Witnessing the war-torn reality in Eastern Ukraine: The global premiere of “White Angel — The End of Marinka” at DOK Leipzig4 min read
The opening film of DOK Leipzig’s 66th edition, White Angel — The End of Marinka, documents seven months in the city of Marinka, which lay on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine for months. As the audience views the raw reportages from a first-person perspective, they are confronted with harsh and depressing images of the realities of war. But the power of this movie lies not in its imagery, but in its ability to demonstrate the all encompassing experience of war and occupation — and the will of ordinary people to endure, resist, and rebuild.
When former police forensic specialist Vasyl Pipa decided to organise a volunteer rescue mission to evacuate inhabitants of the small city of Marinka, he chose to film his work using a mounted body cam on his helmet. It had been a few months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the front line had moved westward from the already occupied Donetsk into the fields and suburbs. Just as his previous job required him to collect evidence, he now used his camera as a tool to gather proof of an unfolding crime. The recordings from Pipa’s helmet camera, combined with interviews later recorded with witnesses and survivors, tell the story of the fall of Marinka.
The city itself, ruined and devastated in the first weeks after 24 February, remains a tragic backdrop to the stories of the people living there. It is through the many interactions with the citizens of Marinka, whom Pipa and his team, nicknamed the White Angels (Бiлi янголи), encounter, that we learn about the brutal routine that this war has become. In one of the many instances where Pipa works to persuade someone to leave their home, we hear “But how can I leave my house? It is going to be robbed” and “Who will feed my dogs then?” shouted angrily. On another day, Pipa visits the basement of a house where a family of four is hiding, including a teenager who sets up a computer to play games among sacks of potatoes and beds for his relatives. Yet another time, Pipa and his team arrive not to evacuate, but to collect bodies: neighbours who gathered for a brief meeting, one of them with a bike carrying a basket of freshly caught fish to share with friends when a rocket struck them in the yard; an elderly couple who were struck by artillery fire while harvesting potatoes. The first-person footage combined with the collected commentaries of those featured in the footage captures the ambivalence of the war: tragedy and bravery, loss and the will to survive, all while trying to make one’s life worthwhile — even under shelling.
Pipa guides the viewers through spring to early autumn in 2022, during which only a handful of residents remain in the city. With each passing week, the situation in the city worsens as the fighting draws closer and more buildings are destroyed. As the story unfolds, we gain deeper insights into the lives of the volunteers. The documentary, directed unobtrusively, shows the motivations of each volunteer to return to Marinka to evacuate the locals, especially the citizens who refused to leave or had lost all hope. “This lady was baking pies for us in the public kitchen… She called me and said she couldn’t take it anymore in the basement. Just like that, a person’s spirit is crushed,” says Rustam, another White Angel. There is a profound sense of belonging that binds the volunteers to the residents. The places where shared memories once thrived have been obliterated: the destruction of Marinka is poignantly symbolised by the burning Orthodox Cathedral. The unfiltered gaze of the camera captures more than just the physical devastation; it delves into the emotions of its owner Pipa who, while surveying the ruins and rubbles of the city, admits to feeling a sense of foreboding.
Like other anti-war art, this documentary’s power lies not in vocal proclamations for peace, but in the raw demonstration of the brutalities of war that occur daily. It makes you angry; it makes you frustrated. However, those to whom the people of Marinka want to address their pain towards are rarely shown on-screen. Only a few soldiers are filmed, and the sole image of Vladimir Putin, depicted as a snake on the trident of the Ukrainian coat of arms, only briefly appears for a couple of seconds. The image serves merely as another backdrop to the work that volunteers do every day. The war is truly senseless, and there is no help in portraying its horrible character through pictures of weapons or symbols. As Roland Barthes’ wrote about Bertolt Brecht’s classic novel Mother Courage and Her Children, “The sense is… that you have to see that war exists.” Not to become accustomed to it, but to keep remembering. That is why the choice of White Angel — The End of Marinka as the opening film for DOK Leipzig is a message filled with anger and devastation, one of realisation as to how deeply the war affects Ukrainians, with the silver lining of hope that it might also foster greater empathy and long awaited changes.