Focusing on the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Donbas, Iron Butterflies attempts to expose the relentless desire for Russian control over Ukraine within this one horrific act, inarguably criminal & monstrous. The film uses found footage and audio clips to paint the different angles of reality after the tragedy, mixed from Russian state-run media outlets to a more international lens covering the trials in the Netherlands of those accused of shooting down the plane. It stitches together segments of interviews, audio clips and found interview footage along with original performance art pieces shot just for this feature. The concept sounds like a powerful mixture, one that could give Ukraine a voice to shout and point to hard evidence of Russia’s thirst for autocratic conquest, amplifying the need for a more global sense of accountability. But throughout the film it instead projects a stilted and messy narrative that challenges the concrete events surrounding the already-chaotic, haphazardly pieced together coverup and its disappointing international response.
There may simply be too many original art pieces scattered throughout Roman Liubyi’s film that contribute to this clearly unintentional detachment. If the found media is meant to piece together a clairvoyant picture of what was to come in early 2022, it nearly achieves that solely by using Liubyi’s found media. However the absence of present day follow-up interviews or investigations from the filmmaker themself doesn’t hurt the creation of the image this documentary is set on crafting for its audience by the end. For instance just showing Russian military propaganda (a decidedly amusing meta approach), a lengthy stretch of footage introducing the BUK missile system presented to the audience through an editing bay, as if we were the ones privy to the subliminal nature of its messaging, provides a compelling level of context for those unaware. It successfully tells us that what we’re watching is propagandistic, but with the mindset of challenging this dialogue from the very start. The footage effectively serves just as well for a primer of what is to come in the Russian treatment of the tragedy.
The film focuses geographically on a small stretch of road in Russian-occupied Donbas, where the BUK missile system was transported to destroy what was reported initially as a Ukrainian military aircraft in 2014. The plane, however, was in reality a commercial airline flight populated by civilians. All 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed as a result of the reported defense of Donbas territory. Various clips show the immediate aftermath of the explosion, with Russian citizens documenting the moment remarking on the beauty of it, predicated on the suggestion that this was a preemptive measure against an act of war. This is the moment that a nationalist narrative can be effectively unveiled especially given the context of deception among the Russian people, but the documentary pulls back on it instead, perhaps unintentionally.
Named for the butterfly-shaped shrapnel that the BUK missiles scatter on detonation, Iron Butterflies attempts to examine poetically and politically the direct correlation of the physical evidence of the impossible-to-ignore smoking gun that was shown to the world in 2014. But it consistently fails to follow up on its intentions of exposing less so the actual war crime and more the disorganized juggernaut that is the Russian propaganda machine. It is all the more sadder when it becomes clear to us in the film and the world in the immediate aftermath in what the country’s leadership was capable of then that, save for a microscopic handful compared to today’s outpour of support, no one so much as batted an eye. It isn’t a secret that the film is telling us this, but the way the message comes through the mouthpiece of performance art severely limits the impact of the severity and past-due immediacy that unfortunately robs Iron Butterflies of the influence it could wield, and inadvertently alienates the audience it tries to connect with from the very beginning.
Iron Butterflies had its World Premiere in the World Cinema Documentary Competition section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Director: Roman Liubyi
'Iron Butterflies' is a compelling view of a tragic incident that loses itself in the telling
Andre is an avid film watcher, blogger and podcaster. You can read his words on film at letterboxd and medium, and hear his voice on movies, monsters, and other weird things on Humanoids From the Deep Dive every other Monday. In his “off” time he volunteers as a film projectionist, reads fiction & nonfiction, comics, and plays video games until it’s way too late.