‘You Feel Safe One Second and Then Boom’: A Conversation With the Filmmakers of ‘Ukraine: Life Under Russia’s Attack’
A still from the making of FRONTLINE's documentary "Ukraine: Life Under Russia's Attack." (Patrick Tombola)
When Mani Yassir Benchelah and Patrick Tombola set out to film a documentary on Ukraine, in the days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, they weren’t sure if they would focus solely on Kharkiv.
But within their first week of filming in Ukraine’s second largest city, they realized they had a compelling story on their hands. In total, they filmed in Kharkiv for about 55 days over the first three months of the war. The result is the new FRONTLINE documentary Ukraine: Life Under Russia’s Attack.
Benchelah and Tombola — who have known each other for several years and individually covered conflicts in the Middle East — spoke with FRONTLINE about what it was like working together for the first time, documenting life under bombardment, how people in Kharkiv coped with living in underground shelters, and why they felt it was important to bring this story to an American audience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you made the decision to start filming, what were you expecting to see?
Tombola: We thought perhaps Kharkiv would be interesting, because of the identity issue, because they’re so close to Russia … to see how people that had work, family, language and all sorts of connections with Russia would feel, being bombed incessantly by Russia.
And by the luck of being in the right place at the right time … we met Roman [the firefighter] the first day.
The first week was just like — wow, we literally worked countless hours. I just remember working nonstop, nonstop, nonstop and meeting all these amazing people with all these incredible stories. And we both supported each other when we needed to go back, recharge — literally recharge some batteries — and then come back as soon as possible.
How did you find the people we meet in the documentary?
Benchelah: We started with Roman. That was the first person we met. The first or second day, a building had been shelled — one of many. Volodymyr Pavlov, our local producer, contacted a spokesperson for the firefighters.
We got information that that building had gotten hit, like, 12 hours before or something. … They knew that a woman had been killed and that she was under the rubble. They had been working on it since 12 p.m. the day before. The spokesperson was doing his job as a spokesperson, giving us his lines and kind of controlling us a bit, not giving us access to the building and so on.
But Roman, who was the guy on the ground and who wanted the message out, he instantly — he saw us and he’s like, “OK, come with me.” And he grabbed us. He really brought us all the way up to the rooftop and started explaining everything that had happened. He was very articulate, and very early on he said, “Whatever you want to do, I’m here, I’m available.” And that’s how it started with him.
Tombola: We met Roman, and then we followed him, and then one of his colleagues died in the fire. And then we went to the funeral with Roman. At that funeral, we met a priest. … Through the priest, then we went to the Red Cross, and they took us to a shelter. And in that shelter, we met the people in the underground school. So, one character led us to another character, led us to another character.
We are still in touch on a weekly basis with each one of the people that we documented. We’re really close to them.
What kinds of safety precautions did you take while filming?
Tombola: We both have extensive experience in war zones — around 25 years between the two of us, and not just 25 years, but also a lot of different countries.
Both Yassir and I have a very similar approach to danger, in the sense we are constantly in a conversation about it. We follow our gut instinct. We reach out to a lot of different people, both on the field and outside, for updated information, and we rely on a strong network.
And then we constantly evaluate how important the footage is versus the actual danger of doing it. Sometimes we just say: “Look, going down that alley, we don’t know what there is. We’re not really going towards anywhere specific. It feels a bit dangerous. So how about we just turn around, go and ask more questions, then go back?”
Other times there would be shelling, but we were following a specific character that was doing something important, and so we just said: “OK, it’s definitely worth it. Let’s do it.”
Benchelah: We knew each other for 1o years, but the first time we worked together it was … very reassuring to see that we had the same understanding of the risks we were ready to take and our appreciation of what the risks were.
Otherwise, it’s the usual, about not hanging around for no reason in a place that is potentially dangerous, even if it doesn’t look like it. It obviously can be very quiet, and people can just be hanging out, smoking cigarettes and stuff, and then boom, a shell fell without notice. So, we had to keep that in the back of our minds.
Tombola: In Syria, you approached the front lines; you’d know that there would be snipers. … Or in Gaza, you knew that at a certain time, in certain places, it was quite hot.
But in Ukraine, it was a bit like the randomness of it all. It’d be 10 people smoking, drinking coffee, beautiful sunny day, and then all of a sudden [explosion noise], four people dead. Hold on a second. I mean, there’s no military, nothing. … It’d just be random. It’s like you feel safe one second and then boom, the second later, 2 kilometers down the road, six people died while they were eating ice cream. So, it was just very difficult to make a very real plan.
In the documentary, some of the most striking scenes contrast the eerie emptiness of the city aboveground and bustling life underground, in the subway station. Can you describe how people seemed to cope with that way of living, as time went on?
Benchelah: The people in the underground, in the subway, it was like a big community. Most of the people who were there were from the neighborhood. They were from Saltivka. Vika’s family — the 10-year-old girl — they were from villages in the surroundings of Kharkiv, close to the border.
The fact that they lived so long underground, the kids got used to it and they had all their friends. They got used to this new type of life, completely underground. They would go up every now and then — but not so often — to breathe. But their parents are worried about the shelling.
But people were trying to hold onto some sort of normalcy. They had their pets. They kept on watching films. But it was also the routine. It’s just very long hours of not doing much.
But at least the sense of community in the underground was more comforting than what we saw in Saltivka. … All the shelters are scattered everywhere in the neighborhood. In those districts, below every building, you would have a shelter, be it small or big. These people were mostly elderly people. They felt really abandoned in some ways and stranded and not knowing what to do.
And the conditions they were living in were much more difficult. Much less support, because [they were] less accessible. There was much more shelling where they are, so much less organizations go there — volunteers and so on. And it took time for people to organize support for these people. But when they could, a lot of people tried to extract themselves from there and leave, because it was so miserable.
Individual buildings — like the shelter where we were, under a school — it was not the subway, so it wasn’t the same proportions. In this shelter, there were like 100 to 120 people, maybe at the maximum. In the subway, it went up to 1,600, and that was one station.
Tombola: It’s a fully reversible situation. If the Russians counterattacked once again and decided to shell the hell out of Kharkiv, everyone that went aboveground would most likely go below ground again.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the extent to which people move, either within Ukraine or even more outside, is also a direct result of your education, age, economic possibility, your network. If you don’t have a car, already the likelihood goes down — then if you abandoned your house, and you have nothing, no money, no nothing. If, on top of that, you’re an elderly person … if you’re not even mobile.
A lot of the people that have evacuated early on have done so — not everyone, but a lot of them — because they maybe perhaps could. They felt like they had enough to support themselves at least a little bit outside. But a lot of the people that we met were people that had lost everything. They didn’t have a home. They didn’t even have bank accounts. If they did, they were fairly empty. Even before the war, they were living on a very, very small pension. We’re talking barely survival. So when the war started, they were just at the mercy of anything.
It’s important to remember that the war underlines some socio-economic inequalities that were already there before.
You kept in touch with some of the people in the documentary. Can you share anything about how they’re doing, what they’re facing?
Tombola: I know for a fact that Sergiy is now living in the same suburb of Saltivka, aboveground, in a home with some friends. His wound is healing, and he’s always positive, regardless of whatever life throws at him. He’s doing well.
Roman is still working. … And so, obviously, he’s still in the eye of the storm.
Benchelah: When the Ukrainian army started to push the Russian army away from the city of Kharkiv and pushed them closer to the Russian border, the artillery started to decrease. The number of shells that were hitting Kharkiv was decreasing, compared to before.
And so Vika’s family, like many other residents of the subway, went aboveground. The city council had decided to reopen the metro station, the metro, to traffic. And they decided to provide housing for the people who were living in the underground until then.
So they had been aboveground for maybe two weeks or something, and then shelling started again, and they were very worried, so they went down again. They went back to the underground. Since then, they’ve been in the underground, and it’s back to square one.
What do you hope American viewers take away from watching this documentary?
Tombola: For obvious geopolitical reasons, there is a real importance, in terms of connecting American viewers to whichever person is suffering around the world, because that can have a very direct policy impact in the short or long term.
And I want to emphasize any person, because, obviously, there’s a lot of criticism that because people in Ukraine are white and European, there’s more sentiment. … Throughout our [careers], we’ve really worked hard to make sure that everyone gets a voice, not just white Europeans.
Obviously, this is a very personal question, so I’m not going to answer for both of us. What I would like for them to take away is the fact that there is always a face, a voice, a hope, an expectation, an aspiration behind people suffering and numbers. The news is so, so fast these days that it’s sort of like we chew through numbers of dead and wounded as if they don’t belong to anyone.
A film like this would hopefully make you just pause a second and realize that, really, these are just people. They’ve got a name, a surname. They want to be doctors; they want to fall in love; they want to have children. They’re just like us. And I think that that sort of feeling of empathy can make the world feel a lot closer together, a lot more than, say, a fast-paced news point.
Benchelah: I think what we are doing, going in such places and working on a documentary where we are following very specific people for a certain period of time, I’m not sure that we provide any new information on the war specifically. … But we help provide a more sensitive understanding of what it is to be in such a place and connect people to each other.
The war is not just about the army fighting and the civilians suffering. There are also all these people who are doing whatever they can to help people around them, help their country. I think it’s inspiring to see people like that, so I hope these kind of stories can have a positive impact.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Sergiy’s name.