Ukrainian documentary Alisa Kovalenko on the struggle on the “cultural front”

Ukrainian director Alisa Kovalenko remembers exactly where she was last year when the Russian invasion began.

The award-winning documentary filmmaker (“Alisa in Warland”) was en route to eastern Ukraine, where she’d spent the past three years filming her latest feature film, We Will Not Fade Away, which premieres February 22 at Generation has section 14plus at the Berlin Film Festival.

Fighting in the long-running conflict in the Donbass region had intensified and she had hoped to help evacuate the protagonists of the film, which follows five teenagers in the war-torn region as they struggle to lead a normal teenage life.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, as their train rolled through eastern Ukraine, Kovalenko received a call from Kiev. “The Russian missiles are already falling,” her mother told her. By the time the director reached the Donbass, the war had begun in full force.

Kovalenko, whose previous documentaries have screened at IDFA and Sheffield Doc/Fest, had a hopeful vision for We Will Not Fade Away, which was originally intended to take her characters through a groundbreaking form of “adventure therapy” for youngsters in war zones . As the film opens in 2019, its five protagonists prepare to embark on a journey into the Himalayas — an expedition, she said, that would show “how dreams can still change your life and how you can light up this dark world.”

After the Russian invasion, Kovalenko made a very different documentary. Although she managed to convince some of the film’s characters to flee the rapidly escalating hostilities, two have not been heard from since they fell under Russian occupation. “Some dreams have been completely shattered,” she said.

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For the director, completing We Will Not Fade Away suddenly felt like a futile exercise as the war began. “As a documentary filmmaker, I felt completely powerless as to what I could do with my camera. Am I useful or not?” she said. Instead, she joined a battalion of volunteers who fought on the front lines of the war “because I thought that was much more effective.”

It was a painful decision for the young mother. “My son was crying. He tried to grab my legs and not let go of me,” Kovalenko said. But as tough as the decision was, it felt like she had no choice.

“I felt like we really have to fight now…so the Russians don’t destroy our country,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to France or any other country. I wanted to stay in Ukraine and I want my son to grow up in Ukraine.”

As ambiguous as she may have been about her documentary work early in the war, Kovalenko has recorded many hours of footage during her four-month stint in the Ukrainian army and is preparing a feature-length documentary, “Frontline,” which will focus on brief moments of calm between the chaos of the Russian attacks.

Insisting that the documentary “can also be a weapon,” the director distinguished between “the real frontline and the ‘cultural front’,” while acknowledging that Ukrainian filmmakers have their own role to play in the war against Russia. “At the beginning of the invasion, I lost my faith in movies,” she said. “But I found it again.”