For much of Karim Amer’s reliably efficient documentary Defiant we follow Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ukraine. Following Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Kuleba and other members of The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine were quickly thrown into their own corners of the war. Kuleba’s responsibility––among others––is garnering support from allies abroad. One of the tasks of Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereschuk is bolstering humanitarian efforts domestically, in direct reaction to attacks by the enemies in the eastern regions of the country.
There are harrowing scenes captured here. Consider one in which a mother realizes the body of her son lays before her by recognizing his sneaker. Or another wherein Vereschuk matter-of-factly mentions that she has not seen her child in months because of the war and requirements of her post. Footage from cell phones, security cameras, and the like capture bombings of bridges and missiles igniting apartment complexes.
Yet the most interesting part of this picture involves war against propaganda. The fight for clear communication, both practically and morally. We watch as Mykhailo Federov, Minister of Digital Transformation, is forced to evolve this fight in real time. While Russian state media does its damndest to convince its people their fight is against Nazis who instigated this conflict, Federov uses every measure possible (social media and otherwise) to attempt converting the Russian people to truth. It’s a near-impossible task, but one worth undertaking. There’s brief mention of Starlink, the satellite comms system built by SpaceX, which proved crucial on the frontlines early in the war. And while this is thanks to Elon Musk, a graphic later in the film confirms Musk’s ultimate disillusion in the conflict, an indicator of some waning support internationally. The kind of thing Kuleba is fighting to uphold even as I write this review. “America and its people want to be on the side of the winner,” he says at one point. It’s both a damning and true statement, acknowledging the often Kafka-esque nature of receiving support (weapons, supplies, money) from allies. It can’t seem like a lost cause, even if the support itself will prevent it from becoming a lost cause.
So much of what each cabinet member is trying to achieve throughout Defiant appears Sisyphean, and yet they persist. The stakes, of course, could not be higher. “We don’t want our children to inherit this war,” one of the cabinet members says at one point. As the war rages on, one hopes this document helps extend the cause and bolster the support.
Defiant premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.