Photophobia – Czech Documentary Now

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Directors: Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarčík

Capturing a new subterranean life in the weeks following the start of the Ukraine War, the release of Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarčík’s Photophobia commemorates the anniversary with a clear-sighted and occasionally lyrical examination of a whole community relocating to a Metro Station. Here, Ostrochovský and Pekarčík find moments of solidarity and scale, capturing both the extraordinary sight of families, their possessions and even their pets occupying every inch of the terminal, and the small human stories of connection, fear and endurance as war rages above their heads.

Photophobia is a 70-minute structured reality, following the story of Niki and his parents who endure the privations of leaving their home and setting up below ground alongside thousands of others. Niki’s mum Yana Yevdokymova calls friends and neighbours hearing their reports of personal injuries and damage to the physical space they used to know while Niki and new friend Vika offer a more hopefully exploration of the tube lines, carriages and the half in / half out spaces that emerge into sunlight to contrast the semi-fantasy world of children with the more dangerous reality that their parents experience on their behalf.

One of the most striking aspects of this drama-documentary is the parents who speak about the pressures of keeping their children underground, finding it difficult to explain to them why running around in the streets is no longer safe, while the sounds of shelling rages above them and stories about disguised mines filter through the community. The sense of dislocation and loss is palpable, the temporary nature of camp beds and piles of belongings in a once busy metropolitan commuter hub is thoughtfully captured as every inch of the camera frame is filled with stuff, of people waiting to find out what happens to them next.

Ostrochovský and Pekarčík intersperse Super 8mm footage of the war itself, given to the children as old-fashioned negatives that they watch. These sections feel like something from long ago, deliberately blurring fantasy and reality in the presentation of the Ukraine War to emphasise this vast separation between the two co-existing experiences in the Metro and outside. The country that the refugees left and still dream about won’t be the one they emerge into, and the documentary poses a question about how the people sheltering in a tube station will ever reconcile the transformation of their home.

But more than anything, Photophobia is about the way humanity carries on through the domestic routines of family meals however paltry, of sharing news with others and adventurous exploration of their new existence. Ostrochovský and Pekarčík also find hope in the personalities they find from the singing guitar player, ‘Cowboy’ (Vitaly Pavlovitch), with a grumpy off-screen critic to the man allowing his cat to climb his knees or Niki (Nikita Tyshchenko) and Vika (Viktoriia Mats) running through the tunnels to pass the time, finding a place to play among the dispossession and adapting to their new circumstances as best they can.

Photophobia is screening at the London Czech Centre on 20 February as part of Czech Documentary Now.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Structured reality

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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