“Ukraine: Life Under Attack” documents painful but life-affirming survival under Russian bombardment in Kharkiv.

27 June 2022 By Paul Martin

It’s been dubbed City of Heroes, the official accolade awarded by President Volodymyr Zelensky to Kharkiv — Ukraine’s battered second city.

Two intrepid cameramen-producers have chronicled its trials and tribulations under Russian fire in a riveting film called “Ukraine: Life Under Attack”.  Their documentary has added poignancy as the Russian bombardment, apparently receding a month ago, has returned with a vengeance in the last couple of weeks.

Broadcast on Channel 4, much of the film follows Roman Kachanov, 33, a rotund but very active deputy fire chief, and his intrepid colleagues, as they try to rescue people trapped or missing in the city’s myriad of apartment-blocks after they’re been struck by Russian rockets and missiles.  One quote from him is particularly startling: “There are moments when you thought you’d be dead.  But you’re alive.  That’s wonderful.”  

We see enormous bravery — but this is not a story of unrealistic heroism. Roman openly admits that despite their macho exteriors, all the firemen are afraid of death.

And the documentary-makers revealingly tell us that, two months into the Russian invasion, more than one third of the rescue service personnel had left town, unable to take the pressure. 

The cameras graphically record desperate rescue efforts that end up with a man being rushed downstairs but later succumbing from his injuries, and in another location a severely injured man telling rescuers: “it’s too late.” Against the odds, he and his wife survive and recover.

And of course the war has also inflicted psychological scars. “Before this war my child was normal and calm,” says Irina. “Since the war, his psyche has been disturbed.”   She eventually chooses to flee the city via rescuers, along with her family and several others.

In a coup for the makers, the documentary is narrated for no fee by the famous Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who is also co-executive producer.   She said: “It’s a painful privilege to be part of telling this urgent human story.”

The documentary was made by Basement Films, its first since founder Ben de Pear left Channel 4 News after ten years as its head. 

He described the production as “a tribute to the brave people of Kharkiv and their extraordinary resilience, defiance and humour.

 “I hope this film makes people cry and laugh,” he said, ” but also very angry at what has happened to this city and to Ukraine.” 

De Pear also, rightly, praised the “brilliant” film-makers.   One of them, Athens-based Yassir Mani Benchelah, said a barrage of missiles had landed close by an underground school as they filmed people evacuating.

Other than that, they had not felt in direct danger, even though when they went around with the rescue team they were aware of the risk of “double tapping” – a practice that attackers sometimes employed to kill rescue teams. In general they had to reckon with “uncertainty” about when they could be hit by shelling “anywhere any time”.

Benchelah expressed an emotion often experienced by film-makers or journalists who have become immersed in deeply human stories in zones of conflict. “The very idea of ‘relaxing’ or taking time off has a strong sense of guilt attached to it, as most of those people we document don’t have that luxury,” he said. 

Possibly the most insightful part of the film is the time the cameramen spend with hundreds of people sheltering in the city’s modern metro system — originally built in Soviet times to resist potential nuclear war, so very secure

His fellow-cameraman and producer Patrick Tombola said he too felt guilty about enjoying life when he had just emerged from so much devastation. “For that reason I’ve stopped showing my holiday snaps on my social media,” he told an audience at the Frontline Club in London just before their film launched on Channel 4. 

Both men said that after weeks in a war-zone they need some time to detox.

They are selling like crazy outside, says the girl on the left with the pink teddy bear.

The children get two meals a day delivered by aid workers who come down from above.

Time for a quick hairdo alongside a nonworking train in the underground Metro station

Vika and her mother examine iPhone pictures of the girl doing dance classes pre-war

Their film shows that there are tensions underground, but also a burgeoning of solidarity and mutual support. A woman notes that there’s newfound camaraderie even among erstwhile neighbours who “couldn’t stand each other before the war”.  

Children continue to be schooled. And Vika, 10, learns to play a guitar, and to overcome her fear of spiders. 

The kids perk up when they hear an announcement on the station’s still-working public address system:  “Attention! All children under sixteen, please come to the ticket hall.”  

This is not to announce a train departure: there are trains in the underground station, but trains have been going nowhere for months. Instead, the voice says: “We’ll be handing out presents.”  

After children charge past non-working ticket barriers, the ‘station-master’ says he’ll prioritise “those who’ve been well-behaved”. As one girl gets a hand-out, her younger brother complains: “But she has been naughty!”

The whinging ends when the boy is given a whole-body Batman costume.

Fire deputy chief Roman with his seven-year-old daughter Violetta and their cat.

Back at the fire-station, where Roman has sheltered his own wife and daughter, air attack alerts still wail. As they scramble for cover, his daughter Violetta dons a washing basket as a make-believe fireman’s helmet. 

Roman attends a funeral for a ‘fire brother’ , one of 40 in the fire service who’ve died in Kharkiv since the war started.

There are also lighter moments. Roman also cooks for his colleagues.   “Hello everyone, hello lovely people, today I’m cooking especially for you,” he declares in English, a would-be imitation of Jamie Oliver.  Roman says he’s learned his skills from watching his culinary hero on Youtube.  

Throughout the film, we are captivated by the human side of this merciless battle.  Bed-time for Roman inside his fire-station involves coaxing his young daughter to sleep.  As she snuggles alongside him Violetta demands a “fairy story, because they all start scary and always have a happy ending”.

If only real-life in Kharkiv would indeed imitate fiction.