Berlinale 2024 review: Intercepted (Oksana Karpovych)

“A stark reminder of the soul-sucking effect of war, sapping the last bit of humanity from people who perhaps, by and large, indeed were not like this.”

Khokhols. You hear that word a lot watching Oksana Karpovych’s sophomore documentary Intercepted. It’s a Russian slur aimed at the people whose country and culture they have been trying to destroy since 2014 in a devastating war that intensified in February 2022. The devastation of Ukraine first and foremost, as the sobering images of Karpovych’s documentary show; but the audio fragments of intercepted phone calls of Russian soldiers with loved ones back in the motherland paint a clear picture: Russia is not going through this war unscathed either. The calls, recorded by Ukrainian intelligence between March and November of 2022, are filled with anger, fear, despair, and frustration. They are evidence of an army in disarray, filled with men that have gone from human to something less on all fronts. “We live like we are in the Stone Age,” says one of them, and as they rant and rave about the ‘khokhols’ and their superiors alike, the images in Intercepted gradually change and become more hopeful and a testament to a country’s resilience. The only constant throughout: the bright yellow and blue of Ukraine’s flag.

Initially Intercepted feels like something akin to a James Benning film. Static shots of deserted schools, shot up office buildings, and destroyed or hastily abandoned homes are chained together without commentary on what we are looking at. The voices we hear are those of the men responsible for these desolate and bleak images. The calls to the home front are a mixture of worry and vileness. Half is what you’d expect when a frontline soldier speaks to his family back home: worrying mothers that try to make sure their sons eat well and get enough sleep (answer: they don’t), fathers that tell them to stay strong. The other half is drenched in brainwashed rambling about Ukrainians being traitors and worse (much worse), terminology that sounds eerily close to that of Nazi Germany and its labelling of Jews as Üntermenschen. Although it is not clear if Karpovych placed the audio fragments in chronological order, as the film progresses the conversations get more vicious, both towards Ukrainians as well as towards army leaders and politicians. One such conversation, in which a conscript describes in detail how they torture and kill the people they take prisoner, makes the hair on your neck rise up. “I wasn’t like this,” he decries, fully aware of the crimes he is describing. It seems it is the fate of those at the front in any armed and bloody conflict, if similar accounts from Vietnam to Iraq to Gaza are anything to go by. War makes monsters of us all.

Yet as the Russian audio descends into despair and seething hatred, the imagery that accompanies it gets increasingly more hopeful and uplifting. People start to come into frame, trying to pick up ordinary lives amidst the rubble, going about their business as if the war was just a temporary nuisance. It speaks for the resilience of the Ukrainian people. Anyone who has seen the Oscar-nominated 2015 documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom was already aware of this, but Karpovych shows the more mundane day-to-day activities of someone trimming their vines or trading their wares at a makeshift market as a peaceful alternative to the rabid hate of the voices that accompany it. It is an effective method to let the spoken word, horrific as it is, sink in. The only moments when Intercepted becomes really harrowing through its images are in a couple of connecting scenes shot from a moving vehicle. These road scenes, shot at high speed, are accompanied by a droning, almost menacing ambient score that moves to a tense crescendo; it has the same impact as Mica Levi’s almost shapeless score for The Zone of Interest, for which Intercepted would make a good companion piece as a reminder that the world still hasn’t learned. A shot of hastily dug graves in a forest to a chorus of chirping birds is a grim reminder of what the Russian meat grinder leads to, the birds symbolizing Ukraine. And throughout, Karpovych makes sure the frames often have the Ukrainian colours in one way or another, as a signifier of Ukraine’s unyielding nature.

Questions can be asked about which side of the line between documentary and war propaganda Intercepted falls. Did Karpovych cherry-pick the audio fragments? Is the buildup of the film a truthful representation of the situation on the ground? It is a hard question to answer, but what is undeniable are the intercepted calls that we do hear. The denigrating language, the carelessness, the ease with which they speak about murder and torture; these conversations will echo long after the final title card flashes on-screen. We are well over a year deeper into the conflict, and the situation has further deteriorated. The front is at a standstill, and has been for the better part of a year. How many more conversations have been had in that period, how many unmarked graves have been dug? Intercepted may be on some level propaganda, but it is also a stark reminder of the soul-sucking effect of war, sapping the last bit of humanity from people who perhaps, by and large, indeed were not like this.

Image copyright: Christopher Nunn