Maciek Hamela’s documentary In the Rearview, about Ukrainian refugees traversing their war-torn country in his dusty van as they seek safety during the first days of the Russian invasion, bowed in Cannes.
But the Polish director is relishing the upcoming North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Canada has kept its door wide open to Ukrainians and their families fleeing their war-torn country, and so Toronto and its giant Ukrainian diaspora community represent friendly territory for Hamela, in contrast to waning support elsewhere in the West.
“Just to show the film in a country that gets it, that understands the importance of support much more than some of these Western European countries, in fact, which is bizarre because the conflict is so far away,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The Scotiabank Theatre audience at TIFF during three public screenings will include one of the doc’s Ukrainian producers, Anna Palenchuk, who is now based in Toronto. “She emigrated not long ago, with her family – she’s got three kids – and she was able to do that, and that’s important to her,” Hamela adds.
In the Rearview‘s impact on audiences begins like a slow-building car chase movie, but without having to wreck cop cruisers. The doc was shot by four camera operators — Yura Dunay, Wawrzyniec Skoczylas, Marcin Sierakowski and Piotr Grawender — during the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022, amid the first mass missile strikes and the advance of a land force from Russia crossing into the country.
Rather than capture faceless Ukrainians in highway convoys or crowding train station platforms to escape the life-threatening conflict, the Poland-France-Ukraine co-production focuses on a white-knuckled Hamela at the wheel of a van he’d rented as he drives Ukrainian civilians young and old fleeing their homes away from danger.
It’s Hamela’s job as a humanitarian driver to get his passengers, mostly women and children, to safe refuge in western Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere as lives, including his own, are put in serious peril. Occasionally, a camera pans around the van, or leaves the vehicle entirely, to illustrate the devastation Ukraine faced amid chaos and destruction unfolding in real time and space.
Production for the minimalist debut documentary is pared down, with one camera from the backseat capturing Hamela upfront and driving, with an added view out the front window, and another rearview vantage point that portrays the evacuated passengers seated in the back of the van as they pass through checkpoints or avoid minefields.
From inside the emotional cocoon, Hamela offers a sense of temporary asylum, despite the endless dangers of war that dog their journey, the director’s fly-on-the-wall camera captures the moment the war and its humanitarian crisis turn ordinary people into frightened refugees attempting to outrun an invading Russian army and its firepower.
“Our house, and all that’s in it — a TV set, the appliances, everything,” one young man tells another passenger of what his family left behind as it took flight. “We set the dogs loose. What could we do?” he adds as other passengers, when not silent and pensive, shake their heads or talk and even laugh over their homes and much else that’s precious in their lives that they’ve had to let go of.
One husband tells his wife to stop talking proudly about a cow called Beauty left behind on their abandoned farm, as she’ll just start crying again.
“Many people can relate to (Ukrainian) people because it’s almost like a family going on vacation, you don’t know. They’re having a quarrel. You didn’t close the cabinet. You didn’t take the keys. It’s the ordinary life we all have,” Hamela explains as his van drives from and between cities and remote towns and villages like Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Sloviansk and Soledar, where an older man gets into the van and reports cluster bombs had fallen, including on his daughter’s house.
Soon, viewers of In The Rearview hear the confidences and confessions of uprooted passengers, shared quite by chance. One young passenger reveals to Hamela that she’s pregnant, having become a surrogate mother to help raise money to open a pastry shop and fix up her house.
Her serene and at times smiling face as she talks about her hopes and dreams dashed by the horrors of war has a beauty that suddenly transcends the horrors outside Hamela’s van as he races up another highway.
Viewers will see families separating as people enter the van, where possible, without crying to avoid husbands, wives and children of all ages falling into puddles of tears. Here In the Rearview was shot in a decidedly political backdrop.
As Europe suddenly granted temporary asylum to Ukrainians, Hamela was bringing to their borders refugees considered far more controversial when they were people from Africa or the Middle East were suddenly seen in an entirely different light to people coming from the heart of Europe.
Here, Hamela and his cameras were keen to show passengers in his van were like anyone, anywhere, with hopes and dreams dashed by sudden war.
“The idea behind the film is to show these ordinary lives of Ukrainians, that they are just the same as any other lives of anybody else in Europe, in North America, or around the world,” he tells THR.
The Polish director is adamant he didn’t want to shoot a typical war documentary, with shots from trenches and other points behind enemy lines.
“Cameras are everywhere. We can see GoPro footage of soldiers fighting all over the TV, all over the news,” Hamela argues, resulting in a global audience feeling detached or even like there’s a wall between themselves and the horrors of a conflict in the heart of Europe having passed its 500-day mark.
“What we wanted was to build a link so we can connect with people and let them feel they’re in this car, traveling with refugees. That’s why I wanted to focus on the stories in the van, not to go away from them, so we feel part of this big journey with the Ukrainian nation, with the exodus at the start of the war,” the director insists.
Hamela adds he didn’t expect while shooting In the Rearview that the war in Ukraine would last this long and he’d have to reinforce a message of support for that country’s embattled people while in Toronto.
“I’m a born optimist. I felt this is going to last maybe a few months. I was hoping by the time we finished the film, the war would be over,” he says.
Another goal in Toronto is securing a North American distributor for the documentary already set for theatrical release in Europe later this year.
“This is the right place, in Toronto, to choose the right partner to do a cinema release,” he says. “It’s because the festival cinema audiences appreciate the film as a work for cinema, so we’re hoping for a good partner for North America.”