(The 2023 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 7-18 and HtN has a ton of coverage coming like M.J. O’Toole’s Rule of Two Walls movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
“No wars can deprive us of our cultural heritage and traditions,” says an anonymous Ukraine-based artist around the midpoint of David Gutnik’s searing and affecting documentary Rule of Two Walls. The film’s title refers to the safety guideline for people living in Ukraine that the safest space to survive a bombing is between two walls with no windows between a person and the street. What unfolds in its 77-minute runtime is more than standard profile pieces on different Ukrainian artists, ranging from musicians to muralists to costume designers to filmmakers.
Gutnik gives an unflinching, shocking look into the carnage and devastation brought onto this country by the war, which you would expect to see in a Matthew Heineman documentary. Even as the sirens blare outside, people go about their usual routines while under the constant threat of danger. But all of this also serves as a reminder of why these artists choose to stay and fight using their craft. Gutnik goes past the question of how the people cope with the daily threat of violence to how they comprehend it in their own ways, even by creating works of art that conveys their terrifying experiences as an act of resistance. This documentary is one of the most impactful films of Tribeca, maybe even the year, that deepens the scope of the War in Ukraine by putting emphasis on Ukrainian culture and the human condition.
Divided into four chapters, the film opens up in April 2022, just two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. People are trying to hold on to some sense of normalcy, from groups playing basketball, to daily commutes, to hanging out in social settings. Lyana Mytsko is a concert organizer and director of the Lviv Municipal Arts Center, which has also been used as a shelter for exiles and evacuees. There, artists are collaborating on a show to present a different side of Mariupol post-destruction in a way that gives hope for a better future. As Mytsko says, “[This is a way] to gain control over this crazy shit.” Her partner Stepan, a heavy metal singer/rapper, is numb to all that has gone on within the months of Russia’s invasion but tries to use his music as a beacon of hope. We are reminded that while these artists may have a common cause, they are still human and are coping in their own certain ways.
Other artists’ works range from tender to hard-hitting. Illustrator Bogdana Davydiuk makes street art and murals that call out the Russian government. “Our fire is stronger than your bombs,” one of them says. There’s also the anonymous Kinder Album, whose drawings mainly feature the bodies of women and children. These artworks will either fill you with faith in the people’s strength or tug at your heartstrings. Aside from these artists, Gutnik takes the time between each segment to shine a light on many of his Ukrainian-born crew members. Through somber voiceover, crew members, such as cinematographer Volodymyr Ivanov and composer Anton Baibakov, open up about their own individual experiences coping with the war, separating from family, and how their work pushes them forward. Another aspect that is explored is the Ukrainian identity in terms of how much of their history and customs are rooted in Russia. Director Gutnik, himself a Ukrainian-American, offers his own personal account of his heritage through old family photos. He talks about how much the Ukrainian language was suppressed during the Soviet Union’s oppressive reign in the 20th century, and how much he is trying to learn his family’s native Ukrainian tongue. Gutnik not only succeeds in documenting the courage of the artists and his crew, but also in tying Ukraine’s history to the present and having us see a side of the country that’s different from the war-riddled headlines we see.
While Rule of Two Walls can be a tough watch at times, it is a necessary one that shows first-hand how everyday Ukrainians have been dealing with the terror and violence that has reigned upon their home. However, it does not capture the people in the shadows of despair, but rather in a light of solidarity in which they try to inspire and hold onto hope for the future of both their country and culture. The various perspectives of all these defiant artists (Gutnik included) open our eyes to a bigger picture than we may have originally thought before walking into the film. The film is a breathtaking testament to how turmoil can inspire fighting through creativity, and not with violence and brutality. David Gutnik is a filmmaker on the rise whose empathy and boldness have no bounds. A captivating piece of filmmaking that is as resistant and hopeful as Ukraine’s people.
– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; David Gutnik; Rule of Two Walls documentary movie review