Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev’s arresting documentary “Porcelain War,” which premiered at Sundance Saturday, tells the story of Leontyev, his wife Anya Stasenko, and their dog, Frodo. Slava makes porcelain figures, Anya paints them with intricate designs, and Frodo is a very good dog. Their friend, Andrey Stefanov is an artist as well, a painter who has given up painting for cinematography to document their lives during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Over the course of “Porcelain War” we see Leontyev and Stasenko’s work in intimate detail, from genesis to fruition, and then battered by armed conflict. But although porcelain is the central motif of the movie, a metaphor for the human spirit and its uncanny ability to endure despite what looks like fragility, Stefanov’s camerawork is inescapable. He has enormous talent, and while not every shot in the film was Stefanov’s handiwork, the images he crafts are breathtaking and extraordinary.
“Porcelain War” does what many war documentaries do by placing a larger conflict within an intimate context. It certainly helps that Leontyev, Stasenko and Stefanov are endearing, thoughtful, emotional people with harrowing stories — Stefanov had to drive 100km with no brakes to rescue his family from the war zone — and quiet, beautiful moments. They’re living in the midst of history and already have a sense of perspective. “Bad people are not as creative at being bad,” they say, “as good people are at being good.”
The goodness in “Porcelain War” shines through. Stray dogs cuddle up with Ukrainians in subway tunnels as they wait out the devastation together (an image that will stick with you), but that goodness has been tempered with the practicality of armed conflict. Slava Leontyev doesn’t seem to spend nearly as much time making porcelain art as he does training civilians in the use of firearms, and we watch as Anya lovingly paints the drones the film’s central armed unit uses to drop bombs on the Russian invaders.
We spend a lot of time with that unit, so by the time the film’s centerpiece emerges it’s not just stunning but alarming. Equipped with cameras, they weave throughout the husks of cities evading explosions and evacuating infantry. “You are there” cinematography is easy to take for granted when the people involved are not, as is usually the case in fictionalized war movies, actually there. Even in documentaries the footage can sometimes come across more historic than personal. The intensity with which “Porcelain War” presents its horrors will knock you down.
It’s difficult to make a war movie, of any kind, that doesn’t glorify war. Even finding profundity in its tragedy can risk elevating one of the worst elements of human history into something with deeper meaning, as if its significance had some sort of value. “Porcelain War” wades into those waters briefly, with heroic images of civilian weapons training, but jumps back out again. The only excitement here is superficial. Your pulse pounds not with enthusiasm but with fear. The depth comes from the rejection of violence, and the determination to overcome its consequences and create powerful art, regardless of the circumstances surrounding its genesis.
“Porcelain War” does what it sets out to do, immersing us in a nightmare ordeal but surrounding us with wonderful figures: most of them human, some of them porcelain, and one a very cute dog. It captures moments of decency, moments of wickedness, and a larger political conflict from a perspective anyone can wrap their heads around, no matter where they are or how much they know about it. It doesn’t seem nearly as fragile as Leontyev and Stasenko’s porcelain figures. It’s the audience that’s likely to shatter.
“Porcelain War” is a sales title at Sundance.
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