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In Donbass, young Ukrainian soldiers still fight against pro-Russian separatists. Loup Bureau’s “Trenches,” which premiered in the Out of Competition strand of the Venice Film Festival and screened this week at MIA Market in Rome, is a fascinating journey into their troubled existences. Variety spoke to the French journalist about the challenges posed by the making of this complex war documentary.

Bureau started developing the documentary in 2018. “At first, I visited different places to meet some soldiers and make sure that the locations were accurate for my film. I wanted to show a lot of trenches, and you can find most of them in the countryside. I went to seven or eight places before finding the right one, the outpost held by the 30th brigade of the Ukrainian army.”

Filming trenches in black-and-white served as a tool to draw a parallel between old and modern warfares. “As a Westerner, what struck me was seeing them and think about World War I. That’s a very specific image we have in mind. It’s terrifying, something you think would never happen again. The idea was to bring the viewers back to the past and make them think of old movies. Out of the trenches, however, there was no reason to keep black-and-white images. Out there, the soldiers’ mental state changes. They experience a moment of joy, even though this may last for a few days or hours. After they come back to the city, they see it’s not easy to adapt [to civilian life] and fall into depression. It’s an aspect not specifically related to the trenches, but to any kind of war.”

An engineer he met during the Revolution of Dignity helped him to gain access to the subjects. “We managed to speak directly to the local commanders. We knew it wasn’t possible to stay in the trenches for a long time, so we were granted permission day by day and, later, week by week.”

Bureau shot 70 hours of footage over the course of three months and had to face several ethical dilemmas. “When you’re filming soldiers fighting on the frontlines, you need to make sure not to put them in danger. There are still people fighting in the trenches I visited. The images I’ve shot may be used by other people, including the separatists backed by the Russians, for strategic purposes. That’s why different spaces that seem connected in the film aren’t in reality. And, there are some other things I didn’t film. For example, I didn’t show them drinking. I know it’s forbidden, but a lot of soldiers are depressed and find comfort in alcohol.”

Acting as a one-man band filmmaker and accompanied only by a translator, Bureau described the whole process as “a long lethargy.” “Sometimes, nothing happened for two or three days. When I say that nothing happened I mean that the soldiers stayed in their positions and kept on monitoring the situation.”

Speaking on the post-production phase and the difficulties of constructing a coherent narrative, he concluded: “It’s been a long journey. When I came back from the trenches, I didn’t know how exactly the story would be. Luckily, we had some events that could have helped us to build the narrative. But I wasn’t interested in just showing the events. Instead, I really wanted to enter these soldiers’ minds and understand what they think about their life and why they came there.”

“Trenches” was produced by Unité with the support of France’s Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée (CNC), and the Région Île-De-France, in association with Sofitvciné 8. Films Boutique is in charge of its world sales.