“Novorossiya” by Enrico Parenti and Luca Gennari, which had its world premiere this week at CPH:DOX, is a rare film that shows the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas region from the Russian perspective.
Gennari, an experienced cinematographer, was shocked at the way the war in the Luhansk and Donetsk region, where pro-Russian separatists have proclaimed the state of Novorossiya (literally “New Russia”), no longer received any media attention once the Maidan revolution was over.
In 2017, he decided to head to the Donbas region with his camera to see what life was like there.
The film follows the parallel stories of a handful of characters, ranging from a communist U.S. fighter from Texas to a young Ukrainian soldier, a captain in the separatist army who dreams of rebuilding the Soviet Union, an opera singer from the Donetsk opera house, two young men from a heavy metal band and two elderly women who live in a bunker.
Gennari had planned to return to Donbas but when the pandemic hit, this became impossible. It did, however, give them time to edit the film: it took them a year.
The goal, says Parenti, who edited some 80 hours of footage into the 64 minute doc, was to develop a narrative that would offer a fly-on-the-wall take of the situation there.
“We wanted to observe the reality there, to show each character as a human being, with their own thoughts, their own beliefs, their own propaganda, their own lives. It’s clear that the foreign fighters are very extreme in the way they talk – our goal was not to offer an exaggerated perspective but to show it the way it is,” he says.
In masterfully edited scenes, the film features an overlay of day-to-day life scenes with the ever-present sound of war. “We wanted to give a sense of this war that is present in everyday life: you hear bomb shelling just a few kilometers away and, at the same time, people are going to the opera house, leading a normal life in a sense, because this war has been going on for eight years so life has to start again.”
He explains how they initially failed to draw any interest for their film about a war that nobody cared about, but since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine in February, “we’ve been bombarded by requests from festivals and TV channels.”
However, some film festivals have been reluctant to take on the doc because it is shot entirely from the Russian side. This, says Parenti, is a shame, as “we believe that people should know as much as possible about this situation: it’s a war that has been going on for eight years – we need to know who the foreign fighters are, who the separatists are, who the people caught in the middle are.
“[If we don’t show the whole picture], we mimic what the Russians are doing by changing the narrative in their favor – if we start playing the same game, we don’t know where that will end – having different perspectives makes our understanding of the situation richer.”
For Gennari, “Novorossiuya” is not a political movie. He explains how he had initially planned on focusing on the foreign fighters but that his focus shifted to the civilians “because war is something that generates chaos in people’s lives. This film is not our opinion of what’s happening – there is just this sense of chaos that hits you. Our goal is not to take sides but for the doc to be useful to help people understand what is happening there.”
The duo explain how they have sensed an urge from people around them since the outbreak of the war to broaden their perspective. “A lot of people from within the [film] industry, but also ordinary people, like my electrician, have asked me about it, they say they want to know more to try and understand,” says Gennari.
A last-minute addition to the lineup, “Novorossiya” was screened out of competition at CPH:DOX as a Special Premiere and in the festival’s specially curated Stand with Ukraine section.