Canadian filmmaker and photographer Louie Palu’s “Zero Position” offers a stark snapshot of war’s devastation in Eastern Ukraine. Shot in 2016, well before the current invasion but at a point when Russia-allied separatists had already occupied much of the Donbas region, this impressionistic documentary does not provide much in the way of contextualizing explanation, let alone political analysis. But it has considerable potency as a record of the ruination such armed conflicts leave behind, reducing once-bustling population centers to eerily quiet (yet still perilous) wreckage.
The director’s opening voiceover provides the largest dose of straight intel as he notes having journeyed there two years after the separatists declared independence from Ukraine, “to understand what the war looked like.” What he found was “a place of competing ideologies, a cultural borderland between East and West, at war over a past and future identity.”
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But no one among the combatants and civilians here (few of whom are identified) discusses such issues, beyond making general pleas for peace and stressing their humanity as more than simply an “enemy.” Nor are there interviews per se; Palu prefers to let those he meets act as tour guides, showing us destroyed homes and schools. A guard protects transformers targeted by rebel forces whose snipers may lay just out of sight. We get a fairly lengthy visit to a still-functioning coal mining operation, this region’s key industry — and doubtless a major cause of its value to Russia. Long drives on mostly deserted, often damaged roads are broken up by the occasional traffic backup and/or checkpoint.
These excursions are often tense ones, with obvious signs of recent shelling, and danger everywhere from landmines and unexploded bombs. Two older women encountered lugging heavy supplies on foot — a common sight — seem to be practically the only residents left in their village, nearly everyone else having fled or been killed. A chaplain and a children’s rights advocate are baffled by the denialism of another woman still living in a farmhouse just a few hundred feet from the frontline, unwilling to evacuate herself or the children in her care.
There’s a certain bleak poetry to much of “Zero Position,” with Palu’s camera finding a kind of beauty in rubble, as well as landscapes that themselves seem to have grown somber with loss. If wildlife occasionally glimpsed seems oblivious to mankind’s self-destruction, the presence of unburied dead animals reminds that they, too, can be casualties. Onscreen titles tell us whether we’re in Ukrainian or separatist-held areas — the filmmakers spend considerable time on both sides — though to the naked eye, differences are hard to find. While we seldom hear so much as gunfire in the distance, the ghost-town desolation is pervasive.
Not seen onscreen himself, though fellow photojournalist Brendan Hoffman and various translators are, Palu keeps his narration aptly terse, preferring to mostly let the imagery speak for itself. If the film can sometimes frustrate in its lack of explication or evident structure, it nonetheless casts an unsettling spell that holds attention, enhanced by the ominous drone of Alex Khaskin’s original score.
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