(Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Patty Consolazio
If you find it difficult on any level to justify Russia’s war on Ukraine, Porcelain War is about to make it even harder.
The backstory: Amid constant shelling by Putin’s troops, a band of Ukrainian residents gathers to learn how to defend themselves and reclaim their country. As Slava Leontyev trains his neighbors — from farmers to IT folks — to handle and shoot a weapon, his wife, Anya Stasenko, uses her art to process the trauma and counter the violence, tucking her intricately painted porcelain figures in spaces throughout the war-ravaged landscape around their home. Their friend Andrey Stefanov films it all: the figures, the fighting, and the delicate scenes in nature across the Ukrainian countryside.
This is Porcelain War.
Porcelain War premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival on January 20 as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition, and its directors and featured artists and families were on hand at the post-premiere Q&A. Co-director Leontyev and Aniela Sidorska, one of three screenwriters, explain that the film concept came about as they looked for “incredible artists” to film.
“Aniela was googling and found Anya and Slava’s figurines online. And we connected and started to talk about collaborating on a project when the war broke out and the invasion happened,” says Leontyev. “And when Russia attacked, we decided that there was a whole other story to tell. We found out that they were staying in Ukraine; that they were OK, but they were going to continue making art, and on this day we learned that Slava was fighting back.”
Back at home, Leontyev asked Stefanov, a painter by trade, to film for him, though he had never filmed before. However, as Stefanov pointed out, “Making painting shares an enormous amount with other kinds of art. After I took my family to the border, Slava called me and said ‘Andrey, I think we have some work for you.’ I said ‘OK, I’ll be there.’”
The film follows a militia of neighbors as they run, geared up and armed, into their own backyards, where a war zone has materialized. We watch makeshift combat drones as they zero in on and attack the enemy’s bunkers and approaching tanks. And we see children wandering through their devastated neighborhoods, touching the bullet-pocked walls of crumbling buildings with their little hands.
When asked at the Q&A for an update on his grassroots militia, Leontyev explains, “They’re fighting. They’re all still here. There was only one serious injury. Now they’re focusing on finding themselves even more difficult assignments.”
However, Leontyev adds, “We have to continually remind ourselves that, despite their military activities, they’re still civilians. They hate war and violence. They don’t want to stay at war one single moment more than they have to. For that reason, they are pushing forward toward victory without taking a break.
“We have a choice in our situation. To fight or turn away. But if you run away, sooner or later you’ll run up against the ocean. And you’ll have to turn around and start fighting anyway. Our work in filmmaking and our work with porcelain are our way of resisting,” he observes.
When asked what the Ukrainian soldiers need most, Slava responds, “Unfortunately my answer would be very short. Ukrainian soldiers at this point need everything. We are short on everything. Everything’s in shortage. And the United States is the country who can help us more than anyone else.”
But somehow, amid the uncertainty and carnage and limited resources, there are peaceful moments. In their kitchen, the artists share intimate exchanges and laughter. Watching them paint and photograph, we see that these are good people who have done nothing to deserve this fate. And they still see and appreciate the beauty around them.
Sidorska says she particularly likes seeing her porcelain figures brought to life in the film. “I am very happy to see this. I am very surprised that now… despite the tragedy, I am starting to see something I always wanted to see in my life: how my characters have a life.”
Even with the joy and satisfaction that their art brings, the sound of shelling in the distance is a grim reminder of their reality. As is the fact that Andrey is living without his family, having sent his wife and daughters to seek refuge in Poland.
Leaving us to wonder for the millionth time: Why can’t we just leave each other alone?
To learn more about Anya and Slava, their art, and how to support Ukrainian relief efforts, visit porcelainwar.com.
To see more of the magic of the 2024 Festival, click here.