“A human being without love has no chance of life”: “King Lear: How We Looked For Love During the War” at the Samizdat Festival of Central and Eastern European Film3 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews, War in Ukraine

When documentary filmmaker Dmytro Hreshko became an internally displaced person following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he turned his camera onto the emerging volunteer movement, collecting stories about the lives of other displaced people. Settling in Uzhhorod, a small town in western Zakarpattia, he worked with theatre director Vyacheslav Egorov and producer Andrii Suyarko to create a unique production of Shakespeare’s King Lear in which the entire cast would be made up of displaced people. By following both the play’s development as well as delving into the actors’ personal narratives, Hreshko creates a distinctive film about human resilience and the necessity of love. 

The film is made up of four main periods of filmmaking: shots of the production itself as it was staged in various locations throughout Uzhhorod, the audition process, production rehearsals, and personal accounts told by the cast about their experience with the war and their reasons for ending up in Uzhhorod and in the play. Hreshko seamlessly weaves each scene together to create a clear and interesting narrative, each scene flowing into the next, even if filmed months apart. His cinematographic style is reminiscent of being a fly on the wall; the audience becomes immersed in the lives of the cast, even feeling Egorov’s stress as he seeks artistic perfection in his production.

The choice to stage King Lear of all plays is no coincidence. Indeed, the film repeatedly emphasises the relatability of the play to the ongoing war, with the actors spending hours with Egorov analysing Shakespeare’s work and linking what they read back to their own lives. As Egorov notes early on in the film, displaced people “are already living in a real tragedy in the conditions of war,” and therefore are able to convey the political machinations and the civil war that subsequently breaks out in King Lear’s kingdom better than any professional actor. Egorov also notes that the cast is similar to King Lear in that they have lost everything except for their humanity. Interestingly, there have also been comparisons of President Putin to King Lear, relating his paranoia and autocracy to that of Shakespeare’s lead, providing another point of relevancy to the play’s staging. 

While the process of staging King Lear is interesting to follow, it is in revealing the 11 cast members’ lives and personalities that Hreshko’s film  truly shines. Each of the main cast is given time on screen to tell their story, from when they first heard the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022 to arriving in Uzhhorod and choosing to audition for the production. There is the 17-year-old orphan who fled Kyiv with his brother and wants to feel as if he is doing more with his life than just surviving. There is the artist from Kharkiv who focuses on using as many bright colours in her drawings as possible because she lacks them in life. There is the former teacher who, after his school was bombed, spends his time teaching the cast members English. Each has a unique story as to how they ended up where they are now, providing insight into what an estimated 5.1 million internally displaced people within Ukraine have experienced since the war began. 

At the heart of this documentary, as the film’s title King Lear: How We Looked for Love During the War implies, is love. Love in all its subtleties and interpretations, for “a human being without love has no chance of life.” By analysing the human relationships at the heart of the play’s production, Hreshko leaves us with a lasting message: love is crucial to survive and it is love that will win in the end, no matter the hardships that must be borne in the meantime. 

King Lear: How We Looked For Love During the War will be screened on 13 September at the CCA Glasgow. Find full event details here.

Feature Image: Samizdat Eastern European Film Festival
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