In her documentary “I Did Not Want to Make a War Film,” Nadia Parfan claims, “Everywhere on my trip, I encountered tired women with kids.”
Parfan tells the story of her voyage, a visit back to her native Ukraine just a few weeks after the Russian invasion, in the first three-part documentary series by The New Yorker and independent Ukrainian filmmakers.
She stopped in Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine, on the route to Kyiv to see her cousin, Bogdan.
Along with Parfan’s parents, his wife and children had fled.
After Russian forces left an area of Ukraine they had occupied for a month, a friend asked Parfan to check on her home in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv.
In her documentary “I Did Not Want to Make a War Film,” Nadia Parfan claims, “Everywhere on my trip, I encountered tired women with kids.” Their eyes were unable to conceal it. Hell has been their experience. Parfan tells the story of her voyage, a visit back to her native Ukraine just a few weeks after the Russian invasion, in the first three-part documentary series by The New Yorker and independent Ukrainian filmmakers. She writes that while traveling, she saw large crowds of people at border crossings, bus stations, and airports: “All of them were traveling west.” “I was the only one who turned around and returned home.”
Before the war, Parfan and her husband Ilya lived in Kyiv, but they usually spent the winters in Dahab, Egypt, a small resort town on the Red Sea, to escape the dark and cold months in Kyiv. They witnessed the invasion of their nation by forces there in February last year. Parfan described his experience of being away from home as feeling like he had no will or authority. You feel incredibly powerless. She recalled keeping busy by organizing evacuation logistics from a distance—”entire Ukraine was like one WhatsApp chat”—but not experiencing any relief. Dahab was safe, yet it seemed like a jail, as she says in the movie.
Parfan informed me, “These neuroscientists frequently state that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit.” She slept soundly for the first time in weeks, twenty-one days after Russia invaded, and dreamed of a road leading “to some unknown location.” She realized right away that they were fighting in Ukraine. She eventually came to accept it. She states in the movie, “Strangely, I felt relieved as if some outer force were giving me a hint and lifting me out of my immobility.” The following morning, she decided to return to Ukraine and document her flight there. She said, “Simply having the thought was so relaxing—just having any concept of what to do.”
She and Ilya agreed that she would travel alone to Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and the border while he would stay behind. She stopped in Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine, on the route to Kyiv, to see her cousin, Bogdan. Along with Parfan’s parents, his wife and children had fled. The movie depicts how he and Parfan enter a bomb shelter beneath the home where Parfan grew up one night in response to an air raid siren. Bogdan later pulls black leather straps over the shoulders of his white hoodie, giving the impression that he is donning suspenders at first. He then raises his kind face and opens his eyes as he holsters a black revolver next to his left lung. Two tiny teddy bears in gowns are standing behind him, holding hands, on top of a tufted couch. Jokingly, he mentions “playing an American cop.” Parfan is referred to as “the most tranquil guy on earth” in the movie. “He got a rifle for himself.” Life is the same as it has always been and shockingly new, with everything suddenly militarized.
In Ivano-Frankivsk, which was shelled by Russian missile strikes on the first day of the invasion, Parfan’s grandmother had also stayed behind. To better remember who needs to be placed in her prayers, she “takes her safety measures,” according to Parfan, by keeping a list of every family member, whether they are alive or not. Four groups of family friends who have escaped the front lines in eastern and central Ukraine are staying at her house, which is now complete.
When Parfan returns to Kyiv at last, her residence will be intact. The tall, delicate tamarind tree she and Ilya have in a container is, in some places, fine but has faded in others. She records herself dancing and singing the city’s hymn, “Impossible not to adore you, my Kyiv,” while alone in the city. But any happiness she feels when she gets home is quickly mixed with the new reality of her home country. After Russian forces left an area of Ukraine they had occupied for a month; a friend asked Parfan to check on her home in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv. Parfan says her friend could get away, but only after hiding in a cellar for two weeks to avoid the atrocities that killed at least 400 Ukrainians. The home of her acquaintance is littered with glass shards and bullet wounds. A woman is cooking outside on an open fire while wearing a long coat that is a light blue color but has been sooted black. Gas and electricity are still not available to the buildings. Parfan inquires, “What has been going on here during the last few weeks?” The woman purses her lips and fixes her gaze. There is a solitary inverted shoe nearby, in a pit that may pass for a tomb.
What kind of art or film can you make when your house is bombed, or someone is raped and tortured? Parfan questioned me. But it was there that she found relief. She called the camera “a therapist” who “helps construct some distance” between the person behind the scenes and the scenes in front. She claimed she couldn’t serve in the military or as a paramedic. She is a filmmaker and told me that filming “helped relieve a lot of sorrow.” “I should do it since that’s the only thing I can do.”