The ‘Lost Opportunity’ Behind Ukrainian Sundance Doc ‘Iron Butterflies,’ About the Russian Downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17

When he began working on his sophomore documentary feature, “Iron Butterflies,” in 2019, Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Liubyi said he was “making the film as a warning, before the Third World War.”

The film, which world premiered at Sundance, follows the Russian disinformation campaign surrounding the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine in 2014, a tragedy that was determined by a Dutch court in Nov. 2022 to have been caused by a missile supplied by the Russian military to separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

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Many Ukrainians thought the tragic event, which killed 289 civilian passengers and crew, would serve as a wake-up call to Europe and the U.S., which had largely turned a blind eye to Russia’s meddling in the region, said the director. But the years dragged on and the long-running conflict in Donbas retreated from the headlines — until an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine last year.

In the wake of that invasion, “there was no point of a warning — it was already happening,” Liubyi said. “Now it’s a story about lost opportunity. I hope that it can change something in the future.”

“Iron Butterflies” plays this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, following its European premiere in Berlin. Sherry Media Group recently acquired all rights for Canada and is planning a theatrical release.

The film uses open-source footage of Russian TV news segments, audio intercepts and social media posts to explore how the Russian propaganda machine quickly tried to steer the narrative in the wake of the tragic crash, laying bare the absurdity of the version of events being pushed by the Kremlin within hours of the tragedy.

In one scene, a Russian news crew interviews a psychic who has her own theory about what caused the Boeing jet to crash. In another, a news anchor performs an abrupt about-face, offering a straight-faced contradiction of claims she made on air earlier the same day.

“As Ukrainians, we know a lot about Russian propaganda. We dealt with hybrid war and [Russia’s] media war for years,” said Liubyi, explaining how the Putin playbook is to create “a vulgar flood of disinformation and random facts,” to the point that “reality becomes questionable.”

“You can’t be sure of anything,” he said. “This is what they’re doing with their people, but I think it’s a danger for the whole world.”

Liubyi’s first feature, “War Note,” captured life for Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline of the fighting in Donbas, stitching together the videos they’d shot on their smartphones, cameras and GoPros.

Both films were produced by the Ukrainian film collective Babylon 13, which was created following the mass demonstrations in Kyiv’s Maidan Square that ousted the pro-Russian, authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych in the winter of 2014.

“Iron Butterflies” is being repped internationally by Berlin-based documentary specialist Rise and Shine. CEO Stefan Kloos, who brokered the deal with Sherry Media Group, said the movie had “found a distributor in Canada who is 100% dedicated to the film and convinced of the power it unfolds on the screen.”

Sherry Media Group CEO Jim Sherry added: “‘Iron Butterflies’ is a remarkable film. Roman Liubyi’s documentary is powerful, authentic and an extraordinary achievement in investigative filmmaking.”

For his next feature, Liubyi is planning a feature-length, family animation based on the book “Unholy Power,” which was written in the early-20th century and inspired by Ukrainian folklore. The film will utilize a range of animation techniques, including stop-motion and puppetry, to tell the story of mysterious powers who intervene on Earth to help the hapless human beings who can’t stop getting into trouble.

It’s a project partly inspired by the director’s experiences since the start of the war, as he’s watched children huddled inside Kyiv bomb shelters with few forms of entertainment to pass the time.

“I really hope that soon, we will make stories that are not only about war,” Liubyi said. “[‘Iron Butterflies’] is my second feature, and it’s again about war, and I have so many other things to say.”

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