In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down. The Russian separatist forces in Donbas (in Eastern Ukraine) used the BUK missiles to take the flight down. Director Roman Liubyi’s “Iron Butterflies” combines artistic expressions with raw, undeniable evidence to thoroughly examine war’s efficiency in expunging humanity. When borders dictate the audacious attempt to own the earth’s resources, everything humane goes out the window. In this Sundance-screened documentary, Liubyi sifts through a plethora of materials in search of the truth about the MH17 disaster.

The documentary provides a thorough understanding of what went down in this incident. But it also sheds light on the geopolitical situation in these regions, particularly in light of recent events of the Russia-Ukraine War. The gunning down of MH17 was the beginning of everything we see today. Liubyi and fellow writer Mila Zhluktenko juxtapose footage of various kinds in this documentary. And they astutely use all the footage to provide a linear narrative of the events.

For this, Liubyi starts with footage of the BUK missile. The origin of these anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles sets the tone of the film. Liubyi clearly tries to portray a scathing critique of the Putin regime of Russia. The video clips of the BUK missile manufacturers saying that this weapon is only used in defense do provide a dark and ironic premise for the documentary. Alas, the same missile has claimed the lives of 298 civilians.

The gut-wrenching and appalling exploration of human apathy would be displayed when the documentary shows footage of the people rejoicing about the missile launch. The mobile camera clips of the MH17 plane’s crash, with the cheerful commentary from the Donbas region, would shock many. Their rejoicing would seem as if they had watched a shooting star. Something hopeful to wish for. Shocking though it may be, can they be blamed? The innate spark to question ‘what if my country is wrong?’ is one of the hardest things to ignite. It requires an outside force, a different eye. Perhaps this documentary can be that force, even if only for one person.

Iron Butterflies Sundance Review (1)
A still from Iron Butterflies by Roman Liubyi, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

After the event, the documentary focuses on how it was perceived from both sides. Unsurprisingly “Iron Butterflies” provide multiple pieces of evidence of the Russian government backtracking on their defense regarding this heinous crime. From denial to shifting the blame, the clips from Russian state-controlled media’s discussion room tell the full story. No implications from Liubyi were needed there. Neither did he provide any. The morbid humor in those discussions could put a wry smile on one’s face. That would be the only time while watching “Iron Butterflies” that one might emit a chuckle.

The hardest part of the documentary was when it concentrated on the victims. The personal stories and the unfulfilled potential of every single individual in that MH17 plane make an emotional and enraging watch. “Iron Butterflies” provides the perfect homage to them by showing how this fate came upon them without any of them having any role to play. The whims of a few destroy the lives of many.

Liubyi uses various different techniques while presenting this riveting documentary. One innovative technique was using Google maps and satellites to tell a story. The computer-specific movements are quite beautifully used. Especially in the last scene, where it shows how the airspace above that contested region is still avoided. How things still remain the same as the war still rages on despite the hope and pleas of many.

The editing in this documentary is top-notch. The masterfully crafted imaginative reenactments, with experimental animation works and music, shows Liubyi’s skill as a documentary filmmaker. The commentary atop the solid factual evidence is subtle and done artfully. The whimsical reenactments, or the photos of the cargo slips, elevate the tragedy. Underlining the futility of the act of aggression with each passing second. The film ends with the names of every single individual who perished in 2014. All 298 of them. It could not have ended in a more somber and respectful way than the still frame with all those names.

Iron Butterflies was screened at the Sundance Film Festival 2023

Iron Butterflies (2023) Links – IMDb

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