In Cannes, the Polish filmmaker’s film “In the Rearview” puts the spotlight on Ukrainians fleeing the war

WARSAW, Poland — When Polish filmmaker Maciek Hamela first began evacuating Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war against their country, he had no intention of making a film. He was one of the Poles who provided humanitarian aid to neighbors under attack and turned down an offer to film a television investigation.

But the reflections of the people he carried to safety in his van were so poignant that he soon began filming them. He asked a friend, a director of photography, to help him film – and drive – and pointed his camera directly at his passengers as they drove through the war-torn land.

The result is the documentary In the Rearview, which will be shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France as part of a parallel program dedicated to independent cinema. It is not in competition.

The Polish-French co-production film takes place almost entirely in Hamela’s van, the camera captures the mutilated passengers, one group at a time, during countless trips between March and November 2022.

The result is a complex portrait of men, women and children traversing a devastated landscape of bombed-out buildings and checkpoints, with dangerous detours caused by mines, fallen bridges and roads.

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The 84-minute film presents a little girl who was so traumatized that she stopped speaking. There is a Congolese woman who was so badly injured that she has had 18 surgeries since Hamela evacuated her. A mother with two children passing by the Dnieper River; The children think it is the sea, they ask their mother if she will take them after the war.

“The way the film was set up was to see the reflection of war in the small details of everyday life and in the lives of all of us,” Hamela told The Associated Press in an interview in Warsaw before flying to Cannes.

There is some humor as well, with one woman ironically remarking that she has always wanted to travel. A woman escaped with her cat and said she needed a bathroom break.

In order not to exploit those she helped, Hamela told them there was a camera in the car before she recorded them. And they only signed the forms authorizing the use of the footage after they arrived safely at their destination, so they never felt it was a condition of help.

In “Rear View” he also documents one of the many Polish efforts to help Ukraine. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, there was a massive grassroots effort across Poland, with regular people taking time off work to travel to the Ukrainian border to distribute food. Some picked up strangers and took them to shelters or even their own homes.

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Hamela started raising money for the Ukrainian army on the first day. On the third day, he bought a van to transport Ukrainians from the Polish border and convinced his father to open his beloved summer home to strangers.

Hamela soon heard from a friend of the people in eastern Ukraine that he needed to be rescued and headed to the front lines of the war to pick them up. Some of them came out of the cellars, where they had taken refuge in terror.

When the war started, Hamela was working on a documentary about the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. In 2021, a large number of migrants from the Middle East and Africa tried to cross this border. Poland and other EU countries saw this as an organized effort by Russia’s ally Belarus to destabilize Poland and other EU countries.

Poland built a wall to stop the migrants, causing some to die in the forests and marshes of the region.

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The war in Ukraine prompted Hamela to abandon this project, which centered on the indifference of some Polish border communities to the plight of migrants and refugees.

Having observed both crises closely, he sees a connection.

“This is my personal opinion about it, but I really think it was meant to pit the Poles against all the refugees in preparation for the war in Ukraine,” he said.

Hamela, now 40, was also active in supporting Ukrainians participating in the pro-democracy Maidan revolution of 2014, which led to Russia’s initial incursion into Ukraine.

He says the world depicted in his documentary couldn’t be further from the glamorous world of Cannes, and he hopes it will remind people of how high the stakes are in Ukraine.

“We are trying to use this coverage to remind everyone that the war is still going on and lives must be saved. And Ukraine will not win it without our help,” he said. “So that’s the ultimate task with this movie.”