Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Bondarchuk is winding down post-production on his latest feature film, “The Editorial Office,” a dramedy set on the eve of the Russian invasion. It’s among the works in progress being presented this week at CineLink Industry Days, the industry arm of the Sarajevo Film Festival.
“The Editorial Office” follows Yura, a junior researcher at a provincial nature museum who witnesses an act of arson committed in the forest. When he brings evidence of the crime to the editor of a local newspaper, he unexpectedly gets hired as a journalist, a career change that suddenly pulls him into a treacherous world where the line between fact and fiction is blurred. “It’s about a young man who’s trying to discover his own truth, sometimes at a very high price,” said Bondarchuk.
The director, previously known for documentaries such as 2015 IDFA premiere “Ukrainian Sheriffs,” made the transition to fiction with his Karlovy Vary player “Volcano” (2019), an absurdist comedy described by Variety’s Alissa Simon as “a mesmerizing fiction debut” that placed him among “contemporary Ukraine’s most intriguing filmmaker[s].” “The Editorial Office” draws again on Bondarchuk’s signature dark humor and eye for the absurd to lure viewers into a surreal post-truth world, unspooling both on the eve and in the imagined aftermath of the Ukraine war.
It’s a film that’s become all the more timely since the start of the war, said the director, noting how truth in post-invasion Ukraine is proving to be stranger than fiction. Last summer, for example, Vladimir Saldo, the Kremlin-appointed mayor of Kherson, where the film takes place, fell into a coma after a suspected poisoning by his chef.
“The [local] newspaper faces a difficult task — to maintain its [role] in the media, and also to counter rumors of his death,” Bondarchuk said. “There are photo collages, as well as a deepfake video, in which the head of the mayor is superimposed on the body of another person. This head appeals to voters with the words, ‘Don’t believe the enemies! I’m alive, I’m with you!’”
“The Editorial Office” is written by Alla Tyutyunnyk and Darya Averchenko and produced by Darya Bassel of Moon Man and Dar’ya Averchenko of South Films. Production began in the fall of 2021, when the threat of a Russian attack loomed in Ukraine. “We had the sense that war was very near, but no one wanted to notice it,” Bondarchuk said. Since then, Kherson has found itself on the war’s frontline, facing heavy bombardment by Russian forces, with bombs raining down from the banks of the Dnipro River almost every day, said the director.
The city’s plight worsened this June with the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, which unleashed a devastating flood. “Most of the locations in which the film was shot no longer exist,” Bondarchuk said. “They have been destroyed, flooded or burned. What happened to the people who starred in the film is also unknown. Some left their families abroad, some turned out to be collaborators and fled to Russia with the invaders, some resisted the occupiers and are not going to leave the city under any circumstances.” The film’s editor, Viktor Onysko, was killed in action in January 2022 in a battle near the eastern city of Soledar, after joining the Ukrainian war effort as a volunteer.
Partly in spite of, and partly because of the devastation wrought by Russian troops on his hometown, “the city retains a special atmosphere,” Bondarchuk said. “Having problems with drinking water in the city after flooding, the local brewery manages to brew its eight varieties of beer without interruption. The hipster coffee shop continues to roast and grind fresh coffee. People try not to give up their habits; it also looks like a form of resistance.”
The Sarajevo Film Festival runs Aug. 11 – 18.