On the eve of the US/Hollywood premiere of the documentary The Eastern Front: Terror and Torture in Ukraine directed by Byline TV filmmaker Caolan Robertson and featuring UK veteran war correspondent John Sweeney (Killer in the Kremlin), UK renowned war photographer Paul Conroy (A Private War, Under the Wire), and US author-turned-journalist Zarina Zabrisky (We, Monsters), Ukrainian-American journalist Nadia Banchyk reviews the film and interviews Zabrisky, who also writes for Euromaidan Press.
The car is driving along a city street, passing by high-rise buildings and tidy private houses pass by, visible through dense tree shade. Suddenly, the frame cuts. Explosion. The high rise suddenly sags, and the front wall collapses. A close-up of a “dissected” apartment. The kitchen, table, and a vase with ruddy, juicy apples are suspended in the air miraculously. Only yesterday a family had a birthday party here. The husband and father is no more.
The “yellow kitchen” photo was shared on social media worldwide as a silent testimony. On 23 January 2023, a Russian ballistic missile hit this high-rise building in the city of Dnipro. 46 dead.
This is the beginning scene of The Eastern Front: Terror and Torture in Ukraine. The crew is filming near this building in Dnipro, two months after the tragedy, talking to the survivors.
“Everybody has numbers in their phone they can’t call anymore… Everyone is a family member,” says one man in an interview.
A young mother, an internally displaced person from Donbas, asks the filmmakers, “Explain to the people in the West what they don’t understand.”
“Russian authorities are battling to keep clips of a new war film from getting widely shared across the social media platform RuTube, the country’s equivalent to Youtube… which gives compelling evidence for the use of illegal weapons and the torture of civilians in Ukraine, as well as documenting the devastation the war has wrought on a once peaceful country.—The London Economic, 5.27.2023
The ruins of Bakhmut. Life still goes on among the empty skeletons that used to be high-rise buildings recently. Suddenly, bright sparks shine in the night sky, like Polar Lights. Beautiful as they are, they burn everything around, reaching temperatures of 500 degrees Fahrenheit. These are phosphorus projectiles. Using them in civilian space is a war crime, explains an associate producer Paul Conroy, a military photographer with 30 years of experience who worked in many hot spots. A former military, Conroy offers a wealth of knowledge on weapons, security assessments, and military events. In 2012, Conroy got wounded in Syria, and his work partner, Maria Colvin, the most outstanding war correspondent of modern times, died next to him. Conroy lives in Kyiv and teaches tactical medicine to soldiers and journalists for free.
In another scene, the residents of a southern city Kherson share that, recently, incendiary shells were also used here, burning everything in sight. Locals sound surprised, “There have never been military facilities here.” “You also have children; go home!” The Ukrainian language is interspersed with Russian.
“If hell exists, it came here to Kherson.”—Culturall, 5.25.2023
In Kherson, we witness another potential war crime with a survivor or torture. Oleksandr shows the filmmakers a scary place: the basement where he was tortured. “For several days, they tortured me with electric shocks, beat me, threatened to shoot me… For them, it was entertainment.”
Back in Donbas, we meet Greg, an Amercian volunteer, in the town of Siversk. Greg came to Ukraine to help civilians. It also means he is risking his life: residents say two young men carrying water were killed with cluster shells.
Daily terror, destruction, and death have become everyday life in Ukraine. Yet, the film’s central theme is the indomitable spirit of Ukrainians. Without light, heat, and drinking water, ordinary residents of destroyed highrises and houses show almost superhuman willpower.
“It hurts the most to cut down live trees. That’s the only way we can heat our basements and cook. When the war is over, we will plant trees to leave a beautiful city to our great-grandchildren,” one of the Siversk residents says.
Chasyv Yar’s conversation with the military is remarkable:
“At the beginning of the war, the CIA completely underestimated the spirit of Ukrainians.”
A former programmer says, “I had no choice but to defend our land.”
The crew becomes a part of that indomitable spirit, even if they are American and British.
One of the associate producers, Zarina Zabrisky, writer, and journalist from San Francisco, was available for an interview in San Francisco. Zabrisky has worked in Ukraine since April 2022, traveling around the country devastated by the Russian invasion. She visited to the front-line cities and spoke to the residents of Dnipro, Kherson, Bakhmut, and Chasyv Yar to document the war crimes committed by the invaders.
In an interview, Zabrisky said,
“We had a stellar team. Director Caolan Robertson, a co-founder of Byline TV and film director, has never been to Ukraine or a war zone. He was so impressed by what he saw in Ukraine during a short visit that he decided to stay and make this film. It took him some time to get used to the shelling and artillery fire. He was doing all the camerawork, and at first, he jumped at the sound of the explosions but soon got used to it. John Sweeney is a legend: a former BBC journalist and best-selling author known for making both Putin and Trump run away from him during interviews. He reported from Chechnya and Kosovo. Sweeney moved to Ukraine during the war and lives in Kyiv, reporting.”
Zabrisky shared that she has Ukrainian roots.
“My great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers on both sides were from Ukraine, from Uman and Odesa. As a child, I spent the summers in Odesa and have the best memories tied up with it. Odesa is in my heart and blood; my first novel is based here. When the Russians invaded Ukraine, I first wanted to join the Foreign Legion and fight, but I realized I could be more useful as a war correspondent. I wrote daily reports, articles, and interviews and started taking videos and photos because I often got to places few people had seen. When my British media agency Byline Times/Byline TV decided to make a film, it was only natural for me to join the crew.”
Answering a question about adjusting to the war reality from a comfortable life in the USA and managing to fit in organically, Zabrisky said, “This is work. I am a writer, so I write about what I see on the front or in the war zone. Everyone does something for Ukrainian victory, and this is what I can do. I am an eyewitness, providing records for future trials and history. In some ways, it is easier to be there. There is purposefulness, and you are inspired by soldiers who put their lives on the line daily, live in the trenches under fire, and by volunteers who do so much for those in need.”
Zabrisky returned for a brief stay to promote the documentary in the US. She emphasized the importance of showing the film to the American audience. “I discovered that Americans know very little about the reality of the war in Ukraine. Some people were wondering if the war was still going on. Even those who follow the developments have many things that need to be corrected.
“There is a common belief that the war is happening in a few regions while the rest of the country lives everyday life. This is very far from reality. Ukraine is attacked from the air day and night. Even when the Ukrainian air defense forces destroy missiles or drones, debris falls on residential areas and kills civilians.
“Every family in Ukraine suffered. People lose loved ones, homes, jobs, and life will never be the same. In the film, it becomes clear from our interviews with people in Donbas, Kherson, and Dnipro. We also investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity: the use of chemical weapons against civilians and torture. Our main goal is to expose the Kremlin’s lies. The Russian state media and the authorities deny these crimes,” Zabrisky said.
The world premiere in Kyiv was a success. It is followed by premieres in London and Hollywood at the Skiptown Playhouse on 14 June, and San Francisco on 19 June. The crew has received invitations to screen the film in New York and Paris.
Hollywood premiere is hosted by Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and Amazon #1 Bestselling author, Heidi Siegmund Cuda. Her Substack magazine, Bette Dangerous, features her investigative work, as well vignettes from her years as a nightlife columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Cuda is the cohost of RADICALIZED Truth Survives podcast, an investigative show about disinformation and radicalization featuring Zabrisky’s live reports from Ukraine. Tickets are available for the screening at this Eventbrite link for $7 to 12.
San Francisco premiere is hosted by author Alexandra Kostoulas of SF Creative Writing Institute, featured in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Kostoulas held writing workshops with Ukrainian poets during the war. The screening will take place at the historic Great Star Theater. Tickets are available here.
Proceeds from the event will go toward water relief in the war-ravaged city of Siversk in Donbas, where 2,000 primarily elderly and impoverished people remain, as revealed in the film, and humanitarian aid to flooded Kherson. There is an additional link for direct donations at the Eventbrite link.
The film can be viewed online at BylineTV website at https://byline.tv/putindocumentary/.