“I’d rather take pictures than use weapons.”
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
It is the year 2025. The war in Donbas is over and the National Guard of Ukraine has emerged victorious against the Russians. What’s left of the Donetsk Basin is a scarred landscape of flooded mines, unexploded ordnance, and bodies yet to be buried.
This is the story at the heart of director Valentyn Vasyanovych’s festival darling Atlantis, Ukraine’s official entry for the 93rd Academy Awards. The plot follows Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder navigating life after the war. Sergiy and his friend Ivan (Vasyl Antoniak) both struggle adjusting to civilian life. They repeat high-stress military drills out of habit, and perhaps comfort, in between their shifts at a massive smelting facility.
In one of the film’s most commanding scenes, the factory workers discuss their unpromising future amidst the facility’s looming closure brought about by economic liberalization. They talk of how the area could become a desert, how debt is higher than GDP, and how Crimea might offer some opportunities for work. Sergiy is soon confronted by one of his disgruntled co-workers for having added to the region’s devastation through war.
After the closure of the factory, Sergiy finds work driving a water supply truck. He drives the tanker to and from places where the groundwater has been contaminated by flooded mines. Through this work, he meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka) an archaeologist who now exhumes bodies for the Black Tulip Mission, a volunteer-run initiative to bury unnamed soldiers (no matter their alignment) from the battlefield. Katya and Sergiy soon form a bond that helps them move forward from the trauma they experienced during the fighting.
Heat is one of the film’s prominent motifs. It shines through elements such as the purple and yellow ironbow palette used for the cover, as well as the shots that bookend the film. To create this effect, Vasyanovych repurposes thermal imagery that is typically used for military purposes to showcase an intimate scene of lovers embracing each other—subtly inferring a pregnancy.
Despite the ravages of war and austerity, life persists in Atlantis. Vasyanovych asks people to keep the fire burning within themselves rather than the fires of old factories. Vasyanovych’s optimism isn’t loud or boisterous—it’s steady as a heartbeat.
Though within the film’s quiet optimism, a troubling dimension emerges that cannot be ignored.
Ukraine’s military-entertainment complex
The production’s seemingly wide access to military tech and infantry is nothing new to the world of cinema. Ukraine’s military-entertainment complex has produced films like Cyborgs (2017), an action blockbuster that depicts the fighting around the Donetsk International Airport in 2014 and 2015.
Atlantis contrasts itself against these more overt military films by moving away from the heat of the frontlines. Vasyanovych’s film distances itself temporally from the energetic fury of the battlefield and instead explores the quiet aftermath of war that persists in the human psyche and ecology. But crucially, despite the distance from the frontlines that Vasyanovych creates out of either artistic integrity or expediency, Atlantis exists comfortably within Ukraine’s increasingly convergent military-entertainment complex.
In January 2018, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) passed a bill called the Occupied Territories Bill, signalling Ukraine’s intent to withdraw from the Minsk accords (the legislation contains a bold statement that declares “the only separatist-issued documents that Ukraine would recognize are birth and death certificates”). Filming for Atlantis took place in Mariupol around the same time.
The 503rd Marine Infantry Battalion of the Ukrainian Navy, as well as the infamous Azov Battalion, are thanked in the film’s credits. Both are based in the now besieged and largely destroyed city.
Before and since the release of the film, Vasyanovych has described wanting to tackle the ideas and themes of the war without getting bogged down by the “politics” surrounding it. However, the casting of the film betrays the director’s claims.
Vasyanovych has boasted about the film’s use of non-professional actors as one of its marks of authenticity. Ex-soldiers play ex-soldiers so that the trauma we see on screen is real trauma. Rymaruk is one such figure, and as the star of the film, his past deserves some closer inspection.
In a 2019 interview with Army FM, a radio station founded by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, Rymaruk describes a closeness with his character in the film. He felt he was acting only 20 percent of the time, while the other 80 percent he felt like he was himself—only transported to 2025.
Patreon’s blog post on the suspension states the funds were used to acquire more than 1,500 tablets with software for Gunnya-Armor artillerymen, 230 quadcopters, 45 mobile surveillance systems, and more than 60 military vehicles. Money was also spent to train 350 snipers, more than 2,000 sappers and more than 3,000 gunners, as well as UAV operators.
Come Back Alive also provides thermal imaging technology, like the kind that is used in the film and poster, for the Ukrainian military. Rymaruk’s job was to act as the main point of contact between the foundation and the Ukrainian state military divisions as well as militia groups, like Azov, that were receiving the various training, weapons, and tech from Come Back Alive. As of January 2022, Rymaruk is still involved in the organization and serves as its military department head.
Indeed, Sergiy’s fictional career arc mirrors that of Rymaruk: a former soldier finds new work in an NGO where he can use his military knowledge while adjusting to civilian life. Though they diverge in the nature of that work, to some dark and ironic extent, both are helping bury bodies.
The only information about the other ex-soldier in the film, Antoniak, was mentioned in passing by Rymaruk in the same interview with Army FM, where he mentions that Antoniak fought in the Aidar Battalion, a far-right militia that was accused by Amnesty International of committing war crimes in northern Luhansk. The treatment of Antoniak’s character, Ivan, should be considered as a potential comment on Aidar.
In the last scene with Ivan, he is reprimanded at the smelting facility by a supervisor for shoddy welding. His supervisor infers that Ivan’s welding used to be better before his service, that he “used to weld like a man.” After Ivan’s supervisor leaves, and following some quiet reflection, Ivan jumps into a vat of molten ore. His suicide, and even the reprimand he receives, can be read as Vasyanovych sympathizing with Ivan (and by extension the Aidar Battalion). Ultimately, though, the director keeps the sympathies and grieving short. Vasyanovych treats Antoniak’s character, Ivan, with the same tone as he does the factory that is shuttered by austerity policies. Both Aidar and the smelting facility represent things to be left in Ukraine’s past.
Vasyanovych’s is a paternal voice that tells those attached to Soviet-era heavy industry, like the “Not-That-Ilyich” Metallurgical Plant, to instead look to the future, as he does. Ivan and the smelting facility he worked at are representations of what the film presents as the dying Ukraine of the past, which stands in contrast to the Ukraine to be built—or even born—by patriots.
In a talk organized by the Atlantic Council entitled “The Rebirth of Ukranian Film: Politics, personalities, and possibilities,” Vladimir Yatsenko, one of the film’s producers, speaks to the political utility of supporting Ukrainian cinema. Yatsenko presents Ukrainian filmmaking as a tool to help create “the values of the nation.” Such values have been enshrined in Ukrainian legislation through the “patriotic” funding requirements by far-right Svoboda party figure Pylyp Ilyenko during his five-year term as head of the Ukrainian State Film Agency. Some Ukrainian film critics have likened these to “short, political goals with films.” This is where Vasyanovych, Yatsenko, Ilyenko, and Ryamuk converge.
Ilyenko has stated that “the film industry is even more effective than guns because it’s fighting for the mind.”
When asked why footage of the first Bayraktar drone kill should be published, Rymaruk responded, “Psychological weapons are sometimes much stronger than lethal ones.”
Ukraine’s military-entertainment complex has found success in Atlantis; it has the artistic subtlety that Cyborgs lacked, but it didn’t have to sacrifice any of the military connections, or right-wing political aspirations.
Pseudo-archeologists have been wondering where Plato’s mythical Atlantis might have existed. In this theorizing, it has even been suggested that the lost city lies under the Sea of Azov. Not dissimilarly, the titling of the film both recalls the motif of life giving water as well as Greek mythology that persists throughout Western culture and politics. Vasyanovych posits Atlantis, and by extension Ukraine, squarely in the heart of Western mythology.
Atlantis is at once a great artistic achievement as well as an example of where Ukraine’s military, political, and cultural ambitions align.
A solely aesthetic consumption of the film is irresponsible as it does not confront the political and military functions the film carries within its production and distribution—particularly at a time when Ukraine’s far-right is gaining ground in the mainstream media.
Just last year one of the major leaders of the far-right activist group Gonor starred in Oleg Sentsov’s Rhino (2021), which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. This is part of a long-standing cultural effort to create heroes and “patriots” out of far-right figures to wash them of any critical regard.
If parties belonging to a burgeoning military-entertainment complex, or even worse, neo-Nazis are feeling optimistic, how should the rest of us feel?
Kalden Dhatsenpa is a Tibetan writer and artist based in Tio‘tià:ke, or Mooniyang, or Montréal, and a member of the Canadian Dimension editorial board. He is the host of the film podcast Cheapy Tuesdays, and a former federal candidate for the NDP in Longueuil—Charles-Lemoyne.