Sniper: The White Raven review – raw account of Ukrainian resistance in Donbas

Made before Russia’s full-scale invasion, this story of a hippy who turns warrior after his wife is killed could not be more urgent but feels oddly cliched

This war movie from Ukraine was made before the full-scale invasion in February, and tells the important story of how Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Donbas since 2014. Director Marian Bushan co-wrote the script with schoolteacher-turned-soldier Mykola Voronin, apparently inspired by some of his actual experiences. Their story inevitably resonates, but I watched it with the slightly sinking feeling of witnessing raw truth being fictionalised into bland drama with all the war movie cliches in the book.

Ukrainian musician and actor Aldoshyn Pavlo is a soulful lead as Mykola, a shaggy-haired pacifist hippy who teaches high school maths and physics. Mykola has moved to depopulating and deindustrialising eastern Ukraine to live off-grid in a rickety shed with his pregnant wife Nastya (Maryna Koshkina). In the film’s cheesily idyllic opening scenes we watch her idling her days away whittling wood and sketching wildlife. The couple don’t have a TV or phone, so they miss warnings of the impending Russian invasion. When Nastya is savagely killed, Mykola joins a volunteer battalion and swears revenge on the Russians who murdered his wife. He’s nicknamed “Civvie” by Ukrainian officers who think he will last a week in the army.

As Mykola switches into warrior mode, the training scenes are predictable – the push-ups in the rain, pumping weights, scrambling under netting on obstacle courses. His gentle handsome face is soon chiselled into fierceness, china-blue eyes glinting with rage. At first, officers laugh at how hopeless he is with a gun; then of course comes the triumphant scene where he shows them all what he is made of, dismantling and reassembling an AK-47 in 20 seconds blindfolded. Ta da. After that Mykola earns the nickname Raven and becomes a sniper.

As a war movie written by a soldier this material feels oddly lacking in authenticity and authority. And yet it’s a noble attempt to honour the resilience of Ukrainians and the courage of ordinary people like Voronin, fighting for freedom.

• Sniper: The White Raven is released on 3 October on digital platforms.

Contributor

Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Reflection review – a shaken, horrifying outcry for Ukraine – and statement of hope
Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s enigmatic war drama, set in Donbas, is brutal in its depiction of conflict but also elusively redemptive

Phil Hoad

30, May, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Enthusiasm review – Dziga Vertov’s feverish, celebratory trip to communist-era Donbas
Filmed in 1931, this experimental film about Ukraine’s industrial might captures the revolutionary upheaval of its era with bold cuts and uproarious sound cues

Peter Bradshaw

13, Jun, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Atlantis review – strangely upbeat exploration of war-ravaged Ukraine
Valentyn Vasyanovych’s award-winning drama casts deeply likable non-professionals – most with direct experience of the conflict with Russia

Leslie Felperin

03, May, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
In the Fog review – Sergei Loznitsa’s meditation on the poisonous shame of collaboration
When a Nazi collaborator is led into the Belarusian forest to be executed, why doesn't he protest? Loznitsa's lacerating film explores the agonies of war and puts European history on trial

Peter Bradshaw

25, Apr, 2013 @2:30 PM

Article image
Natural Light review – reprisals and revenge in chilling examination of the toll of war
Documentary director Dénes Nagy explores how conflict erodes loyalty, morality and human consciousness in his award-winning first feature

Peter Bradshaw

09, Nov, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Ashes in the Snow review – heartfelt but brutal YA gulag drama
This soapy, semi-harrowing wartime drama follows Bel Powley as a teenager sneaking snogs behind the prison huts

Cath Clarke

16, Feb, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
The Final Stand review – old-fashioned flag-waving for Mother Russia
Thousands of green military cadets march into the firing line as the Red Army resists Nazi invasion in Vadim Shmelyov’s cliche-ridden historical epic

Cath Clarke

03, Mar, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
20 of the best films to help understand what’s happening in Ukraine
Documentaries and fiction features that contextualise the unfolding horrors in the former Soviet republic, as chosen by researchers at Ukraine’s Dovzhenko national film centre in Kyiv

Anna Onufrienko, Arsenii Kniazkov, Stanislav Menzelevskyi, Stanislav Bytiutskyi and Oleksandr Teliuk

04, Mar, 2022 @4:19 PM

Article image
Leading Ukrainian film-makers call for boycott of Russian cultural ‘propaganda’
Directors demand halt to ‘collaborations with representatives of a terrorist country that threatens to destroy the whole world’

Andrew Pulver

07, Mar, 2022 @1:24 PM

Article image
Russian film about disputed wartime action wins Putin's support
President attends screening of Panfilov’s 28 Men, the story of a Red Army unit’s ‘heroic’ defence of Moscow in the second world war

Andrew Pulver

11, Oct, 2016 @11:26 AM