• CNAP Award  
  • International Competition


Marine Hugonnier

February 24, 2022: Russian troops are flooding into Ukraine. After the initial shock, how do you respond? For Marine Hugonnier, it was by using her own weapons – film and images – driven by what she describes as, “a desire to create a common front and a common image”. This is her declared agenda. She takes a two-pronged approach, first travelling to the Polish border and filming once she arrives. Then, transporting supplies to Kyiv. So, the film opens with grainy black and white 16mm images of a familiar but contradictory world: a random railway station, but a station that also conjures up all the iconic images of exoduses in European history, of which there are sadly so many. Inside the dimly-lit station at night – the camera is placed in the middle of a crowded corridor. A bustling crowd – mostly women and children – gestures and a brouhaha which resonate like a single voice. The film unfolds from his central point, from one encounter to the next, story to story, told by refugees and those who have come to help them. It finds its strength in the shots of faces, composed almost like portraits. Faces and their stories; the decision to remove them allows us both to both to listen and pay close attention. These figures seem suspended between the power of their words and the obstinate physical presence of their bodies there: like the young female doctor who has decided to return to Ukraine to care for the sick, or the young man who has come to fight. Creating a common image therefore consists of leaving an imprint on the film with the camera like a “body projected in the present”. Despite the fact these images were shot in March 2022, the troubling paradox is that they already seem to bear the weight of history. This is like a frozen moment, at the point when the war had only just become a threat rather than a reality crushing both bodies and the landscape.
(Nicolas Feodoroff)Marine Hugonnier

Interview with Marine Hugonnier

With this film, you respond to an emergency and necessity as war’s breaking out in Ukraine, even though you were working on a different project at the time. Can you tell us a little about how this film originated?

My plan was to tour Europe and organise a “mobile film intervention unit”, in other words, to convert a small bus to do in-camera editing as we passed through the various European sensibilities. To be honest, the successive lockdowns frightened me and deprived me of what constitutes the critical space that interests me, i.e. the distance at which the other begins, as Serge Daney would say. I wanted to travel, just walk the streets and mingle with other people. During Covid, all I dreamt about were bodies, people’s breath, a gigantic party, just to be in the middle of a crowd and sway with it. That was the personal urge that made me long for images. But this film project wasn’t only based on that desire. Above all, it aimed to take stock of a Europe that’s plagued by nationalist backsliding, authoritarian ideologies and major social and political tensions that undermine its project. Everywhere you go, dissent, division and disturbing, contradictory beliefs are brewing. I wanted to cross this particular landscape to get a feel for it and understand it better.
And then war broke out on 24th February. An ill wind is blowing. I’ve known for a long time that Putin’s regime is a real threat to Europe because I read Anna Politkovskaya’s writing and heard the stories of several friends working in the humanitarian sector when they got back from Chechnya or Georgia, and I saw with horror the moment Russia took the side of Bashar el-Assad in Syria. I decided to leave 6 days after the start of the Russian invasion. I got up one morning and said to myself ‘I’m going, I’ll take my Aaton camera and film roll and put it all to work on this situation’. We arrived there on the 18th day.

The film focuses on Przemyśl station in Poland. How did that come about?

I was looking for a point of entry in Europe as close as possible to Ukraine. I scoured the borders of Romania, Hungary and Poland on Google and asked a few fixers about press groups and I soon found out that Przemyśl and its small 1920s station was the best spot. Before I left, I collected donations from the people involved in funding the movie as well as my friends and family. We took a suitcase with 30 kilos of provisions. That’s the most important thing, because it’s not about making films that just depict reality, I wanted to create a reality. The fundraising makes the film a collective enterprise, a shared image, a common front. And I was very lucky to have with me a great producer, Florence Cohen (Anna Lena Films) who didn’t doubt the project for a second, and we very quickly gathered together a small crew with Tom Haudry as first assistant, the Poles Jan Moszumanski and Michael Siarek as sound engineer and his fixer, and Tonya Polskaya, a Ukrainian friend who acted as our interpreter.

The film involves numerous encounters between people leaving and people arriving. How did these encounters come about? How did you choose the people to feature in this movie? How did you work with them?

Once we got there, we had 5 days to shoot and eight 16mm reels (i.e. 1h20 of film). To start with, I didn’t touch my camera. We watched and tried to understand the situation. Who are these people arriving, how did they get there, how are they received, who welcomes them, where are they going, where does help come from and what kind of help is it? Who are the people who go back again? And why are they going back to Ukraine? Tonya’s with me the whole time and we talk to everyone. Everyone who’s there needs to be heard, and for those who take the time to listen, there are life-stories that are overwhelming. We hide our tears and continue. We don’t choose the people, we just engage in conversation with anyone who’s there because we’ve given them a blanket or a glass of water, or helped someone with their luggage… it all happens very simply because we’re caught up in this disaster with them, because we take everything to heart, we don’t protect ourselves, and we try to remedy this disaster with a smile and two outstretched hands like everyone else who’s there – the students and retired people who’ve rallied round. We talk to people and then ask them if we can record their voices, then if we can film a portrait. Some of them don’t want to be recorded, others accept, we don’t force anything, we wait for our pictures. It takes time, and every time we finish an interview, we fall into the arms of the people we’ve just filmed. They all have incredible strength, dignity and determination.

As with all of your films, you’ve chosen to film in 16mm, and this time it’s in black and white. What does 16mm represent for you? And black and white?

I shoot with film roll because I want to fix the breath of the people arriving and leaving in the silver salts of the film roll. It’s sculptural. I wanted to engrave their testimonies into physical matter, engrave it onto the film roll because it’s got a life-expectancy of 400 years (digital is 15 years). The film roll magnifies their presence and the black and white makes it timeless. But film roll and black and white images also do something else that I only came to understand later when I was looking at my pictures. It was a friend of mine (Mathieu Taponier) who helped me understand. A station in Poland is not innocent; the images immediately conjure up the Second World War, but what’s said in the film contradicts what’s seen, because the film speaks of nothing but civil solidarity and the defence of democracy. It’s all down to the way the people are filmed, the duration of the shots and the editing, and the film roll does all the rest in that it immediately creates a dialogue with different eras.
This film journalism that records micro-history onto film roll took me 18 years to formulate. I made a very short movie in Palestine when Yasser Arafat died, a portrait of the city when his death was announced. I knew I’d come back to this.

And the suitcase?

During the five-day shoot, we met a lot of Polish people, civilians who were getting supplies and military equipment into Ukraine and getting people out, whole families, with the car’s headlights switched off, driving without stopping.
When we were in Przemyśl in mid-March, the towns north of Kyiv were under siege. The abuses in Bucha were taking place at that moment but we didn’t know about that until later. We wanted to send this suitcase where it would be most useful, so we set up a relay chain. Jan Moszumanski, our sound engineer, drove it to Kyiv and from there one of his friends, Volodymry Volyk, took it to a checkpoint north of Kyiv, and then Yurij Litvinenko got it to Chernihiv, which had just been taken by the Russians. The suitcase is like an arrow that we shot into the heart of the war in Ukraine. It contained insulin, morphine and antidepressants but also chocolate and sweets for the children.
At the same time, we arranged accommodation in Warsaw for Sharon, the young woman who features in the film, who stayed with us during the shoot. She was sleeping rough in temperatures of -8°C when we met her because, being from Cameroon, she wasn’t treated like the others when she arrived in Przemyśl. She’s now being housed by a family and has an 8-month visa to stay in Poland.

The film’s title specifies “Notes for a Democratic Europe”. Why?

It’s saying that the film is like a notebook in defence of democracy because the threat isn’t coming solely from the banks of the Volga, it’s also here, with us. The movie is also a dispatch. These two ways of describing it refer to the realm of journalism. I have no legitimacy whatsoever in this realm, but that’s of no importance. In the same way, I’ve no legitimacy with regard to these major historical events. But witnessing them, specifically with no reason to be there, means sharing awareness and considering emotions as historical facts. It’s a political gesture, and filmmaking makes that possible. What stays with us from this shoot is the memory of an immense feeling of completeness from helping others, a profound joy that’s left a deep impression on us; it’s unforgettable.

Interview by Nicolas Feodoroff

  • CNAP Award  
  • International Competition

Technical sheet

France, Poland / 2022 / Black & white / 16 mm / 35’

Original version : french, english, polish, ukrainian
Subtitles : french, english
Script : Marine Hugonnier
Photography : Marine Hugonnier
Editing : Marine Hugonnier
Sound : Jan Moszumanski, Cesar Mamoudy
Production : Florence Cohen (Anna Lena Films), Malgorzata Koziol (EAST BEAST), Malgorzata Szumowska (Nowhere Films).

Filmography :
Meadow Report, 2022
Antonio Negri, 2019
La Vijanera, 2019
Cinetracts, since 2012
Apicula Enigma, 2013
May 13, 1968, 2011
Secretary Of The Invisible, 2007
Territory I, II, III, 2004
Death Of An Icon, 2005
Travelling Amazonia, 2006
The Last Tour, 2004
Ariana, 2003
Anna Hanusova (27.06.01, 5:40), 2001.