The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy does not pretend that “Slava Ukraini,” a war dispatch that he directed with Marc Roussel, is a polished documentary. In his closing narration, he describes it as an “unfinished film that we deliver as such, from the road.”
For better and worse, that is how it plays. Lévy’s second documentary on the war in Ukraine (the first, “Why Ukraine,” aired on television in Europe) follows his travels to cities around the battered country in the second half of 2022. He meets with soldiers and civilians to capture the human stakes of the fight, with the goal of rallying the world against complacency in the face of the Russian president Vladimir V. Putin’s aggression.
Lévy’s effort demands respect. Public intellectuals in the United States seldom travel through war zones with a camera running. (For that, we have Sean Penn.) They do not head into the center of a still-smoldering Bakhmut as the rumble of combat echoes in the background. Nor do they stand across the Dnipro River from an active Russian military position, in apparent view of a sniper. “For the time being, there is only sporadic fire,” Lévy explains over footage of himself hastening back to a car.
It is also facile to dismiss Lévy, as some have, as a conflict-chasing opportunist. He’s been at this long enough. Lévy first wrote as a war correspondent in the early 1970s. His documentary “Peshmerga,” on Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan, and its follow-up, “The Battle of Mosul,” were released here in 2020.
Yet Lévy does not make especially cohesive documentaries, and “Slava Ukraini” consists, like the Iraq films, of a disjointed, often insufficiently contextualized collection of interviews and interactions from his travels. It is hard not to wish for a version of “Slava Ukraini” in which Lévy played a less central onscreen role, or at least one without so much obtrusive scoring or voice-over.
Occasionally his commentary is poetic. A breathtaking hand-held shot shows him trudging through a trench with soldiers as he reflects in narration “on this archaic habit of men burying themselves so not to die.” Yet more often, at least as subtitled, his words are so florid (“And we walk, under an insolently blue sky, looking for miraculous survivors”) that they risk trivializing his encounters. The camera says a lot without him.
But artistic values aren’t really the point, which is to meet Ukrainians and to see different corners of the bombarded country, where residents, Lévy suggests, have in many cases become inured to the sight of a bombed office building or to the sound of warning sirens. “If there’s an evacuation, where will I go?” says a woman making borscht outdoors. Lévy visits a synagogue that sheltered outsiders, an act that he says serves as “a magnificent rebuttal to Putin’s propaganda about the inexpiable war between Ukraine and its Jews.” Survivors in liberated Kherson gather around generators to charge their phones, preparing to call people who may have been killed.
Maybe Lévy didn’t need to be the one to put them in a movie. But he’s the one who did.
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