Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev’s documentary Porcelain War starts with a text card: “Nearly all the footage you are about to watch was shot by the subjects in this film.” It’s the kind of thing that makes one expect material that’s quite unbelievable. In this case, consider that promise kept. Most of what we see comes from Ukraine in 2022. A fraught time, which continues as I type.

An idyllic opening in a Ukrainian forest around Kharkiv (a city near the Russian border) introduces us to co-director Slava and Anya, artists who make porcelain figures that they drop in real-world settings. The title card to follow places one of their beautiful pieces within the rubble of their metropolis. This film is a roaring success with regard to tone. Here are people who have decided to remain while their country is at war. Stay and do art. Stay and fight. Slava trains middle-mannered civilians to become soldiers. We watch Katya, who’s in IT, learn how to load a weapon alongside farmers and contractors doing the same. The riveting music and general aesthetic underline the absurdity of the circumstance. More harrowing footage of bombs tearing through buildings remind viewers of what’s at stake and what’s already been lost.

Quiet scenes between Slava and Anya are arguably more effective than the sequences of battle and rubble. Anya paints on the porcelain figures Slava makes, and the filmmakers animate these paintings as the duo recall Russia’s 2014 capture of Crimea that changed everything. “It’s hard to forbid people to live,” they say. These recollections do well to contextualize the present moment. Once Crimea fell, most Ukrainians knew it was time to get ready to fight for their homeland. The when wasn’t certain, only the who and what.

There are plenty of light touches on the fringes––Anya taking a dip in a nearby lake, their cute dog Frodo exploring the grounds. This is juxtaposed with staggering drone and first-person body-camera footage captured in the midst of conflict. At a certain point, members of the regiment Slava has trained are sent to Bakhmut, right in the heart of the war. There are images here that will linger for some time. As is stated when Porcelain War nears its end: “None of us will ever be the same as we were before.”

As with most documentaries, this film is a feat of editing. Brendan Bellomo, Aniela Sidorska, and Kelly Cameron are all credited for efficient, comprehensive work. One cannot fathom the amount of footage (and the number of sources) from which this trio had to parse, organize, and form a narrative. That Porcelain War emerges as a taut, effective war documentary that also features compelling animated sequences within the beautiful artwork of its lead subjects makes it a stand-out piece of filmmaking. Its existence proves its own point: even in war, there must be life. Art sustains us and helps us survive.

Porcelain War premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

Grade: B+

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