The Independent’s first feature-length documentary The Body in the Woods, about Ukraine’s unprecedented search for its missing and dead, premiered at Kyiv railway station on Saturday.
Audience members who included some of the families featured in the film, described it as a harrowing account of Russian atrocities in the war-ravaged country and the first in depth investigation into the scale of the difficulties Ukrainians face trying to find and identify their dead.
Screened at Kyiv train station as the world marks one year since Russia’s illegal invasion of the country, the 40-minute feature from international correspondent Bel Trew, opens with the discovery of a body of a young man, found bound, shot and burned beside an abandoned Russian camp in the woods outside Kyiv.
As Trew attempts to find out who the young man was and what happened to him, she uncovers the nightmare world thousands of Ukrainian families face trying to find their murdered relatives. In the chaos of war, and amid the discovery of mass graves, bodies go missing and are mixed up, adding to the emotional and human tragedy of the conflict.
All through this, Ukrainian authorities are trying to find the missing and document tens of thousands of potential war crimes – in the middle of active conflict.
“This film is about truth. We have to know what happened, all the world has to know what happened, particularly after the Russian narrative that we are ‘friends’ and we are ‘one nation’,” said Mykola Kuleba, Ukraine’s former ombudsman for children’s rights and founder of charity Save Ukraine, who attended the screening.
“Through this film we understand what it means to be friends according to Russia: it means to kill, to commit atrocities, through rape, through kidnapping children,’ he added.
“That is why this film is evidence of Russian atrocities. It is evidence about their strategy for Ukraine.”
Serhiy Leshchenko, advisor to President Zelensky’s chief of staff, a former MP and journalist, said the nightmare process that Ukrainian civilians and officials face in tracking war crimes and those killed, was “important for society and the international community to know about.”
“This work should be respected and these activities – of brave people trying to find and identify the bodies – should be presented to a global audience. People should know about this because frankly speaking myself I had very little knowledge about it,” he told The Independent.
“I am stressed after this movie. I cannot find colourful words. But this is important for society to know, for the international community to know.”
Alexander Kamyshin, head of the Ukrainian railways, who also attended the screening said the film highlighted for the first time the sheer depth of the nightmare Ukraine faces in trying to retrieve its dead and then to name the victims: a process which could take decades.
“I knew there was a problem with the identification of the bodies but I never thought the problem would last as long,” he told The Independent.
“This is an issue we cannot deal with on our own. I’m grateful for the support.”
In the audience were some of the Ukrainian families whose stories Trew followed during the making of the documentary over the last year.
During the course of the film Trew meets Vladislav a teenager orphaned by the war, and Vadym, a father-of-two, who was forced to watch most of his family perish when a Russian plane blew up the apartment building they lived in.
Robbed of the chance to bury their loved ones, they, like countless others, are unable to properly mourn and move on.
The Body in the Woods will be released on The Independent’s website and new smart TV app on 1 March. Saturdays’ premiere of the documentary will be followed by charity screenings in London and New York.