Watching Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev’s visually confident, intellectually insecure documentary Porcelain War is like listening to a recitation from a brilliant poet while somebody sitting next to you is whispering what the poems are actually about. And the person sitting next to you explaining what the poet is trying to say is… twist… also the poet!
There’s a great deal of beauty in Porcelain War and there’s a potent artistry behind it, but I’ve never watched a documentary with so many running visual metaphors and so little faith that the audience will be able to grasp them. It’s a bit stunning and a bit insulting all at once. That it often tends more toward the former explains its top award in the U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
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The documentary is the story of Slava (the co-director) and Anya, partners in life and in art. He makes porcelain objects — snails, reptiles, owls — and she covers their white surfaces with intricate and whimsical paintings. They live in Crimea, surrounded by artists and friends, but when the Russians attack, rather than fleeing their homeland, they go from the country into Kharkiv, a city just 25 miles from the Russian border.
In Kharkiv, Anya and Slava continue to make their art, placing their porcelain figures amid the rubble, while Slava is simultaneously serving as a weapons instructor for a military squad of civilians now forced to take up arms against the invading Russians. The artist couple is also accompanied by their bouncy dog Frodo, a terrier of some sort, and A VERY GOOD DOG.
The third (or fourth, if you count Frodo, which you truly must) member of their little society of artists in extremis is their longtime friend Andrey Stefanov, a painter who has turned his attentions to photography during the war, when he isn’t lost in thought about his wife and daughters, who fled to Lithuania.
The responsibility of the artist to continue to produce art in the darkest moments and the capacity of art to add beauty and levity in that darkness are just a few of the undercurrents in Porcelain War.
Art is, as the documentary makes clear and then repeats, in and of itself a rebellious act and an act of creation to ward off destruction. It’s hard to dispute this contention, and the directors and Stefanov, the documentary’s primary cinematographer, do a moving job of capturing the contrasts between the bucolic countryside and the rubble left in urban centers by Russian bombing.
The documentary shifts back and forth, often in hard cuts, from activities like a mushroom-hunting trip in the forest (or just Frodo leaping through sun-drenched fields) to the harsher realities of war. Except that both are reality, as we can see when one of their porcelain owls is placed on a decimated city wall or when Frodo very nearly happens upon a mine on one of their walks.
But can war — at least from a defensive posture when what you’re protecting is your generational homeland and all you hold dear — be an act of creation and art? This is the complicated thesis that Porcelain War dances around while never necessarily committing to it.
The necessity of fighting back against the Russians is never in doubt for the furniture salesmen and dairy farmers Slava is training. And once rebellion is happening anyway, we see Anya painting one of their bomb-equipped drones.
That drones have become a crucial piece of documentary vernacular in the past decade is made clear in several shots in which the filmmaking drone is filming the war-making drones in action. That one is making art and the other is contributing to carnage (however righteous) is a conversation Porcelain War instigates without directly addressing. Perhaps the filmmakers are hoping to avoid questions of whether or not they explicitly view this as Ukrainian propaganda or just as a story.
And you know that if the filmmakers felt comfortable making the topic explicit, they would, because the documentary is so very explicit in spelling things out at so many points. Like if you, dear reader, hear porcelain described as “fragile, yet everlasting” in a documentary about Ukraine, I’m betting there’s a connection you would be able to make without Slava’s voiceover coming out and saying, “Ukraine is like porcelain, easy to break, but impossible to destroy.”
Everything in Porcelain War is a metaphor, including little Frodo, of whom Slava says, “Everyone says that he is gentle, but courageous,” before Anya adds, “a small embodiment of the Ukrainian spirit.” Over and over again, the documentary does this, planting a seed that might be perceptive or poignant or just witty and then denying the viewer the chance to make a not-too-large leap.
Comparably to another Sundance prize winner, Angela Patton and Natalie Rae’s Daughters, Porcelain War suggests that having a co-director who is also a featured subject in your documentary may be good for intimacy, but isn’t always ideal for dramatic clarity. Expecting Slava Leontyev the Director to agree that probably 75 percent of Slava Leontyev the Subject’s voiceover — thoroughly poetic and thoroughly duplicative — could be cut is a big ask.
It’s my sense that in the absence of that voiceover, none of the documentary’s themes would be lost or weakened. It would be so much easier to marvel at Stefanov’s photography, to have your heart break at the tragic juxtapositions made by the editors, to celebrate the animation that flows out of Anya’s tiny paintings, to wait breathlessly through a harrowing sequence shot on a military body-cam. Or just to get carried along by the score from Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha as Frodo frolics obliviously on the edge of war.
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