Sniper: The White Raven review – raw account of Ukrainian resistance in Donbas

This war movie from Ukraine was made before the full-scale invasion in February, and tells the important story of how Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Donbas since 2014. Director Marian Bushan co-wrote the script with schoolteacher-turned-soldier Mykola Voronin, apparently inspired by some of his actual experiences. Their story inevitably resonates, but I watched it with the slightly sinking feeling of witnessing raw truth being fictionalised into bland drama with all the war movie cliches in the book.

Ukrainian musician and actor Aldoshyn Pavlo is a soulful lead as Mykola, a shaggy-haired pacifist hippy who teaches high school maths and physics. Mykola has moved to depopulating and deindustrialising eastern Ukraine to live off-grid in a rickety shed with his pregnant wife Nastya (Maryna Koshkina). In the film’s cheesily idyllic opening scenes we watch her idling her days away whittling wood and sketching wildlife. The couple don’t have a TV or phone, so they miss warnings of the impending Russian invasion. When Nastya is savagely killed, Mykola joins a volunteer battalion and swears revenge on the Russians who murdered his wife. He’s nicknamed “Civvie” by Ukrainian officers who think he will last a week in the army.

As Mykola switches into warrior mode, the training scenes are predictable – the push-ups in the rain, pumping weights, scrambling under netting on obstacle courses. His gentle handsome face is soon chiselled into fierceness, china-blue eyes glinting with rage. At first, officers laugh at how hopeless he is with a gun; then of course comes the triumphant scene where he shows them all what he is made of, dismantling and reassembling an AK-47 in 20 seconds blindfolded. Ta da. After that Mykola earns the nickname Raven and becomes a sniper.

As a war movie written by a soldier this material feels oddly lacking in authenticity and authority. And yet it’s a noble attempt to honour the resilience of Ukrainians and the courage of ordinary people like Voronin, fighting for freedom.

• Sniper: The White Raven is released on 3 October on digital platforms.