“A Ukrainian National Awakening on Multiple Fronts”: David Gutnik on Tribeca 2023 Premiere Rule of Two Walls
David Gutnik’s Rule of Two Walls, its title a reference to the best place to be between during bombing raids, is a unique take on an exhaustively mined (some would say extracted) story—that of the current war in Europe. Combining doc and fiction, the film follows Ukrainian artists who have chosen to stay and fight for their homeland by making art and preserving culture as a means of resistance. And that includes those involved in the crafting of this very film.
To learn all about this meta look at creation in a time of destruction, Filmmaker reached out to the Ukrainian-American writer-director just prior to his (Liev Schreiber-EP’d) project’s Tribeca premiere.
Filmmaker: Though the film is a mix of nonfiction and narrative techniques, I honestly at times didn’t know what was staged and what was “real,” and didn’t much care. Can you talk a bit about why it was so important to include the fictional element in the doc?
Gutnik: I’m really happy to hear you responded the way you did. What is interesting is that nothing you see in the film is fictional or staged. I suspect it feels this way because we treated the formal elements as we would a narrative.
For example, my shooting partner, Volodymyr Ivanov, and I are both obsessed with the use of headroom in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida. The main character in Ida is looking for God, so the headroom in her frames leaves room for God. We played with this idea in the framing of our own characters, as they search for meaning, purpose, and a way to respond in their work to the invasion of their country.
Similarly, composer Andrew Orkin looked at the use of flutes and nonconventional instruments in narrative films like Battle of Algiers and Monos, and seized on how Ennio Morricone and Mica Levi each found a way to apply radical cinematic approaches to sensitive political contexts. Our sound designer, Peter Albrechtsen, built out an elaborate sonic universe rooted in the film’s dramaturgy. The film blurs lines: between the physical and psychological frontlines, between place names, between cast and crew, between narrative and doc. So the mix overlaps score, sound design and source music in a way that makes it difficult to differentiate between sound design and music.
Finally, in the grade, colorist Damien Vandercruyssen created a color arc around a single and central thematic idea: the palette is Soviet and desaturated at the start, and over the course of the film becomes warmer, more colorful and derussified. At each step, we operated as though there are more similarities between narrative and doc than there are differences.
Filmmaker: I read in the press notes that you were struck by seeing a cameraman documenting a bombing within feet from his lens and staunchly refusing to move. “The shot is and isn’t about the shot.” He was simultaneously capturing history and asserting his right as a Ukrainian to stay put on his land. So did this spark your decision to take the meta approach, or had you already decided to go that route?
Gutnik: When I met our DP, he had just come from Bucha, where he was carrying and pulling bodies—innocent men, women, kids—out of bags. Our sound recordist had to evacuate his home in Kyiv and had just come from Uzhhorod, where he had relocated his family and had been transporting refugees across the border.
The decision to include our crew in the film’s ensemble was made shortly after meeting them. For me, the approach felt necessary and grounded in the lived experience of the war. After all, the movie is about artists using their work to process atrocities and resist. Ukrainian cameramen and sound recordists are artists too, risking their lives to do the thing they know how to do: make movies.
Filmmaker: How did Liev Schreiber come onboard as EP? Did you meet with him in Ukraine during production? (I believe at one time you were in the same neighborhood in Bucha.)
Gutnik: Liev and I were introduced after I got back from Ukraine, once we had a rough edit. Liev watched an early cut of the film, gave some very constructive notes, and once we’d established a good creative dialogue officially came onboard.
Filmmaker: I remember visiting Kyiv before the full-scale invasion (for Docudays UA 2018) and being a bit unnerved by how hardcore nationalistic many of the young artists were, obviously as a result of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and especially the Maidan massacre before that. I was also pretty shocked to learn that only “patriotic” filmmaking was eligible for government funding, and that everyone seemed just fine with that. So did this particular aspect, or anything else about the artists you encountered and were filming with, surprise you?
Gutnik: You’re right, the Maidan Revolution of Dignity and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were major flashpoints for Ukraine. Maidan was the site of one of the most breathtaking democratic revolutions in history, and it resulted in the ousting of a corrupt president who was more loyal to Putin than Ukraine.
In the eight years since, a Ukrainian national awakening on multiple fronts has been taking place: in the military, in civil society, in language and in the arts and cultural spaces. If it had not been for these eight years of mass political and cultural mobilization, Kyiv likely would have fallen in three days, as all the experts and media had predicted at the start of the war. In light of this, it is helpful to consider that those young artists and filmmakers in Kyiv in 2018 were trying to warn the world of the war and genocide that was coming. It is also important to recall that Putin justifies this war on the basis of his favorite lie: that Ukrainian culture and history do not exist. And so for a Ukrainian artist or filmmaker, questions of country are inevitably bound up with questions of their very existence and identity.
Filmmaker: As a Ukrainian-American, have you experienced any backlash from the Ukrainian filmmaking community? I know there’s a big emphasis right now on getting films about Ukraine directed by Ukrainians out into the world (i.e., an actual Ukrainian citizen could have used your funding and star EP).
Gutnik: That’s correct, I am Ukrainian-American. My parents and sister were born in Ukraine, I was born in Brooklyn. But Rule of Two Walls is a Ukrainian production, made with, by and starring the Ukrainian filmmaking community.
My producer, Olha Beskhmelnytsina, is the chairwoman of the Ukrainian Film Academy. And I do wish I could say that Ukrainians could have used my funding, but this movie was made without funding. When the war started, there was no time to secure support. I got on a one-way flight to Warsaw, Olha put me on a bus to Ukraine, and we shot the film on a shoestring.