“Becoming a witness to this attack was a shock,” says Loup Bureau reporter.

It’s a movie of rare power. The film was shot in black and white for four months, between 2018 and 2020, a documentary by independent journalist Loup Bureau titled trenchesAnd It offers an unprecedented dive into the everyday life of soldiers of the 30th Brigade of the Ukrainian Army. By placing its camera in the dusty galleries of the Donetsk region, the Loup Bureau was able to transform all the century-old images of World War I into a conflict more modern than ever. Directed before the start of the Russian attack on Ukraine, the film vigorously traces the genesis of this war that began before February 24, 2022.

What prompted you to become interested in the war in Donbass?

I started covering Ukrainian news in 2013. At the time I was a reporter in Egypt, but the revolution that started in Kyiv shocked me for several reasons. The European dimension intrigued me greatly and was marked by the repression that followed. He echoed what I was able to cover in the context of the Arab Spring. I went there and had the opportunity to meet many people in the field field who gradually became close friends. Among them was a young engineer, who at the beginning of the war in 2014 joined a volunteer battalion before joining the Ukrainian army and becoming a commander. I became interested in this war through him, through his background and his military career.

your first documentary, trenchesoffers a dive into the everyday life of Ukrainian soldiers involved in the conflict with Russia since 2014. Why do you want to report this underground life?

Since 2016, the war has turned into a war of position and like any protracted war, media attention has dried up as the fighting continues. At that time, I found out that Ukrainian soldiers were building trenches. My military friend introduced me to the front. When I discovered all these ramifications, stretching over several tens of kilometers, I realized that all the imagination of World War I came to me in a raw and striking way.

I read a lot about trenches, I read letters from soldiers and after more than 100 years, I found exactly the same thing in front of me, it was crazy. I saw the same boredom there, the lethargy, the confusion, the effect of division, and all the existential crises that result from it. When you spend months in the trenches, you inevitably have very powerful intimate questions, asking yourself the question of what you’re doing there, why you’re doing it, and the meaning you want to give your life. It also echoed what I personally experienced during my arrest in Turkey in 2017.

How did you get permission to film in this particularly dangerous area?

The Ukrainian General Staff never knew that I was making a movie on this topic. I asked my military friend for unofficial permission to live with them. It was the commander of the 30th brigade of the Ukrainian army who allowed me to stay. This allowed me to have the privilege of accessing and approaching soldiers more easily. When officially covering the front line, everything is restrained, an army press attache is constantly standing behind you and you are subject to strict photo rules. Shooting in this context is very complicated because there is always a strategic problem and you should not expose the mobilized forces too much.

“If you want to survive, then dig,” said one of the soldiers who had photographed them. How would you describe the daily lives of these men and women who fight in this field?

Life in the trenches is stressful. They sleep in bunkers on bunk beds, are exposed to rocket-propelled grenades and are under regular bombardment. We are always awake, always afraid so we sleep a little. These soldiers remain in the trenches for six months and then return home for two weeks or a month before returning to the front. The ditch is a psychological prison. It’s a place where soldiers build themselves up, solidify, live and sometimes die. They are also waiting a lot, often. In the novels of the 14-18 war, there is an impression that the fighting was always, but this is not true. Soldiers played cards, trying to live a semblance of everyday life to deceive this expectation and re-create a form of normality. This is what I found in Ukraine.

I also wanted to show how difficult it is for soldiers to return to their daily lives. They are all waiting for their permission or the expiration of their contract with glee. There was great joy when they left these trenches but soon realized that the war not only affected bodies, but also spirits. Sometimes rehabilitation for civilian life is more complicated for some than the war itself. In the brigade I was following, a soldier committed suicide a year and a half ago.

The Loup office was in Donbass in Ukraine when Russia launched its nationwide offensive on February 24, 2022.
The Loup office was in Donbass in Ukraine when Russia launched its nationwide offensive on February 24, 2022. – Akorsini/Siba

How did you respond to the announcement of the start of the Russian offensive on February 24?

The warning signs of this war were too numerous… The conflict in the Donbass never ended, and the possibility of seeing this war escalate remained constant. Russian propaganda that has been circulating for years in the national media also helped prepare the population for this war. However, most of them believed that if there was a return to the conflict, it would be limited to eastern Ukraine and the Donbass. So inevitably, when the residents understood the extent of this attack, the surprise was great. Even if I was aware that something dangerous could break out, to witness, it was a shock.

What happened to the soldiers you lived with during your documentary?

I returned to the trenches three weeks ago and some of the soldiers I photographed were still in the same place. All the positions I was able to go into are still in use today. The Russians failed to take them. On the other hand, the fighting inevitably escalated since February 24 and two soldiers we see in my film have since died. I have regular news from the brigade, they are fighting constantly, there has been no turnover for two months, they have not been able to find their families, they are 100% confiscated by the army and every day they are trying to survive. It is a huge sacrifice that these make, especially knowing that their families are also suffering from this war and in dangerous situations.

I was in Ukraine, in the Donbass, at the beginning of the offensive. what did you watch?

Everyone was dumbfounded. Within a few hours, the Ukrainians had to change their lives. Some chose to go to the front, others left the country or preferred to take refuge in the West. It was a disaster in their lives. Seeing friends my age take up arms and go to the front because they feel they have no other choice is very difficult emotionally. I left Donbass, traveled to Kyiv for two weeks and it was surreal. People had no idea what would happen, whether the city would be besieged, and whether this column of tanks over 80 kilometers long would succeed or not. As the days went by, the country became more and more wandering, and we had no more cars, no petrol, nothing. The only teams that were ready were those of the major news channels behind which were all the logistics. But many freelancers have had to leave. Personally, I was in such a daze that I decided to go back. I couldn’t work properly anymore.

The beginning of this war was privately announced and prompted many young correspondents to go there. How do you see the interest of this new generation of journalists in Ukraine?

This is a major event, the first time that a war of this magnitude has taken place on the European continent in decades and the largest military operation launched by Russia since World War II. So it seems natural to me that young journalists want to go there. It’s already very dangerous but I also started covering conflicts by taking risks. We often repeated to these young reporters: “Don’t come, you’re not safe, you don’t have the means or experience to cover a dispute.” But we are never ready for war! I’ve seen seasoned journalists take more risks than their juniors. It’s not because you have a car and an editorial crew behind you that makes you less exposed. The real danger is isolation and the lack of an experienced healer.

Is it likely that the conflict will falter again in the Donbass, in your opinion?

Unfortunately, I fear it. I don’t see how Vladimir Putin can emerge victorious from this struggle in the coming weeks. And everything will be played on this region because the war began there in 2014. There Russia organized the destabilization of Ukraine. The day this region regains stability, the intensity of the conflict will inevitably diminish. We should not forget that its inhabitants lived for eight years in successive conquests and suffered from wars. Today, there is no more electricity, no water, in some areas, and the food supply has become more complex. Donbass has become a martyr’s region.

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