Ukrainian filmmaker Stanislav Kapralov remembers the exact moment he learned his childhood dog, Nika, went missing amid Russia's invasion of his homeland. "It was February 2022," Kapralov tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I was on holiday with my family near the border of Poland, and my parents had evacuated from Kyiv. I learned from them that Nika was afraid of the shelling and ran away."
"It was a hard moment for me, because Nika was part of my family," the director continues. "I'd known her since I was a teenager. That's why I asked my wife to take our child into Poland for safety, while I returned to Kyiv search for Nika and help my country."
That search forms the spine of Searching for Nika, Kapralov's wrenching documentary about the toll that the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war is taking on Ukraine's animal population. Naturally, the director is a central character in the film, although he says his original intention was to remain off-camera so that viewers would focus on those he considers the real heroes of the story — the people caring for the abandoned pets and farm animals left behind by Ukrainians who have fled or are casualties of war.
"I tried to cut myself as much out of the movie as possible," says Kapralov, who was wounded during the course of making the film when Russian artillery interrupts a rescue mission at a wildlife park — a bombardment that's seen on camera. The director spent the next month recuperating from his injury, living in a makeshift underground shelter below a friend's restaurant.
Kapralov's work has been endorsed by Olena Zelenska, first lady of Ukraine and spouse of President Volodymyr Zelensky. "This film provides a notably unique and highly personal perspective of what Ukraine and Ukrainians are enduring in the midst of the ongoing Russian onslaught," Zelenska said in a statement provided to Yahoo Entertainment. "Ukraine is not just one land or people, but an entire cultural identity — a cultural identity that includes our art, our language, our hopes, our dreams, and yes, even our beloved animals. This is an important film for everyone around the world to see, even though it is uncomfortable. The whole world must witness the extent of the malicious hostility being carried out within our borders"
Fair warning: Searching for Nika is filled with upsetting imagery of distressed and dead animals. But Kapralov tries to balance that footage with happier moments where lost pets are discovered and returned to their owners. And while he declines to spoil the ending of his own search for Nika, he does say he wants to leave audiences on a hopeful note.
"Hope is very important," the director notes. "I met so many people who were lights in the darkness, and that gave me hope. You can't feel pain or cry all the time, because you'll go crazy."
1. There's a lot of distressing footage in Searching for Nika. Did you have any concerns about showing dead or injured animals on camera?
We tried to choose our shots carefully. For example, there's an episode in the movie when Russians [assuage] their hunger with horses, and when we got there, we met the horses's owner, who was so upset. We had a lot of shots of these shots of the burnt animals, but I tried to choose them for the audience. I want to show people, but we also don't want them to be annoyed, disgusted and stop watching. It's very important for the world to watch this movie, as it is for me as a person who loves animals and believes every creature has value.
There was another episode we didn't put in the movie, because people told us it was impossible to watch. We were looking for a cat in an apartment, and when we found it, it was dead. We covered the body, and didn't show it on camera. People close their eyes when they watch certain episodes in the movie, but I feel that they have to watch it especially in the West where they're living comfortable lives. Cruelty rules the world right now, and people have to watch this film to understand what's going on and that some people are fighting for humanity while others are trying to kill other beings.
2. Were you ever scared for your own life while making the movie?
You're scared for your life the first week [that you're in Ukraine] because you don't know what's going on or how powerful [the Russians] are. My military friends told me that there was a 50-50 chance that I'd return. But by the next week, you accept that you can die. And that's a philosophical moment, because I realized that our biggest problems as humans is a fear of death. Once I accepted the idea, "I can die," I could relax and just keep shooting.
3. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I believe that this war has awakened all the good that Ukraine has, and it was very important for me to show that we have hope, and we have a future. We are fighting not just for the our land, but also our identity. Even now, I speak with people in America and they ask, "What's the difference between Ukraine and Russia? You have the same language." We don't have the same language. Ukraine has a huge history as one of the biggest and most powerful countries in Europe.
We're fighting for our future and for our children, and we don't want to stop now. We want to win. In this film, I show some of the horrors and crimes committed by Russian soldiers. But the main message is hope: The hope that evil does not always prevail and that the global good will unite, which is very important right now.
Searching for Nika is available to stream through Nov. 26 as part of the Doc NYC festival.