Frontier Church (2015) Poster

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An intimate, haunting window into the conflict in eastern Ukraine
pierrelamont116 July 2016
Frontier Church documents the work of Dmytro Povorotniy, a priest in the Ukranian Orthodox Church, as he provides blessings and support for a battalion of fighters resisting the separatist incursion into Ukraine.

As a window into the conflict in Ukraine, Frontier Church is sparse and unadorned, and all the more memorable for it. There is no sense of total war or outright chaos, but of a remote political and strategic duel played out across an increasingly devastated landscape, punctuated by periods of shock and danger. The ghostly presence of separatism hangs in the air; the enemy is never seen even in the distance, but has forced the cast into a sudden transformation in their lives. Dmytro, himself a veteran of the Soviet army, describes the unnaturalness of war in the abstract. But as a reminder of the fragility of Ukraine and the perennial threat of their historical neighbour and overlord, the conflict has constructed a theatre of old feelings and old ways, resurrected defiantly against international organisations and big words.

While the fusion of religion and war is ancient, there is no nationalist bombast fused with religious fervour coming from Dmytro. Instead, he uses his remove from martial affairs, combined with his sense of respect — which he cultivates without pretension, and receives as opposed to awe or submission from the fighters — to give them an outlet of normality. He is a man cut from their cloth more than the garb of his calling. He slices an apple in his palm with an intimidating knife and raises the shorn fruit to his mouth with the flat of the blade. "Yes, this is how we do things."

The film is shot in a way which frames the bleak anti-climax of war superbly; the quiet of waiting to die or kill, the resignation to necessity, the fear offset only by the responsibility of self-defence, the ritual of blessing, and the need for survival,. There is just the right balance of dramatic distance and intimacy in the camera-work. Edited with patience and precision, each passage contains a sense of time attuned to the reality of the situation. Only in motion — towards the frontline or somewhere in need of help — is the occasional beauty of the landscape captured. The soundtrack consists of natural sounds punctuated by industrial throbs.

One particularly haunting passage finds Dymtro reading rites to fighters in a stone hut. A fuzzy transmission cuts through his incantation, reporting the death of a fighter. The priest has no choice but to suspend his blessing as the words cuts through his incantation. After he finishes, the fighters cross themselves as if their lives depend on it. Unfortunately for them and Dmytro, it doesn't.
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