Formally electrifying and ethically discomfiting at the same time, Flight of a Bullet is a movie one could just as easily gawk at in wonder or endlessly debate over. The documentary’s premiere at a Russian film festival was crashed by protestors, and there has been controversy over whether it got one of its subjects killed — if the man is in fact even dead, that is. In the linked interview, Russian director Beata Bubenec expresses an irritatingly cavalier attitude over questions of her responsibilities as a filmmaker. Particularly alarming is that the movie, shot in an active war zone which to this day remains active, apparently first screened with participants’ names and addresses said aloud (in the version which played at True/False, all location and civilian names are bleeped out). There is a legitimate argument to be made that this movie is morally deficient, perhaps even evil if did indeed enable a subject’s death through sloppiness. Yet it is also undeniably engrossing as an artistic piece.
Bubenec has made her bones as a documentarian amidst the ongoing political upheaval and war in Ukraine. Her first film, God’s Will, featured an extremist Eastern Orthodox leader, and her next, Chechen, followed a veteran soldier through the Maidan protests, Russian annexation of Crimea and the War in Donbass. In 2014, she was informally embedded with Urkaine’s Aidar Battalion, a fascist volunteer military detachment which included her lead subject from Chechen. While she captured over 400 hours of footage during her time with the unit, Flight of a Bullet features a single 81-minute stretch and nothing else. Little outside context, no character introductions — just a single, unbroken period of time during which she had her camera running. It’s what is fit into this single shot, and how Bubenec continually maneuvers herself through it, that keeps the doc riveting.
The film opens in the queasy serenity of a battle’s aftermath, with Bubenec and some militia members surveying a bridge that’s half-destroyed and riddled with gawkers. The film takes an abrupt turn for the harrowing when the Aidar footmen abduct a man who’s questioning Bubenec’s right to film him, stuffing him into a car while accusing him of being a pro-Russian separatist. Bubenec protests his innocence, but the man is brought to their headquarters and interrogated. And this intense ordeal is only half the movie. After the man is released, Bubenec continues to film.
War is a fraction terror and mostly boring, and Flight of a Bullet emphasizes this as it unspools. A mere few minutes after the abduction ordeal is finished, it seems ages ago, with camera now occupied with a volunteer arguing with his girlfriend on the phone. Much of the film is deliberately numbed mundanity. When one of the soldiers sexually propositions (jokingly?) Bubenec in the last stretch, it raises fewer questions about her position in the battalion than it does a muted “Oh, now this is happening.” Vitally, Bubenec’s shooting style does not change no matter the situation, treating a bombed-out bridge, battle strategy, an interrogation and making plans for lunch with equal calm remove. The suggestion is that the day-to-day experience for these fighters is not frenzied action but surreal negotiations between normal necessities and the demands of the war.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.