Review by Sean Boelman
Last year’s Sundance Film Festival featured the premiere of the Oscar-nominated 20 Days in Mariupol, exploring the story of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev’s documentary Porcelain War stands out thanks to its humanistic telling of another side of the story that does not often receive the spotlight, as well as plenty of incredible cinematography showcasing some awe-inspiring art.
Porcelain War tells the story of a group of Ukrainian artists who decide to stay in their homes despite the war raging around them, threatening to destroy everything they know. Meanwhile, one of the artists has become a civilian soldier, spending his time training other soldiers to defend their homeland.
The film’s central metaphor is evident from the moment it starts, but that doesn't make it any less effective. There is something to be said about the fragile beauty of both the world and the creations these artists are making, and yet, even in their broken state, they are still an incredible sight.
What makes Porcelain War so devastating is that it shows how this conflict has forced everyday individuals to pick up arms and become soldiers. Although several documentaries on the War in Ukraine have explored the human cost of the conflict, few have been able to show the human perspective so well as this.
However, as effective as this unique angle is, it leaves the other story thread — the artists’ creations — feeling underdeveloped. At many points, it feels like Bellomo and Leontyev are more interested in the symbolic meaning of the works than the works themselves. It definitely would have been nice to see the film explore more of the craftsmanship behind their creations.
As one would expect, a lot of juxtaposition is used in the film. We see the beautiful porcelain sculptures these artists are creating against the backdrop of buildings that have been decimated by bombs. It serves as a powerful reminder of the need to find beauty even in times of darkness.
The cinematography in the film is excellent, particularly when it is used to create this striking imagery. Another part of the execution that stands out is its occasional use of animation, which takes the designs the subjects make on their artwork and turns them into vibrant, moving graphics. There aren’t many of these sequences, though, and they don’t add much to the meaning, but they are impressive to behold.
The central concept of Porcelain War is intriguing, and while it manages to make its straightforward point clear quickly, the imagery it creates is consistently fantastic. It’s hardly a definitive film on the War in Ukraine, but it presents a unique perspective that other films on the subject have not explored in the past.
Porcelain War screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.