Filmmaker who drove hundreds to safety documents plight of Ukrainians
“In the Rearview”, about filmmaker Maciek Hamela’s efforts to rescue civilians stranded by war, is a gripping testimony to the plight of the millions of Ukrainians displaced by Russia’s invasion. As the award-winning documentary opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, its Polish director hopes it will remind viewers of what is at stake in Ukraine – and of the suffering of refugees from all conflicts.
When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, unleashing a mass exodus of refugees, Warsaw-based filmmaker Maciek Hamela joined thousands of fellow Poles in rushing to the border to offer what help he could. Within days, he was driving a van across the breadth of Ukraine, collecting civilians stranded by the conflict and driving them to safety.
Hamela soon realised that the intimacy afforded by the van provided a setting for poignant testimonies to the human toll of war, and began filming the exchanges. The result is a gripping, no-frills portrait of human displacement, shot over a period of six months and covering tens of thousands of kilometres in a country shattered by war.
As the film’s title suggests, Hamela’s on-board camera is focused on the passengers at the back of the 8-seater van, capturing their distress as they drive away from the fighting, leaving behind their sons, husbands and homes. Some passengers sit quietly, dumbstruck. Others recount tales of destruction, torture and death. There are light-hearted moments, too, when they open up to share their hopes and aspirations for the day the war ends.
“The sea! We’ll come back here when the war is over, right mum?” shouts a little girl as she marvels at the mighty Dnieper River, mistaking it for the sea. “Absolutely, I promise,” answers the weary mother.
At one stage, Hamela’s van turns into a makeshift ambulance to evacuate a Congolese woman with life-threatening wounds. Fellow travellers include a surrogate mother who is pregnant with the child of a Westerner; an elderly farmer whose eyes well up when talking about the beloved cow she left behind; and a little girl so shell-shocked she can no longer speak. Another child plays a game of rock-paper-scissors but replaces the latter with a pistol to ensure she wins – resulting in the film’s French title, “Pierre, Feuille, Pistolet”.
Sometimes the camera pans out, revealing burnt-out vehicles, gutted buildings and ominous dangers – mines across the road, a bridge collapsed by shelling – in a landscape of desolation.
The Polish-French-Ukrainian production premiered earlier this year at Cannes’ ACID sidebar, a parallel segment dedicated to independent cinema, and has since featured at multiple festivals. FRANCE 24 spoke to Hamela on the sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival and on the eve of the film’s French release after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. The following interview has been condensed from those two discussions and lightly edited for clarity.
FRANCE 24: Can you talk us through the first days of the war and what led you to cross the border into Ukraine?
The moment the war began I started raising money for the Ukrainian army in Warsaw. Very few people believed Ukraine could survive the war. There was a mass exodus of refugees that landed all of a sudden at the border. It was freezing cold and there was no preparation from the Polish government. So on the third day of the war I bought a van and went to the border.
When I arrived I realised I was not the only one. There were hundreds of others like me who had the same idea. I picked up random people and took them to my apartment and those of friends. After a few days we got organised on [the messaging app] Signal, to find homes, humanitarian aid, transport, etc. I was fluent in Russian, so I went across the border.
From there it snowballed. My phone number appeared somewhere on Telegram and people started calling from all sorts of countries, asking me to go pick up their relatives stranded in Ukraine. I went closer to the front line and started doing shorter evacuations from villages to larger cities and evacuation trains.
How did you find your way around Ukraine?
The beginning of the war was very tricky. There was no information, no maps, no journalists; we did not know where the Russians were. You could drive 200 kilometres and find a bridge had been destroyed and then you had to drive all the way back to find another route. I relied on the people I met along the way for information about the roads, the checkpoints and the Russians’ whereabouts.
When and why did you decide to start filming your evacuations?
By the end of March, I decided I couldn’t keep going alone for much longer. It was wearing me down, especially the night driving. So I asked a close friend – who happens to be a director of photography and a good driver, too – to help me out and we decided to take a camera.
We didn’t know it was going to become a film. But I knew that what was being said in the car was a unique testimony to what these people are going through and to what the process of becoming a refugee looks like. Is it the moment you cross the border, or the last time you see your house? It’s in this moment of travel that you start realising – and this process is reflected in the conversations.
How did people respond to the camera?
I was very surprised by how the camera motivated some of these people to really tell their story. Some had been exposed night and day to Russian propaganda, particularly in the occupied territories. They had this urge to speak to the world and the camera was the world.
There is a crescendo of danger as the proximity of war becomes increasingly apparent. Just how frightening was it to be driving in a warzone?
There was a big question of how we could maintain the tension for the length of the film while being almost entirely in the car. So that’s why we built this crescendo, both in the structure and in the stories of the passengers. Of course there were many terrifying moments, but we decided to leave out the most dramatic. This is not a film about the dangers of driving through war-torn territories. I don’t wish to compare my experience to that of soldiers in a warzone.
There are very few markers of time and space in your film. Was it a deliberate choice?
This was a subject of discussion from the get-go. I could sense that for the Ukrainians in our team it was important to mention places and dates, to put a stamp on events. They also feared that by sidelining the actual fighting we would fail to convey the danger of the whole experience. But I think it was important to resist the temptation to name everywhere we went – including places that have since been largely obliterated, like Soledar [Editor’s note: a town in eastern Ukraine that was captured by Russian forces in January 2023 after a devastating battle].
We wanted to erase this notion of time and place, to make a film that is not only about the war between Russia and Ukraine but about the experience of war itself. What happens to the people in the van has a universal quality that can tell us something about what is happening to people in Gaza, Yemen or Sudan.
Were you surprised by the scale of the grassroots response in Poland?
I thing it surprised everybody. I thought I would be one of the few people at the border, but I saw long lines of cars, ordinary people who came to collect refugees and take them to their homes. It was pretty electric in terms of how energised and mobilised society was at the start of the war.
There is no special brotherhood between Poles and Ukrainians, we have had a sometimes difficult past. But we also have a common experience: for centuries, we lived in the shadow of a hungry neighbour, of an imminent danger that hangs over your head. It made us understand that this war is ours as well.
Are you concerned that support for Ukraine is fading as ‘war fatigue’ kicks in?
It is shocking to see how quickly the world’s attention is drifting away from Ukraine, particularly since the recent events in Israel. There is certainly a form of fatigue. It has become much harder to collect and channel humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
At the start of the war, there was a massive, spontaneous popular movement in support of Ukrainians, but there comes a point when governments must take on the responsibility. They have to understand that we cannot freeze the conflict. Russia is playing a long game. It knows very well that without Western support Ukraine cannot hold out. Already we are seeing some governments – first Hungary, now Slovakia – refusing to support Ukraine. It’s a tragic mistake.