It is a film of rare power. Filmed in black and white for four months, between 2018 and 2020, the documentary by independent journalist Loup Bureau, entitled Trenches, offers an unprecedented dive into the daily life of the soldiers of the 30th brigade of the Ukrainian army. By placing his camera in the earthy galleries of the Donetsk region, Loup Bureau managed to transpose all the century-old imagery of the First World War into a conflict that is more current than ever. Directed before the start of the Russian offensive against Ukraine, the film powerfully traces the genesis of this war which started well before February 24, 2022.

What prompted you to take an interest in the war in the Donbass?

I started covering Ukrainian news in 2013. At the time I was a correspondent in Egypt, but the revolution unfolding in kyiv hit me for several reasons. Its European dimension interested me enormously and I was marked by the repression that followed. It echoed what I had been able to cover in the context of the Arab Spring. I went there and I had the chance to meet many people in Maidan Square who gradually became very close friends. Among them was a young engineer, who at the start of the war in 2014 joined a volunteer battalion before joining the Ukrainian army and becoming a commander. I became interested in this war through him, through his background and his military career.

Your first documentary, Trenchesoffers a dive into the daily life of Ukrainian soldiers engaged in the conflict with Russia since 2014. Why did you want to report on this life underground?

From 2016, the war turned into a war of position and like any long-lasting war, media interest dried up as the fighting continued. At that time, I discovered that Ukrainian soldiers were building trenches. My military friend introduced me to the front. When I discovered all these ramifications that stretched over several tens of kilometers, I realized that all the imagination I had of the First World War came to me in a raw and striking way.

I read a lot about the trenches, I read letters from soldiers and more than 100 years later, I found exactly the same thing in front of me, it was crazy. I saw the same boredom there, the lethargy, the promiscuity, the effect of partitioning and all the existential crisis that results from it. When you spend months in the trenches, you inevitably have very strong intimate questions, you ask yourself the question of what you are doing there, why you are doing it and the meaning you want to give to your life. It also echoed what I had experienced personally during my detention in Turkey in 2017.

How did you obtain permission to film in this particularly dangerous area?

The Ukrainian General Staff never knew that I was making a film on this subject. I asked my military friend to get me informal permission to live with them. It was the commander of the 30th brigade of the Ukrainian army who allowed me to stay. This is what allowed me to have such privileged access to the soldiers and to approach them more easily. When covering a frontline officially, everything is restricted, an army press attaché is constantly behind you and you are subject to strict image regulations. It’s very complicated to shoot in this context because there is always a strategic issue and you mustn’t expose the mobilized troops too much.

“If you want to stay alive, dig,” one of the soldiers you are filming tells you. How to describe the daily life of these men and women who fight in this area?

Life in the trenches is exhausting. They sleep in the bunkers on bunk beds, are subjected to rounds and undergo regular bombardments. We are always awake, we are always afraid so we sleep little. These soldiers stay in the trenches for six months and then return home for two weeks or a month before returning to the front. The trench is a psychological prison. It is a place that the soldiers build themselves, that they consolidate, in which they sometimes live and die. They also wait, a lot, often. In the accounts of the 14-18 war, one has the impression that the fighting was permanent, but this is false. The soldiers played cards, tried to live a semblance of daily life to deceive this expectation and recreate a form of normality. This is what I found in Ukraine.

I also wanted to show the difficulty for soldiers to return to their daily lives. They all await their permission or their end of contract with elation. There was an immense joy when they left these trenches but very quickly they realized that the war did not only affect the bodies but also and especially the spirits. Rehabilitation to civilian life is sometimes more complicated for some than the war itself. In the brigade that I followed, a soldier committed suicide a year and a half ago.

Loup Bureau was in Donbass in Ukraine when Russia launched its offensive across the country on February 24, 2022.
Loup Bureau was in Donbass in Ukraine when Russia launched its offensive across the country on February 24, 2022. – J.Accorsini/Sipa

How did you react to the announcement of the start of the Russian offensive on February 24?

The warning signs of this war were so numerous… The conflict in the Donbass never really ended and the possibility of seeing this war escalate remained constant. The Russian propaganda that has been circulating for years in the national media has also helped to prepare the population for this war. However, most thought that if there was to be a resurgence of the conflict, it would be limited to eastern Ukraine and the Donbass. So inevitably, when the population understood the extent of this offensive, the surprise was major. Even if I was aware that something serious could break out, to witness it, it was a shock.

What happened to the soldiers you lived with during your documentary?

I went back to the trenches three weeks ago and some of the soldiers I filmed were still in the same place. All the positions in which I was able to go are still used today. The Russians failed to take them. The fighting, on the other hand, has inevitably escalated since February 24 and two soldiers that we see in my film have since died. I have regular news from the brigade, they are constantly fighting, there has been no turnover for two months, they have not been able to find their families, they are 100% requisitioned by the army and every day they try to survive. It is an immense sacrifice that these people are making, especially knowing that their families are also suffering from this war and are in dangerous situations.

You were in Ukraine, in the Donbass, at the start of the offensive. What did you witness?

Everyone was in a state of amazement. In a few hours, the Ukrainians had to change their lives. Some chose to go to the front, others left the country or preferred to take refuge in the West. It was a cataclysm in their life. Seeing friends my age take up arms and go to the front because they feel they have no other choice is very hard emotionally. Leaving Donbass, I traveled to Kyiv for two weeks and it was surreal. People had no idea what was going to happen, whether the city was going to be surrounded, whether this column of tanks of more than 80 km was going to pass or not. As the days went by, it became more and more difficult to get around the country, we had no more cars, no more gasoline, no more nothing. The only teams that were ready were those of the big news channels that had all the logistics behind them. But many independents had to leave. Personally, I was in such a state of amazement that I decided to return. I couldn’t work properly anymore.

The start of this war was particularly publicized and prompted many young reporters to go there. How do you view the interest of this new generation of journalists for Ukraine?

This is a major event, the first time a war of this scale has taken place on the European continent in decades and the largest military operation launched by Russia since World War II. So it seems normal to me that young journalists want to go there. It is indeed extremely dangerous but I too have started to cover conflicts by taking risks. It was often said to these young reporters: Don’t come, you’re not safe, you don’t have the means or the experience to cover a conflict”. But we are never ready for war! And I’ve seen experienced journalists take more risks than their juniors. It’s not because you have a car and an editorial staff behind you that you are less exposed. The real risk is being isolated and not having an experienced fixer.

Is the conflict likely to get bogged down again in the Donbass, in your opinion?

Unfortunately, I’m afraid so. I don’t see how Vladimir Putin could emerge victorious from this conflict in the coming weeks. And everything will be played on this territory because it is there that the war started in 2014. It is there that Russia organized the destabilization of Ukraine. The day this region regains stability, the conflict will inevitably decrease in intensity. It should not be forgotten that for eight years, its inhabitants have lived through successive invasions and suffered war. Today, some localities have no more electricity, no more water, and the supply of food is becoming more and more complicated. The Donbass has become a martyred region.

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