“There is no justice, but there is poetic justice” was how Ukraine Guernica: Art Not War was introduced at the Sydney Underground Film Festival’s opening ceremony. The documentary follows activists and filmmakers director George Gittoes and producer Hellen Rose as they explore the artistry produced as a consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Making an appearance at Dendy, Gittoes spoke about how his film is currently in the hands of the ABC who are “knocking it back” due to its experimental nature. He attributes this to overlord-esque executives looking down on the Australian audience who wouldn’t understand such an art. While his critique of the ABC is founded in real neoliberal resistance towards boundary-pushing films, Gittoes’ statement also foreshadowed his tendency towards self-mythologisation that dominated the documentary.
Among the war-torn rubbles of Kyiv, the arena of public art became the main focus. Interviews with Ukrainian street artists are intercut alongside Gittoes’ praising their creative spirit thriving in such conditions. Unmistakably, graffiti is a radical form of protest for the Ukrainian people, but the sphere of public art is also open to the aggressors. Graffiti from Russian troops is plastered across ravaged towns that have been scorched to the earth to ensure that residents could never return and rebuild. In a particularly telling scene, Gittoes attempts to spray a stencil of his guardian angel next to a Banksy, setting off an alarm guarding the piece against trespassers and thieves. The ethics of protecting a piece of street art while war ravages the surrounding buildings is largely glossed over. Even more neglected was the optics of a white Australian man plastering his own graffiti onto the House of Creative, a museum with cultural significance to the Ukrainian people.
An unforgettable scene was when Rose had painted her entire body yellow, with blue lips and eyelids, and adorned herself in a floral yellow and blue dress — the colours of the Ukrainian flag. She glided across the abandoned museum and sang a contemporary form of music in dedication to the people of Ukraine. Although well-intentioned, it felt ridiculous in juxtaposition to the visual horrors that were shown immediately before of gruesome violence. Their never-ending attempts to self-mythologise would be inspiring in another context, but when gaudy performance art is intersected with footage of dead victims — it is difficult to feel anything but aghast.
Ultimately, Ukraine Guernica is about artists. Not Ukrainian artists, but two white Australian artists. Gittoes and Rose meet young artists on the street, although they do ask these people about their art and what it means, it ultimately turns back to them bringing these Ukrainian artists in to help with their own art ventures. One such artist was Ave Libertatemaveamor, who represented the emotional core of the documentary. The footage follows Gittoes as he befriends her and they begin to collaborate on Kiss of Death, an incredible black and white mural depicting an insect-like Putin and the destruction he unfurled on Ukraine – making their own Guernica.
However, we are also shown interviews with Libertatemaveamor discussing how she uses an alias to protect herself from any harm from institutional powers due to the radical nature of her artworks. Despite this request of anonymity both through her name and physical presence, the documentary failed to protect her image. Outside of a poorly placed overlay of a skull for a short section of the film (which flashed on and off), her entire side profile was visibly shown. Adding to this, when one of her works were displayed on the screen, her real name was used instead of her alias. Even her newborn baby’s full face was shown on screen, when in group photos both her child and herself where hidden under clothing. In his introduction, Gittoes slams the dominant form of documentaries being from “journalists unsympathetic to art.” Yet, there are several things Gittoes could learn about journalistic integrity in the documentary form.
Notably, much of the 89 minute runtime is split between Gittoes and Rose’s work in Ukraine and their work in Afghanistan – where they are creating a community of creatives through the Afghan Yellow House Project. While a commendable project, one must wonder why so much of Ukraine Guernica is tied to this work. In a documentary already sparse with genuine perspectives from Ukrainians, dedicating a significant chunk of time to another loosely-related cause seems clumsy, as if they ran out of footage in Ukraine.
The film did well in some aspects of visualising the atrocities of war in Ukraine, and broader through clips of Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Gittoes’ aim of showing the resistance of the local community through art, ultimately felt self indulgent. Gittoes and Rose are obsessed with art — making art, displaying art, encouraging others to make art, and their agenda is extremely laudable. Gittoes and Rose have undoubtedly created a net positive to the world, impacting the lives of people in the war-torn societies they depict. It must be said though, this documentary is not one of those good outputs.
Despite the grandeur of the night with a question session with the director and producer, and a live performance of the soundtrack by Rose, it felt strange to leave the evening thinking about the absurdity of some of the scenes rather than the real atrocities that have happened in Ukraine and to its people. From sharing strange looks to each other mid film, and enjoying eccentric dancing at the after party at Waywards, this will be an experience we will be talking about for a while.