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A Haunting Portrait of the War in Ukraine

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A Haunting Portrait of the War in Ukraine

A sense of foreboding permeates “Intercepted” from its first few frames, cueing audiences that they are about to witness something sinister. Documentarian Oksana Karpovych shows peaceful images of children playing outside and birds chirping in the distance. Also heard on the soundtrack are ominous recordings, not exactly music but faint siren-like sounds that announce the film’s subject. This unique film uses eerie images of destruction juxtaposed with voices on phones to document life in war for Ukrainians and the Russian soldiers who invaded their country.  

The principal source in Karpovych’s film are the phone calls of Russian soldiers intercepted by Ukrainian security forces between March and November 2022. Complementing these conversations are the haunting images of the abandoned buildings, empty roads and overall effects of the war in Ukraine, as captured by cinematographer Christopher Nunn. However, what gives “Intercepted” a unique quality and makes it such a damning piece of documentary filmmaking is the audio dimension, a mix of original compositions by NFNR and haunting sound effects designed by Alex Lane. While created by the filmmakers to bolster the soundtrack and add an ominous atmosphere to the images, these effects are minimal, making the audience witness the Russian invasion of Ukraine as if we were there.

The faded click and echo heard on cell phones add another layer to the soundscape. The audience is eavesdropping on unvarnished conversations, with the talkers’ masks off, laying out their true feelings and attitudes: hope, worry, confusion, love, hate and bigotry. The soldiers talk of their anxiety about surviving the war, their concerns about returning home. There’s talk of gifts with joy and elation; they even take requests from their family members. Yet the ugly truth behind all this is revealed too. Nonchalantly, these Russian soldiers talk about murder and corpses, while their mothers and girlfriends goad them to loot whatever they can carry. Ethnic slurs and other degrading phrases pepper these conversations and show that to recklessly murder other people, they must be dehumanized first. So many of the emotions and reasons that start a war and fuel its longevity are uncovered. 

Accompanying these sounds are images no less visceral. There are empty houses and apartments, fully and partially destroyed. The camera glides along deserted muddy pathways and rough asphalt roads, with no sign of life anywhere. Sometimes the cannon of a battle tank appears on the edge of the frame, throwing the audience into the midst of these atrocities. A stillness pervades, capturing the slowness of life during war. These are quiet times, punctured by the threat of violence that’s never shown, only the devastating aftermath. The camera remains static so the full extent of the damage can take hold. 

Additionally, “Intercepted” offers a spare psychological portrait of soldiers at war. Gleaned directly from their conversations, this is an honest depiction of how empathy disappears and malice takes over. It is also a political snapshot laying bare how both belief in propaganda and disillusionment with leaders can co-exist and lead to apathy. Later in the film, Ukrainian people start to appear trying to go back to their lives. They are shown rummaging in the remains of their homes or taking in the destruction that surrounds them. Accompanying these images, what’s heard is the Russians’ justification for and confusion about this invasion. It’s all senseless violence, yet Karpovych’s explicit no-frills filmmaking clears up why it continues to happen. 

Spending an hour and half contemplating the futility of human behavior is not for the faint of heart. The repetitive nature of these images might lead to agitation and restlessness. Yet that’s precisely why Karpovych’s vision makes such a strong impact. In a time of daily images of war on the evening news and social media, “Intercepted” shows generally why war keeps happening and specifically how Ukrainians are living through this invasion.

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