IN THE REARVIEW. Touching and Straightforward Documentary

As a historical record of the crime committed against the Ukrainian nation, such films are practically priceless.

Jan Brzozowski

24 November 2023

The idea probably couldn’t be simpler. A camera in a car – and in front of it, people leaving their homes due to war. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, over 16 million war refugees have crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border. Maciek Hamela didn’t hesitate for long: he bought a used van and headed east. For the first month, he focused solely on providing aid, transporting dozens of Ukrainian families across the Polish border. Then, a spontaneous idea emerged – perhaps it would be worth organizing a tiny, small crew and trying to document the whole process?

The next question followed: whether people fleeing Russian bombs would be willing to talk at all. It turned out they would. The most touching moments in Hamela’s film are when the characters start sharing their experiences – what they saw, what they went through. One woman tells about a young man, in his twenties, who sat next to her on the bus when they were leaving the occupied areas. The Russians stopped the vehicle and pulled out all the men of conscription age. Through the bus window, the woman saw soldiers forcing the young man to undress and put on a Russian uniform, joining the army that invaded his country. “Now it sounds funny, but back then we all cried,” she concludes.

In the pauses between the passengers’ monologues, Hamela and his cameramen direct the camera outside the vehicle. Outside, destroyed bridges flicker by, military vehicles in disrepair, and bullet-riddled residential blocks. The degenerate everyday life, the main theme of the documentary “In Ukraine” by Wolski and Pawlus, is approached quite differently by Hamela. The static camera shows the surrounding reality from a clear distance. The absurd tragedy encrypted in shots of people taking pictures next to tank wrecks, a mother playing with a child against the backdrop of a bombed house. Each frame is composed exceptionally neatly, following the basic principles of symmetry. It’s hard to believe what’s on the screen – each scene looks like postcards from an alternative reality, signed by Roy Andersson. Are these really places just a few hundred kilometers away from our homes?

“In the Rearview” is, of course, a decidedly more down-to-earth and straightforward film – simply because the director himself is directly involved in the matter. Hamela appears in front of the camera regularly: as a driver, conversationalist, translator (fluent in five languages). “From Where to Where” then takes on the characteristics of a first-person reportage, in which the author serves as his own guide. Fortunately, the documentary is devoid of off-screen narration, archival materials, and any other formal additions that would bring it closer to the tacky aesthetics of television, while simultaneously distancing it from the most important element: the human component.

Hamela opts for a raw but empathetic observation – and succeeds. He doesn’t make the mistake of Sean Penn, who inadvertently turned his documentary about the war in Ukraine, “Superpower,” into a chaotic montage of an American vacation in Eastern Europe. The director of “In the Rearview” doesn’t have the ambitions of a Hollywood star, so he doesn’t push the heroes squeezed in the back of the van into the background. He doesn’t force confessions, doesn’t use emotional blackmail – he simply drives the car and listens. With the camera always ready – as the American pioneers of the Direct Cinema movement commanded. In this way, he occasionally manages to capture truly exceptional moments. He captures small smiles and reflective looks through the window. Spontaneous interactions between completely strangers who meet for the first time at the back of his car. A boy and a girl from two different families begin to share memories. After 15–20 seconds of silence, the boy – staring into the empty space in front of him – suddenly says, “I love my grandfather.” A moment earlier, we learned that the grandfather stayed in the eastern part of the country, guarding the family estate.

The war in Ukraine will someday come to an end. Several decades later, all the people who participated in it will die – there will be no more eyewitnesses. Only media accounts will remain. Recorded testimonies, photos, audiovisual materials. Documentaries will be made by our compatriots: “In Ukraine” by Wolski and Pawlus, “Hamlet’s Syndrome” by Rosołowski, and “Unbelief” and “In the Rearview” by Hamela. As a historical record of the crime committed against the Ukrainian nation, these films are practically priceless – at the same time, they are accomplished works of art in terms of narrative and aesthetics.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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