“Ukraine can not lose,” Bernard-Henri Lévy says at the end of his powerful new film about the war in Ukraine, “But it must be helped to win.” And this film, Why Ukraine co-directed with Marc Roussel and co-written with Gilles Herzog, produced by Francois Margolin with Emily Hamilton and Natalia Gryvniak, which is being screened at the United Nations on October 27 and will be released in the US later this year, is in no small part dedicated to that effort and to making the case that in the battle for Ukraine, Democracy itself is at stake.
In Why Ukraine which runs a little over an hour, Lévy is our Virgil leading the viewers on a tour of the present war in Ukraine, highlighting the destruction Russia has unleashed on Ukraine’s citizens and civilian targets, and the brave efforts of the Ukraine military in its counterinsurgency. Like Virgil, Lévy “sings of arms and the man” setting the current conflict in the context of other battles he’s been witness to in Sarajevo, in Libya and in Mosul, as well in Ukraine itself over the last decade since 2014’s Maidan Revolution.
Fighting what Lévy calls “The cult of death whose face is Putin,” we see evidence of the civilian massacres in Bucha, as well as visits to those cities we have to come to know, regrettably, for the savagery Russian troops unleashed upon them such as Donbas, Mariupol, and Luhansk. In Odesa we see young men making Molotov cocktails, and children elsewhere helping to build barricades for what Lévy calls, “the most astonishing counteroffensive in modern times.”
Lévy is an optimist and his visits to Ukraine and other conflict zones is never purely as an observer or merely to document. He is there to urge on the forces of good to fight against evil – he is there to remind those resistance fighters of the noble dimensions of their battle, he is there to make a difference if he can.
We see Lévy with former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and the Mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko arranging for them to meet with then French President Francois Hollande. We see him present as Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, is freed from three years of detention, and as she thanks him and France for helping in her release. And we see him meeting with candidate Volodymyr Zelensky as he is running for President.
Later, Lévy visits Babi Yar, the site of a Nazi mass murder of more than 33,000 Jews in a two-day period in 1941, at whose 75th Anniversary he gave “a lesson on memory” as a representative of France; and which he now visits to see the aftereffects of the Russian rain of missiles on the Holocaust memorial. He then questions President Zelensky about the claims of antisemitism among the pro-Ukrainian forces, which Zelensky effectively debunks, putting the percentage of far-right representation in Ukraine’s parliament to one sole seat holder, and in all of Ukraine as “less than 1%.” And then we have footage of the annual celebration in Uman, Ukraine by Hasidic pilgrims to the grave of the great Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, known as the Baal Shem Tov. The Jewish people’s example of survival, we are told, refutes Neo-Nazism.
In Maidan Square in 2014, Lévy addresses the thousands of Ukrainian citizens present as “the guardians of Democracy; the guardians of Europe.” Lévy returns to this theme several times in the film, making the point that the battle for Ukraine is important to all of us – Ukraine is the bulwark not just to Putin’s territorial expansions but the defense to the threat Authoritarian regimes throughout the world pose to the continued welfare of Democracy – for all of us, in Europe as much as in the United States.
Lévy brings to Why Ukraine a global perspective having seen the ravages of war but also its historical and literary dimensions alluding to Greek legends and French literature. Who else would reference the ‘Song of Roland’ in discussing Ukraine?
Ukraine will win this war, Lévy tell us, because its soldiers and citizens “know why they fight.” In Why Ukraine Lévy makes the case why we all need to fight for them.