‘Russia Wants to Beat Us into Submission: Ukrainian Director-Turned-Soldier Alisa Kovalenko Unveils First-Look Footage of ‘Frontline’

Ukrainian director Alisa Kovalenko unveiled first-look footage of upcoming documentary “Frontline” at Ji.hlava Film Festival’s Inspiration Forum.

Filmed during her four-month stint in the Ukrainian army, it will be “slow and reflective,” focusing on brief moments of calm in-between chaos.

“I was filming only when there was nothing to do,” she said.

When the war broke out, Kovalenko didn’t have “the strength” to be a director, determined to focus on being a soldier. But she still took the camera with her, even though it literally put additional weight on her shoulders.

“I hated this camera at times. It was heavy, but it was my responsibility to carry it. I couldn’t take out my grenades,” she said.

At first, she wasn’t thinking about making a film. But when her military base was bombed and a close friend died, Kovalenko came back home and took another look at the footage.

“My friend joked it reminded her of an Iranian arthouse movie – nothing was happening. But there was something there: You could feel the tension through silence.”

Kovalenko – also behind “Home Games” – is at work on another doc, “Expedition 49,” but the ongoing conflict made her rethink the whole project, she tells Variety. Focusing on five teenagers in Donbas, suddenly given a chance to go to the Himalayas, it will be renamed in the future.

“We will change it, because it’s not about this expedition anymore. It was supposed to be about dreams that come true. Now, it has become a film about broken dreams.”

Kovalenko opened up about her experience in the army, as a woman and a mother. Her husband, French author and producer Stéphane Siohan, stayed at home with their son.

“We are an unusual couple and we have already been through a lot – we have been together since the Maidan Revolution. He knows I am a bit crazy and he accepts it. Also, we are all equal in the face of war,” she noted.

In 2014, she was stopped at a separatist checkpoint and interrogated by Russian officers for hours.

“I was thinking to myself: ‘This is the end.’ They told me they would cut off my ears unless I started to talk. My biggest fear was that I would give out important information,” she said about the deeply traumatic event.

“I think I crossed some line that day, I am not afraid anymore. I don’t know what could be scarier than captivity.”

She promised herself that if the conflict escalates, she will try to protect her country.

“At that time, I didn’t know I would have a son. But I fight for him – I want him to live in a beautiful country. It’s my responsibility as a Ukrainian, but also as a mother,” she added, admitting it took some time before she was fully accepted as a soldier. And while she is still terrible at digging trenches, she is even worse at taking orders.

“Artists, directors, we like to discuss. That’s how we operate. But in the army, you don’t ask ‘why.’ Some of these soldiers were really pissed off: ‘Why is this woman questioning everything?,’” she said.

“I needed time to prove I was just as valuable as anyone else. When my friend died, I found his hat and his plate, and my deputy commander saw I was about to break down. He said: ‘You know, despite our disagreements, you are the strongest woman I have ever known.’”

She is planning to return to the frontline, she said.

“Our kids are playing in bomb shelters. It’s normal now, but I don’t want it to be normal.”

But she finds it hard to stay optimistic, especially in the face of Russia’s recent mobilization efforts.

“They have more people, people they don’t care about and treat like meat, and there will be even more of them fighting now. Even with good weapons, it’s just not the right balance,” noted Kovalenko.

“I am not sure about the ‘happy ending.’ I want to believe we will win this war, but we already lost so much. We will need years to rebuild, my dead friends keep haunting me and I can’t fall asleep. Russia has the highest rate of domestic violence in Europe and that’s how they see Ukraine: as a child that doesn’t obey. They want to beat us into submission.”

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