studio Ego Media. When the Russian invasion began in 2014, the director set out to film his extended family in Ukraine. They were scattered across the country, and through the varied fates of one family the film gives a comprehensive overview of ordinary people’s attitude to the dramatic course of contemporary history. This film creates a personal, human take on the complex emergence of contemporary Ukraine, its national confidence, and sense of belonging. Close Relations touches on interpretations of historical events and on the fear of being physically drawn into a real war. The film thus explains the roots and nature of the current “second war”, revealing how radically different opinions, influenced by different ideologies can exist concurrently within the same family, and how this was exploited by the aggressive neighbour, Russia.

Vfs Films And Their Colleagues

Several other Latvian documentary filmmakers also have close links with Ukraine. One example is producer Ilona Bičevska who co-produced Ukrainian director Alina Gorlova’s film This Rain Will Never Stop (Цей дощ ніколи не

by Yuliia Hontaruk

The Blessed Ones by

Andrii Lysetskyi

скінчиться, 2020) in the studio Avantis Promo. The film won an award at IDFA for Best First Appearence, and numerous awards at other festivals. Director and producer Una Celma is currently assisting Maryna Nazarenko with her film Women Without Men. Nazarenko is a filmmaker from Ukraine who has recently arrived in Latvia, and who wants to document other female Ukrainian refugees in Latvia that share her fate. Production company VFS Films has the most extensive and longest-standing collaboration with Ukrainian filmmakers. The international co-production Ukrainian Sheriffs (Українські шерифи, 2016) by Roman Bondarchuk went on to became Ukraine’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. On the surface, it is an unassuming story about a small village in southern Ukraine near Kherson, where ate a completely different, unique mission for the artists, motivating the conviction that anyone can be useful to their homeland, even if they are not trained soldiers.

Latvian documentary filmmakers are guided by a similar conviction. The most useful contribution they can make to Ukraine’s fight against the aggressor and to the security of the whole of Europe today is to provide professional support and assistance. They aim to strengthen the Ukrainian film industry, and to jointly produce films that tell the world important stories about the strength of the nation’s spirit. EF people’s faith in the future is condensed as if in a drop of water in difficult times of change. The film is currently available to watch in the IDFA collection.

The studio is currently co-producing two films by Ukrainian filmmakers. Both projects are also at the European Film Market at Berlinale. One of them is Company of Steel (Залізна Сотня) by director Yuliia Hontaruk, who is part of the well-known documentary collective #Babylon’13. The film tells the story of young men who are already war veterans. They first went to war as volunteers in 2015 after Russia annexed Crimea, returned in 2017 and tried to integrate into civilian life, but re-joined the war in 2022 seeing it as their civic duty. This film is not about war, however, but about how people change when war comes to them.

The second project is the documentary The Blessed Ones (Блаженнi) by Andrii Lysetskyi. In the film, several Ukrainian artists and a filmmaker embark on a journey to look for the answer to a question that was once unimaginable: what is the artist’s role in a war? The protagonists are young and talented artists who have received Ukraine’s highest contemporary art awards. They now have to put their own art aside to rescue famous 20th century Ukrainian masterpieces from shelling and barbaric destruction. At the same time, these artists continue to create, entering buildings destroyed by bombs and in a way consecrate the ruins, turning them into new works of art –one works with broken glass, another with rubble. The locals see this as an opportunity to spiritually free themselves from the evil inflicted by the occupiers. It turns out that the reality of war can cre -

The Story Of Latvian Documentaries

Latvian documentary cinema has a long, rich history. It is defined by an intensive period of cultural and historical newsreels in the 1930s and a vibrant “new wave” in the 1960s when a new generation of filmmakers cultivated new ways of thinking and new attitudes towards the essence of documentary cinema. The directors and cinematographers from this time include Herz Frank, Uldis Brauns, Aivars Freimanis, and Ivars Seleckis. Together with others of their generation, they developed the poetic documentary movement that focused on the human being and imbued the process of documenting with a soul. Similar processes also took place in Lithuania and Estonia during this period, as shown by the internationally acclaimed co-production by the three countries, Bridges of Time (Laika tilti, 2018), directed by Kristı ne Briede and Audrius Stonys that is dedicated to classic Baltic documentary films.

Director and cinematographer Juris Podnieks gave Latvian documentary film an even broader international dimension. It was Podnieks who first captured the attention of the international community with his bold and honest cross-section of life seen through the eyes of young people Is It Easy to Be Young? (Vai viegli bu¯t jaunam?, 1986). With the support of European broadcasting organisations, he later documented the collapse of the Soviet empire from all the political hotspots in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

After Latvia regained its independence, the country’s film industry sought to integrate into the European film scene by gaining experience and skills in international coproduction. Today, several Latvian film studios are successfully working in the international documentary arena, helping both Latvian and other stories reach a wide audience.

Alise Gelze



1The company’s priority at the moment is finalising the financial structure of the feature film Blue Blood directed by Juris Kursietis, the production of the film is planned to start in the fall of 2023. After the premiere of the director’s previous film Oleg at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, this film is a bold next step for the director. Blue Blood is planned as a co-production between Latvia, Poland, and Germany.

I have always been fascinated with discovering new talent, therefore, I am currently actively working on several debut films. Among them is the debut film Youth Eternal by director Armands Zacs, which participated in script workshop Midpoint Feature Launch 2022. Currently, the director Anna Ansone’s debut film Summer Blues is in development stage, which is planned as a co-production of Latvia, Germany, and Lithuania. Both of these directors have already proven their talent and determination in filmmaking, so a feature debut is the next logical step in their careers.

White Picture is also in post-production with Estonian, Latvian, Greek, and Finnish co-production The Invisible Fight by Rainer Sarnet, and with the Dutch and Latvian co-production The Book Of Everything by Ineke Houtman. Both of these projects have received Eurimages support.

2My priority for participating in the Berlinale EFM is to find additional financing for Juris Kursietis’ Blue Blood, as well as to attract possible sales agents and festival interest in the company’s debut film slot. I will pay special attention to the projects that are selected for the Berlinale Co-Production Market - I am particularly interested in art-house films, which appeal to topic or story wise. And I am looking for projects which could be interested in bringing their physical production to Latvia. I’m open to different countries and combinations of co-production - the main condition is that this cooperation must take place naturally and not be financially forced. My company’s slot of projects for 2023 is full, but we are looking for projects which are planning to go into production in 2024 or 2025.