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A Movie About a Movie Made During a Time of War

Two years before Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, a single mom and her four children shot a documentary film about daily life in the Donbas region, which was already torn by fighting between the two sides.

Rosa Marín Apr 28

When war erupts, the media landscape becomes saturated with images of cowering civilians, flattened cities and Manichaean narratives underlined by latent jingoism and xenophobia. 

The siege of Ukraine has been raging for two months. Nightly news broadcasts inform us of Russian war crimes while pundits ruminate on the possibility of nuclear-missile blast offs in a way that eschews any analysis suggesting off ramps to violence. What can be lost within this obscene spectacle is the possibility of the human spirit to rise out of the ashes of conflict in a way that connotes universality and reminds us of our interconnectedness as a species. Iryna Tsilyk’s 2020 documentary film, The Earth is Blue as an Orange, reminds us of this possibility. As war is waged in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army, the film introduces Hanna, a single mother, and her four children. Ardent lovers of cinema, the family breaks fear-ridden wartime norms as they craft a fictional film about their lives during the bloodshed.

This movie about the making of a movie opens ominously. One of the first shots features a silhouetted individual taping up a home’s windows — in preparation for inevitable shelling — under the glare of a lightbulb. The composition of the frame, anonymizing the individual and centering the singular bulb, is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, in which the artist utilized the imagery of a lightbulb to lament the horrors wrought by modern warfare. Guernica is the Basque city that in one of history’s early air raids, Francisco Franco’s fascist forces strategically bombed with the help of Hitler’s Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. The siege of the city, during which countless civilians were killed, was a precursor to World War II and warfare’s pivot to the indiscriminate slaughtering of civilians. Guernica was followed by Dresden, Hiroshima, Sarajevo, Aleppo and now, in 2022, Mariupol. 

A movie that speaks to the insatiable desire to fill the emptiness of war with life.

Ominous imagery notwithstanding, the documentary normalizes a family in the midst of an extraordinary situation. An especially light scene early on features one of Hanna’s children playfully saying, “some people would do anything for a good shot” as the family watches a silent film. This remark functions as metacommentary on an earlier scene which saw the family rushing to a neighbor’s home immediately after it had been shelled, cameras rolling.

These scenes and several others, along with the film’s title (inspired by poet Paul Eluard), create a surreal backdrop for Hanna and her children. The family’s home, sitting on the frontlines of conflict, functions as both a movie studio and a manger: There are several cats and a turtle going about their business as the family-turned-film crew debates the aspects of its script. The freewheeling animals connote a sanctity to this family as they gather around much like the cattle and horses which were present for the birth of Christ. It also doesn’t go unnoticed that Hanna is a single mother (there is no discussion of the children’s father). Filmmaking is positioned as a holy respite from the daily horrors of war.

The Earth is Blue as an Orange is brilliantly reticent about directly spotlighting the on-the-ground political situation. Much like the anonymous window-taper scene early on, Tsilyk’s circumvention of the political situation in Eastern Europe grants the narrative a universal framework, for no corner of the world is spared from conflict. 

In the film’s 74-minute runtime, it is not until the 41-minute mark that we overhear a news broadcast reference “Russian security forces.” Instead, viewers are treated to a dual-pronged portrait of the family: While the family works on Living by the Rules, their autobiographical film, Myrosia, Hanna’s second-eldest child, is accepted on scholarship to study cinematography in a university. To celebrate receiving their “education certificates” (a parallel to a high school degree), Myrosia and a friend get their picture taken outside of a damaged building covered in scaffolding. As they pose for the photograph, donning regal dresses and holding bouquets of flowers, military vehicles slowly drive-by in the background. With this shot, Tsilyk asks, Which future will emerge victorious? Myrosia and her friend remain static, smiling as their gaze forces us to consider what the next several years will hold for them and their loved ones. The rumbling of the military vehicles attempts to answer this question, as their kinetic movement foreshadows Ukraine and Russia’s slow march towards all-out conflict.

The family’s home, sitting on the frontlines of conflict, functions as both a movie studio and a manger.

Considering the current context, with much of the fighting now concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, the war’s thinly veiled absence from the film serves to amplify its presence in the viewer’s thoughts. This amplification crescendos in the final act, when the family screens Living by the Rules for the community. Sitting in a dimly-lit room, the sun hesitantly making its way in, Hanna’s family and their audience watches Living by the Rules, introduced as “a story about our city.” Again the film uses the returned gaze of its characters to masterful effect. We watch Hanna, the children and their wider community processing the last several years of their lives in real-time. This communal ritual centered around cinema solidifies the importance of the art-medium in times of conflict and political tumult. 

Film at its best mirrors our shared humanity, willing to show us who we have been and who we are, while urging us to consider who we want to be. 

As the credits began to roll, I was reminded of another instance in which beauty emerged from the ruins of conflict. In the summer of 1993, renowned writer and critic Susan Sontag visited the city of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Once a bustling medium-sized European city, Sarajevo lived under siege for nearly four years between 1992 and 1996, caught in the crosshairs of several warring factions during the Bosnian and Yugoslav Wars. Already having visited the city at the onset of the conflict, Songag returned to Sarajevo with the intent of making a solidarity statement with its population by putting on a production of Samuel Beckett’s 1952 absurdist play Waiting for Godot. In a city crawling with snipers and subjected to constant shelling, Sontag described the play’s production as a return of culture to Sarajevo. Detailing her experiences in “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo,” an essay Sontag wrote for the Performing Arts Journal in 1994, she claims, “[C]ulture from anywhere is an expression of human dignity.” This notion is what lives at the core of The Earth is Blue as an Orange — the insatiable desire to fill the emptiness of war with life.

The Earth is Blue as an Orange premiered in theaters and virtually on April 22 as a part of Film Movement’s Ukrainian Film Collection series, highlighting films which focus on the political situation in eastern Ukraine.

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