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Iron Butterflies – Berlinale 2023 (Film Review)

3 min read

Still Courtesy - Babylon'13 & Trimafilm

In an attempt at rationalising and providing clarity on the systematic complicity behind the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash, Roman Liubyi's sophomore feature entitled ‘Iron Butterflies‘ is equal parts cryptic and experimental. Liubyi refuses to handhold the viewer in his chronology of events. His editorial toolkit plainly demonstrates the evidence on display, in regards to 's complicit acts of buried sociological violence. Tracing other factors including the collective involvement of the Euromaidan Protests, Iron Butterflies aims at de-stigmatising state-produced propaganda by aptly criticising the dangers of militarism and nationalist-pride along the way. 

Compiled with a selection of disorienting melodies, the film's soundscape is infiltrated with a series of unnerving chord progressions. The soundtrack accompanies the disturbing revelations with subtextual ease. Sonar sounds are also implemented into the film's indistinguishable scape, emulating sound-clippings from the film's historical evidence. The methodology and attentiveness of Liubyi's sound-work compliments his stark monochromatic visuals. Hypnotic recreations are also implemented into the film, alongside its innovative sound-work. Its surrealist scenes of terror inadvertently emulate the aesthetic dangers of a rogue propaganda film. In one scene, we see a group of Russian occupants silence the neighbouring commonwealth; dancing alongside their victims with censored-faces.

Liubyi's narrative follows a concise structure. We witness the birth, destruction, decay, and rebirth of war-spun systematic violence throughout the film's 84-minute runtime. Due to its innovative presentation, Iron Butterflies can be best described as an eerie tone poem. The film is far more interested in engrossing the viewer through its unconventional presentation than bombarding the spectator with expositional information. Liubyi priorities the viewer's authentic emotional response over factual resonance — a that aims at sparking terror and thought towards its susceptible audience.

Still Courtesy – Babylon'13 & Trimafilm

Third-party narration, talking head clips, and other conventional forms of interview footage are absent from the film's picture-edit. The procedural structure focuses on the inanimate — where the absence of a human presence merely represents the cruelty of Russia's materialistic force. There's also a prevalent visual theme of fetishisation and warfare, directed towards 's developing youth. An alluring animation sequence, drawn to life from a child's perspective, revisits the Malaysian Airlines tragedy with jittery movement and unsettling crayon illustrations. Afraid of what the future holds, Liubyi concludes his nonfiction plea with an important updated factoid regarding the status of the Russo-Ukrainian war. His intentions are clear, as his fears regarding the continuous cycles of national violence continue to spread, long after the credits roll. 

The irony of Liubyi's feature is that Iron Butterflies inadvertently evolves into a new form of propaganda. Throughout the film, subject matter revolving around Ukraine's involvement with the MH17 crash is subsequently glanced over within the film's picture-edit. Detailed and essential information regarding the involvement of Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader who was formally charged in the MH17 trial, is only briefly mentioned in the film's timeline. By avoiding difficult conversations regarding Ukraine's own involvement in one of the most important court cases of the century, a critical inquiry is necessary to question Liubyi's filmmaking ethics. After-all, Iron Butterflies was produced by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation; a state agency based in Kyiv.

Thankfully, Liubyi predominantly focuses on his anti-war sentiments, narrowly dodging questionable state-support. Many questions remain, regarding the possibility of potential governmental interference with the content on display  — protected for the sanctity of the state's self-image. By not fully disclosing Ukraine's involvement in the attack, a case could be made about the film's reminiscent propaganda structure. Ironic isn't it? For a film so determined to denounce all forms of state-sponsored propaganda, the film's accidental ill-intent transforms its sturdy narrative into a form of dangerous propaganda in & of itself. Liubyi investigative negligence is a shame, as Iron Butterflies sustains its tight runtime with plenty of invigorating storytelling techniques to keep its procedural document afloat.

Still Courtesy – Babylon'13 & Trimafilm
Iron Butterflies premiered in the Panorama Dokumente section as part of the 73rd Berlin Film Festival. The film is currently seeking international distribution.