Discover Ukraine Through Film – Ukraine at War
14 May, 2020
"Discover Ukraine Through Film" is a project by journalist Lee Reaney teaching Ukrainian history through cinematography.

Stuck at home and looking for something to watch? Why not use the time to brush up on your Ukrainian history? We’ve compiled the definitive list of 50 films to guide you through 1,000 years of Ukrainian history.

We start this feature right where we left off the previous episode, at the epilogue of "Winter on Fire", or more precisely the bloodiest days of the Euromaidan Revolution.

As dozens of Euromaidan protesters were being killed by law enforcement officers under the guidance of Yanukovych, Russia's“little green men”  appeared in Crimea. No Russian flags proudly sewn on their uniforms, no public declaration from the President of Russia (in fact, outward denials for the first several weeks) – just a surreptitious annexation of sovereign Ukrainian land.

There have been plenty of films made about the ongoing annexation of Crimea and War in Donbas – and not all of them are created equal. We tried to provide films that will allow you to discover the key events, what led to them, and how they continue to impact Ukrainian society.

Of course, modern Ukraine is more than just war, so we look at contemporary, non-war-related Ukrainian films in our next feature.

Ukraine at War (2014 CE – Present)

Crimea: As it Was (2016)

As Yanukovych was escaping Ukraine for Russia and the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi were seeing their end, Russia began its unannounced takeover of Crimea on February 20, 2014. Produced by the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre and EuroMaidan Canada, with the support of the Ukrainian State Film Agency and the NATO Information and Documentation Centre, "Crimea: As it Was" documents the events of the annexation of Crimea while attempting to answer the question “Why did we give up Crimea?” The full-length documentary focuses on the stories of Ukrainians that remained loyal to Ukraine and provides unique insights into what the situation in Crimea was like on the ground. It’s required viewing to fully understand the context under which the temporary Ukrainian government was operating and the events that would soon lead to the ongoing war in Donbas.

Where to watch: On YouTube for free 

Can I watch in English: Yes, the film has English subtitles


Learn More: Check out Hromadske Radio’s chat (in English) with Director Kostiantyn Kliatskin and Executive Producer Serhiy Maliarchuk

U311 Cherkasy (2020)

Released in theaters just days before quarantine began, Timur Yashchenko’s "U311 Cherkasy" gives the full cinematic treatment to the story above. The film is told from the perspective of sailors aboard U311 Cherkasy, famous for being the last Ukrainian ship to surrender to Russia after the annexation of Crimea. The story recounts the minesweeper’s heroic three-week struggle that nearly defied the odds to escape the Russian blockade. Think "Crimson Tide" without the nuclear threat. The 40 million hryvnia ($1.5 million) film was financed in part by the Ukrainian State Film Agency, the Ukrainian Navy, and crowdfunding. Premiering at Ukraine’s prestigious Odesa International Film Festival last summer, ‘U311 Cherkasy’ did what few other modern Ukrainian films based on real events have been able to do – win over the Ukrainian critics. A film about bravery, the action always remains down to earth. Case in point? Directly after the celebratory flag-raising scene, the sailors question what they’re going to eat next. Sure to be in the conversation come awards season, the film was released to mark the sixth anniversary of the takeover of Crimea. Technically still in cinemas, the quarantine should make for an early online release.

Where to watch: The film is expected to continue its cinematic run in theaters post-quarantine. Follow its Facebook page for updates of when it will be released online 

Can I watch in English: Undetermined


Learn More: Russia continues to hassle Ukrainian ships in the Black and Azov Seas. In November 2018, three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait were captured. The ships and sailors were only returned in November 2019. For more, check out this documentary on the issue:


Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World (2019)

Things moved fast in the early months of 2014. Armed militias stormed government and police buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk in April, the Anti-Terrorist Operation (or ATO, the official name for Ukrainian government's military operation against Russia-led separatists in the east -ed.) was declared shortly after that, and the First Battle for the Donetsk Airport concluded in May. But the tragedy that really caught the world’s attention was the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) on July 17, 2014, claiming the lives of 298 civilians. Evidence suggests that the passenger jet was shot down with a BUK missile system that was transported across the border from Russia on the same day the flight was gunned down. And much of what we know about that event is because of the hard work of the "citizen journalists" at Bellingcat. Bellingcat became known for its work in unmasking the Russian intelligence officers behind the Skripal poisonings and their work in debunking Russian narratives around MH17. "Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World" is a cutting-edge documentary that looks at some of the key issues facing Ukraine, including the ongoing MH17 trial. This timely how-to guide on how citizens can combat disinformation was named the Most Valuable Documentary of the Year by Cinema for Peace and won an International Emmy Award.

Where to watch: On Joop for free 

Can I watch in English: Yes


Learn more: Be aware of MH17 documentaries, as there are many that are produced and/or financed by groups that push disinformation narratives. For a fuller picture on the MH17, check out the Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s "Caught in the Crossfire" documentary.

Beshoot: Ilovaisk 2014 (2019)

The early parts of the War in Donbas saw significant movement of the front lines, brutal building-to-building battles, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians. In the chaotic response to the armed insurrections in Donbas, several volunteer battalions fought, more or less, in concert with Ukrainian forces – and with some success, including the capture of the major railroad hub of Ilovaisk in August 2014. Deep behind enemy lines, the capture of Ilovaisk was a major coup for Ukraine, at least until armed forces entered Ukraine from Russia to cut off Ukrainian supply lines and encircle the Ukrainian soldiers. The tragedy of Ilovaisk came after the Ukrainian government negotiated a withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops. The troops were attacked while withdrawing, with over 300 soldiers losing their lives as a result. If you want realism, look no further than Ivan Tymchenko’s "Beshoot: Ilovaisk 2014", which stars over 50 soldiers that actually fought in the Battle of Ilovaisk, including Taras Kostanchuk, who plays the eponymous Beshoot (Bishut). There simply isn’t a better introduction to the type of urban warfare that Ukrainian soldiers have been forced to fight now for over six years.

Where to watch: On with subscriptions starting from 80 hryvnias / month 

Can I watch in English: Not yet, but English subtitles were available throughout its theatrical release, so they should be available online soon


Learn More: The terrible events of Ilovaisk were virtually repeated in the Battle of Debaltseve in January-February 2015. Debaltseve is a crucial road and rail junction between Donetsk and Luhansk and was controlled by Ukrainian forces when the Minsk II Accord ceasefire was signed on February 12, 2015. Sadly, the ceasefire didn’t manage to end the separatist advance and, once again, Ukrainian troops were encircled and attacked while withdrawing, costing around 200 Ukrainian lives. For more, check out the English-language "Debaltseve" documentary by the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre.

Cyborgs: Heroes Never Die (Kyborgy: Heroyi ne Vmiraiut) (2017)

Events in Ukraine have spawned some interesting new terminology: “little green men” are soldiers who are prevented from wearing their flag on their uniforms while on foreign missions due to orders from superiors; “humanitarian convoys” send just as much military aid as civilian; and then there are “Cyborgs” – a title given to Ukraine’s fierce defenders of the Donetsk Airport by a Russian foe. Ukrainian forces had taken the airport in the First Battle of Donetsk Airport in May 2014, but by late 2014 the airport was the only part of Donetsk city still held by Ukrainian forces. Ignoring the ceasefire agreed to in September’s Minsk I Accord, the Donetsk Airport became a spot of heavy fighting in late 2014 – far more for its symbolic value, than strategic. Before the fighting, the airport had been one of the finest in Ukraine, renovated just two years prior to host EURO 2012 football championship. By the time Ukrainian troops withdrew in January 2015, the building was left in shambles, with the control tower becoming one of the enduring symbols of the entire war. Like "Saving Private Ryan", director Akhtem Seitablayev uses soldiers from different backgrounds to discuss war, one’s place in the world, and what the future may hold.  Showing the emotional resonance of Cyborgs to Ukrainians, and the skill with which "Cyborgs: Heroes Never Die" is told, the film became a smash with both critics and audiences. It set Ukrainian records for biggest opening weekend, total gross, and most viewers, while dominating the second Golden Dzygas (a.k.a Ukrainian Oscars), winning six awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay. With its nuanced look at the reasons for war cloaked in a story that resonates so strongly with Ukrainians, "Cyborgs: Heroes Never Die" might be the most important film to watch on this list if you want to discover how Ukrainians view the war in Donbas.

Where to watch: On with subscriptions starting from 80 hryvnias / month

Can I watch in English: Not yet, but English subtitles were available throughout its theatrical release, so they should be available online soon


Learn More: One of the most frustrating things about the Second Battle for Donetsk Airport and the Battle of Debaltseve (see above) is that they came soon after ceasefires were signed during the Minsk I and Minsk II Accords, respectively. Check out this recent Hromadske interview with defense sector corruption expert Olena Tregub to see why she believes Minsk talks have stalled.

Also, watch an excerpt of Hromadske's interview with "Cyborgs'" director Akhtem Seitablayev and check out a more detailed analysis of the film here.

Lethal Kittens (Nashi Kotyky) (2020)

If you want something a little more upbeat than the other films in this article, then the war comedy "Lethal Kittens" is the one for you. It shows just how accustomed Ukrainians have become with the war in Donbas that they are now able to find humor in such dark subject material. That director and screenwriter Volodomyr Tykhy has crafted a film that genuinely makes us laugh at such bleak subject matter, it is a testament to the quality of his craft. This wild romp through the nether regions of the front line tells the story of inexperienced soldiers stranded at a remote and dreary frontline position with an ambitious journalist – and an immaculate toilet. With laugh-out-loud digs at everyone and everything – the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, Ukrainian military leadership and separatist leaders, the OSCE and ambitious journalists – you’ll find yourself quoting quips from the film well after it’s been watched. Similar to Oscar-winning Bosnian dark comedy "No Man’s Land" that focused on the Yugoslav War, "Lethal Kittens" is less dark and more comedy. Produced in part by former acting Health Minister Ulyana Suprun, this people-pleaser was still in cinemas when quarantine began. Do keep an eye for when it is released online – it’s a one-of-a-kind film that will have you smiling while you learn.

Where to watch: The film will be released online after its theatrical run. For more information, follow the film on Facebook

Can I watch in English: English subtitles were available during its theatrical run, so they should be available when the film is released online


Learn More: The “Ukrainian East” exhibit at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War Memorial Complex, Kyiv

/By Lee Reaney