“Given the dramatic escalation of the conflict in recent months due to Russia’s aggression, the timeliness of Butterfly Vision is unparalleled and truly hits its message home. Seeing horrific stories you only hear about on the news suddenly play out in front of you on screen is a sobering experience.”
“Did they torture you?” a reporter asks. The question is evaded, but the scars on the body of Lilia ‘Butterfly’ Vasylenko can’t hide the truth. Neither can the scars on the inside. Released by Russian separatists in a prisoner exchange, Lilia is considered a war hero. A reconnaissance drone pilot for the Ukrainian army, she was taken captive when her unit was ambushed. A medical check-up after her release reveals an ugly reality: Lilia is pregnant, the result of being raped by her captors. Increasingly alienated from her husband Anton, who was part of the same army unit and managed to escape, and having difficulties readjusting to a life of freedom and in dealing with the torture inflicted upon her, Lilia has to decide if she wants to terminate her pregnancy or not.
Sitting in a plush seat in a theatre in the South of France watching a film about a war while said war is still going on and costing thousands of lives is a bit of a surreal experience, to say the least. Although Maksym Nakonechnyi’s Butterfly Vision was shot before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the war between Ukraine and Russia has been going on since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian separatist groups in the eastern region of Donbas. Fighting in this region has been heavy for the better part of a decade now, so it’s only logical that the subject matter is oft visited in current Ukrainian cinema, much like, say, Mexican filmmakers often focus on the devastating effects of that country’s drug wars. But given the dramatic escalation of the conflict in recent months due to Russia’s aggression, the timeliness of Butterfly Vision is unparalleled and truly hits its message home. Seeing horrific stories you only hear about on the news suddenly play out in front of you on screen is a sobering experience.
This only truly works if the work is made with integrity and sincerity, and Nakonechnyi is more than up for the task. He refuses to wallow in the gruesome details of Lilia’s captivity. Over the course of the film Lilia has flashbacks that come to her like jolts of electricity, becoming clearer as time goes on. But we never see her get tortured or, thank heavens, the rape (possibly one of several) that led to conception. Likewise, her pelvic exam is a source of much distress and emotion that could have been crass, but Nakonechnyi shoots the scene discreetly from behind a hospital screen, letting the voices of the actors and the viewer’s own imagination do the work. By not focusing on depicting the horrors and instead looking at the psychological damage done, he eschews sensationalism in favor of authenticity.
In equal part this film belongs to its lead actress, Rita Burkovska. Reuniting with members from her old unit, the group watches a home video of the marriage of Lilia and Anton close to the front line. With a smiling face and long hair, dressed in impeccable white above army boots, the happy bride is in stark contrast with the Lilia that watches her. Sunken eyes and a dispirited, stoic demeanour have replaced the happiness. Burkovska’s eyes can make an empty stare render a plethora of emotions, and hers is a performance that is devoid of drama and therefore all the more dramatic.
In a nightmare, Lilia stands at the edge of a crater in the middle of Troitska Square, next to Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium. All around her buildings have been destroyed, with smoke as far as the eye can see. At the end of Butterfly Vision we see her in the same square, everything intact. The film makes pretty clear what is in Lilia’s head and what is reality. But since Butterfly Vision was shot, reality has caught up with the imagined devastation. Kyiv is in ruins, along with its citizens. Yet Butterfly Vision‘s ending is an oddly hopeful message of humanity, leaving its audience with the idea that, like a butterfly out of its cocoon, one day beauty may develop again in Ukraine.