- Hans Weber
- December 7, 2023
‘Iron Butterflies’ KVIFF 2023 review: devastating doc on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
The tragic story of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine by a separatist militia using a Russian-provided Buk missile system in 2014 is told to deeply moving affect in Iron Butterflies, which played at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after premiering at Sundance earlier this year.
Utilizing raw images, video, and audio culled from social media and contemporary news reports alongside some diverting artistic interludes, Iron Butterflies is an unconventional but striking documentary that wants to convey not only the facts of the case but also the human emotion at its core.
The artistic diversions in this documentary from Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Liubyi are frequent, and might even seem inconsiderate given the human toll of the events covered by the film. They include everything from interpretive dance at a field that stands in for the crash site, to animated drawings from children that chart the journey of the passengers.
But instead of coming off as pretentious, these asides lend what might have been a straightforward documentary an unusually meditative feel. The audience here, likely to be at least somewhat familiar with the tragic event, are given the unusual opportunity to approach it from a different and perhaps more sensitive perspective.
The facts of the case, at least for those in the Western world, are well-established: a passenger plane traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur carrying was shot down by Russian-controlled separatists in eastern Ukraine. They used a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile that had been transported from Russia the day of the attack, and immediately returned afterwards.
In some of Iron Butterflies‘ most unsettling scenes, we see photographs of the members of the militia posing with the downed fuselage a la big game hunters on safari. Proudly posted to social media for public consumption, it’s a jarring display of inhumanity that
During the second half of Iron Butterflies, one particular human face comes into focus: Dutch man Robert Oehlers, who lost his 20-year-old niece Daisy and her boyfriend Bryce (23) in the MH17 disaster. Oehlers actually traveled to Ukraine in the early days after the accident, and waited years for his country to process and ultimately convict three men for the crime, who will likely never pay for their crime.
Some of the most tragic moments in Iron Butterflies deal with the Russian media coverage of the tragedy, which uses all manner of tactics to manipulate the truth, and changes course as new evidence emerges. Conspiratorial analysis of social media photographs, TV psychics, and even allegations of aliens are employed as diversionary tactics in lieu of any compelling evidence.
The titular Iron Butterflies are the trademark shrapnel that emerge from the Buk missile, evidence of which Russian media claim are completely absent from the MH17 fuselage. As workers put the plane back together in a warehouse, meanwhile, holes left by the iron butterflies are evident in the cockpit; they are also found embedded in the pilot’s body.
As Russia’s war with Ukraine continues with no end in sight, the prospect of seeing Iron Butterflies may not feel especially inviting; of the dozen or so films seen at this year’s Karlovy Vary festival, this one induced the most walkouts. But Iron Butterflies is a stark and powerful reminder of how the ongoing conflict is a threat to the world.
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- Hans Weber
- December 7, 2023