We Will Not Fade Away (2023) by Alisa Kovalenko

Courtesy of Berlinale

The Russian invasion and the breakout of the full-scale war in Ukraine came as a shock to many, including the film community. On the other hand, the war in the Eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas has been going on from 2014, occasionally coming into the limelight of the media and the general public. Regarding the film festival circuit, there is a notable and commendable trend of presence of the Ukrainian films, both in the fiction and the documentary department. Unlike the fiction films from the circuit that have largely been in post-production stage at the moment of invasion (the production of others was halted for obvious reasons), documentary projects had to adapt to the new reality.

That is the case with Alisa Kovalenko’s newest feature-length documentary We Will Not Fade Away. The project started in one type of reality, following five teenagers from the war zone in Donbas growing up and dreaming big while facing the grim reality. It consists not only of the echoes of war in their vicinity, but also even wider lack of perspective in the often neglected, rural and mining area. Andriy wants to be an engineer, he looks up to Elon Musk, but is often berated by his father and sent to work in the mines. Ruslan wants to become a rapper (the title of the film is taken from one of his songs), while Ilya wishes to become an actor, while the sensible choice would be to join the local police force. There are two girls, too, Lera and Lisa, one with artistic tendencies and the other with a strong sense of empathy, and all five of them, inspired by their mentor and the local alpinist and explorer Valentin, will undertake a grand project of climbing Himalaya mountains.

Theoretically, their expedition should be the crown of the film and it should serve as a positive confirmation of the kids’ dreams that are universal and equally powerful, or maybe even more powerful in the case of those five coming from the circumstances they are coming from. However, with the full scale war coming to their part of the world and the invading forces destroying their villages, that kind of positive message would seem out of place. The expedition was kept for the film’s triumphant second-to-last act, but the title cards informing us what happened to them after the beginning of the full-scale war rightfully leave the audience with uneasy emotions.

However, in that re-composition of the project, the emphasis was put on what preceded their dream expedition, so their “regular” lives developing in the shadows of a “regular” conflict took the most of the screen time. The trouble with starting one movie project and ending up with a completely different one is quite obvious: what was shot as the context, became the actual text, while also the subjects were also stuck in a peculiar stage of development that prevented them to function either as a group character or as independent, individual ones. Eventually, it seems that we have at least two different and often oppositely aligned documentaries here.

The unobtrusiveness of Alisa Kovalenko’s and Serhiy Stesenko’s camerawork is commendable, as is the stylization achieved in Maryna Maykovska and Kasia Boniecka’s editing that deftly transports us between the grim reality and the subjects’ dreams (or even their shared dream), while the selection of dreamy pop music, on the other hand, quickly loses its power of commentary due to repetitiveness. In the end, We Will Not Fade Away kind of does fade away as the victim of circumstances, no matter how noble the project was and still is.

Original title: My ne zgasnemo
Year: 2023
Runtime: 99’
Countries: Ukraine, Poland, France, USA
Languages: Ukrainian, Russian, English
Directed by: Alisa Kovalenko
Written by: Alisa Kovalenko
Cinematography: Alisa Kovalenko, Serhiy Stesenko
Editing: Maryna Maykovska, Kasia Boniecka
Music: Wojciech Frycz
Sound: Mariia Nesterenko
Produced: Valery Kalmykov, Oleksiy Kobelev, Stéphane Siohan, Tomasz Morawski, Katarzyna Kuczyńska
Production companies: Trueman Production, East Roads Films, HAKA Films
Co-production companies: ARTE, Current Time TV, La Lucarne, Telewizja Polska
Supported by: Polish Film Institute, Ukrainian State Film Agency
Sales by: Strangles Film Sales