‘Information can be bent. Emotions are always honest’: the film at the heart of Ukraine’s agonising evacuations

<span>‘Ukraine is fighting mostly not against Russia; we are fighting for the happiness we build’ … Ivan Sautkin in the Babylon 13 office, Kyiv.</span><span>Photograph: Julia Kochetova/The Guardian</span>
‘Ukraine is fighting mostly not against Russia; we are fighting for the happiness we build’ … Ivan Sautkin in the Babylon 13 office, Kyiv.Photograph: Julia Kochetova/The Guardian

There’s a moment in Ivan Sautkin’s new documentary, A Poem for Little People, in which a humanitarian volunteer tries to reason with a group of women filling cans with the grimy water that has collected in a shell hole in their suburban street. They should come with him now, says the volunteer, Anton Yaremchuk. It is August 2022, Bakhmut, Ukraine. Explosions boom, horribly close. Despite the obvious peril, they refuse to go. They ask him: how will they get the money to live if they leave? Yaremchuk, exasperated, states the obvious: if they stay, they could be killed at any moment.

In another scene, an elderly woman who has made the wrenching decision to abandon her apartment, locks her front door with a tremulous hand – then remembers she’s left her crutch inside and has to unlock it again. As she climbs into the volunteers’ minibus, she covers her head with her hands for a moment. As she raises her face again, a whole lifetime of emotions seems to pass across it.

Such moments of decision – to stay in the place one loves and knows; or to leave, shutting the door for the last time, turning the key in the lock, abandoning every familiar and beloved thing – these were momentous junctions in the lives of those filmed by the Ukrainian documentary maker. For the evacuees saying goodbye to Bakhmut, it really was the last time: the Russians bombed the city to the ground before occupying its ruins last spring.

“It shows the value of home,” says Sautkin, a 52-year-old with a rakishly curled moustache, who trained as painter before turning to film-making. He is speaking at the Kyiv offices of film-making collective Babylon 13, ahead of his presentation of the film on Monday at the Cannes film festival. (He is has been granted rare permission for a man of fighting age to travel beyond the borders.)

“Ukraine is fighting mostly not against somebody, against Russia; we are fighting for our homes, fighting for our values, fighting for the people we love, for the happiness we build. Of course, everybody has their own kind of happiness. Sometimes it doesn’t really look like happiness, sometimes it’s not perfect, but still, it’s a very valuable and very important thing.”

Babylon 13 was born when Sautkin and other friends in the film industry decided to start making shorts during Kyiv’s pro-Europe Maidan demonstrations of 2013 – which turned into a violent tragedy after police snipers opened fire on protestors. They shot footage by day and gathered to drink wine and edit by night, posting the films the following morning. Their grassroots subjects and emotional honesty were meant as a retort to the often distorted agenda pushed by the then pro-Russia government. We became “a kind of a human initiative against the information war”, he said.

Since then, Babylon 13 has continued its work as a filmmakers’ collective and a production house, making features as well as full-length documentaries. When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022, Sautkin initially went back to making the kind of shorts he’d filmed during the Maidan protests, posting fast-response films about, for example, Ukraine’s Roma community, and refugees at the country’s borders.

He too had been forced to flee his home in a village in the Chernihiv region, close to the Russian border in the north of Ukraine, which he’d been running it as an artists’ residency for playwrights, film-makers and visual artists. On 24 February, along with one of his children, he managed to drive to safety shortly before the local bridges were blown and the area occupied. The Russians withdrew after a few weeks; fortunately, the house was undamaged. “Our road was not interesting to the Russians, and tank columns passed it only twice during the occupation and did not stop in the village,” he said. But “now it is dangerous to be there because everything is mined, and explosions can be heard day and night because there is a constant artillery duel across the border line”. He is looking for funds to move the artists’ residency somewhere safer, in western Ukraine, “but so far to no avail”.

A friend in a neighbouring village, a woman in her 80s called Zinaida, forms the focus of the second strand in Sautkin’s film. We see her in her neat-as-pin apartment, busily preparing lunch or showing off her embroidery skills; a grandmotherly figure radiating a sharp intelligence. The windows of her flat in the village of Sedniv look down over the P13 road that winds down from the Russian border to the city of Chernihiv. It was from here that she counted the tanks through her net curtains and fed the intelligence back to the Ukrainian military. We meet, too, her friend Taisia, who writes verses: she reads one of them aloud for the camera. It was composed specifically in Russian for the invading soldiers, explaining precisely why they were in the wrong. A “funny, naive, but fantastically brave” thing to do, said Sautkin.

Fantastically brave indeed: but so was Sautkin himself when he filmed with the volunteers evacuating civilians. He was his own crew: it was just him and his camera; when needed, he mucked in with the evacuations. Two of the foreign volunteers seen in the documentary, Chris Parry, from Cornwall, and American Pete Reed, were later killed – Parry shot by the Russians near Soledar, Reed killed in Bakhmut. As to the risks to his own skin, Sautkin shrugs them off: “There were mines on the road a few times, you know, our car was a little bit crushed by shrapnel, and there was a really dangerous moment at night when Russian jets were throwing heavy bombs. There were so many scary moments. But I cannot say that it’s something really special because we are in dangerous circumstances, even here in Kyiv.

“For me to be a volunteer was a simple chance to see to see what’s happening from inside of this country,” he adds. Filming close to the frontline can be a complicated business; the Ukrainian military authorities do not grant access freely to the media. For volunteers, on the other hand – the numerous, mostly Ukrainian civilians delivering humanitarian missions – things are different. “The military and police know if somebody’s with a camera with volunteers, it’s OK. They need to document the people they’re evacuating, they film themselves to share footage on social media to get donations. But the press, journalists? Sometimes it’s not OK.”

Sautkin’s basic material is human emotion. “In Babylon 13, one of the principles is that we don’t work with information, because information is plastic stuff: it can be interpreted, bent, twisted, turned. We work with emotions. They are always honest.” There’s a heart-rending passage of the film in which a very sick, very old woman, wearing an incontinence pad, is in obvious distress as she is driven along the rough, unmade roads of eastern Ukraine: the volunteers debate among themselves whether they should have subjected her to the discomfort of the journey. She later died in hospital.

“I have my own borders,” of what to show and what not to show, Sautkin says. “Sometimes they are intuitive, sometimes very thought-through.” There are no children in the film: “In my opinion, to show children is kind of a cheap way to get an audience to empathise.”

Sautkin is still haunted by another scene – one that exists in his memory, not in the film. It was a dark night in December 2022, in Bakhmut. The city was being fought over, street by street. Those civilians who were left “were absolutely the most helpless people – those with no relatives in other places to take them in, those with no money, those who were sick or with mental illness”.

For days, they had been trying to evacuate a man with schizophrenia. The volunteers at last got a message from the military: the man was ready to go. When they got to the man’s house, though, Sautkin and the other volunteers found him dead. Frozen to death, that cold and harsh night, long after electricity or heating had ceased to function – but his Maglite torch was still on. “I am still thinking about that little light in that dead hand,” he said. “That Maglite is still on in my mind.”

• A Poem for Little People screens in Cannes on 20 May as part of an event with the European Solidarity Fund for Ukrainian Films