Venice 2023 review: Photophobia (Ivan Ostrochovský & Pavol Pekarcik)

Photophobia is a truly emotionally resonant film with an immense heart and genuine love for humanity.”

There are many ways to define heroism – for most, it is the ability to do some good deed, whether big or small, or simply a quality of someone who strives to make a difference in the face of adversity. However, one definition, slightly less notable but still very resonant, is that a hero can be someone who just makes the effort to survive, especially when confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges. It is difficult to watch Photophobia without viewing the protagonists of this fascinating film as inspiring in their efforts simply to live to see another day, doing whatever possible to make it through the obstacles that stand before them. Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarcik are wildly ambitious young directors who step into the perilous world of subterranean Ukraine, focusing on the trials and tribulations of people who have taken refuge in a subway station, which serves as their sanctuary from the war zone raging just above their heads. A captivating hybrid of documentary and narrative filmmaking, Photophobia is a layered examination of life during wartime, captured in vibrant detail by two exceptional talents who risk their safety to venture into the heart of a city under siege. Here they commit to film the realities faced by far too many people who are simply trying to survive, a blessing that many of us take for granted.

We have moved past the point where fiction films guided by stark realism are the primary form of exploring deeper themes – the continued blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction has become the main avenue when it comes to social messages, and the directors of Photophobia were cognizant of the work that would be required of them when undertaking this enormous and intimidating task. It is not often that we find a film that we can not only call brave, but also acknowledge the inherent danger that was present during the production. An alternative version of such a story might not have been filmed on location and might explore the same ideas without putting the cast or crew at risk. Yet, it is the authenticity that makes this film so compelling – using real people not only allows them to have their voices heard, but adds layers of genuine honesty to the proceedings, which is a quality that Ostrochovský and Pekarcik seemed intent on capturing. Beautifully made but often quite harrowing in its imagery (all of which is authentic – there isn’t a moment of artifice to be found in this film), Photophobia offers a striking depiction of contemporary Ukraine, keeping us engaged and invested without resorting to any form of sensationalism.

Photophobia is more than just a daring example of intrepid filmmakers voyaging into a war zone to capture the reality of a particular situation. This is certainly admirable and worth acknowledging, but it is only part of what makes this film so captivating and meaningful. In fact, the most memorable aspects are not entirely obvious, but rather emerge gradually as the film develops. All art is inherently political, but not every film needs to be blatant in how it expresses its views – Ostrochovský and Pekarcik certainly had artistic license to make a bold and unambiguous statement, and while they do not shy away from the harsh message, their choices reflect something much more subtle for a film focused on the current situation in Ukraine. The camera is a powerful tool, and the directors use it to construct their story, weaving it through cramped and squalid subway cars and narrow corridors to capture the faces of people who must call this their home for the foreseeable future. The images begin to overtake the narrative as we find the camera’s dynamism belying the feeling of harrowing permanence and hopelessness, showing that there is still beauty to be found in such haunting situations. An immense achievement for a film that tackles such broad and intimidating subject matter with nothing but complete commitment and sincerity to its subjects.

As we accompany the directors into this world, we start to understand their intentions when setting out to make this film. Photophobia is a film about digging through the literal and metaphorical rubble, searching for the glimmer of a brighter future for these people. Life is not easy for the ordinary citizens who have taken refuge in this subway station, and while these are not ideal conditions, when given the choice between living in discomfort or dying in excruciating pain, the decision is abundantly clear. Filtering most of its themes through the eyes of two child protagonists allows us to find a sense of hope beneath the bleakness that encompasses this film. Archival footage showing the country in previous decades gives us the feeling of peering into the past, interwoven with harrowing but impactful images of the present state of the country and its people, which is beautifully captured in this film, showing how every person has a story that is worth telling. It is a film that focuses on some difficult subject matter, but doesn’t restrict itself to the harshness – it actively seeks out ways to find joy in the sadness and silence through elements such as children playing in these makeshift homes, or people singing and dancing to distract from the suffering occurring around them.  Built from pure passion, and focused on showing all the vibrant details, Photophobia is a truly emotionally resonant film with an immense heart and genuine love for humanity, finding tenderness in between moments of agony.