We Will Not Fade Away: An Authentic Denunciation of Human Rights Violations?

My ne zgasnemo (We Will Not Fade Away) is the title of filmmaker Alisa Kovalenko’s newest documentary first screened at the Berlinale film festival in February 2023, one year after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. The film takes place in the Donbass, more precisely in Zolote-4 and the village of Stanytsia, near the frontline where Ukrainian military and Pro-Russian separatists have been fighting each other since 2014, even before Putin initiated the war against the whole country. Kovalenko started filming in the beginning of 2019 and collected material with her camera for almost three years. The documentary accompanies five teenagers growing up in an area lacking opportunities: Liza, Lera, Andriy, Illia and Ruslan.

Some scenes hit hard

As viewers, we get to know the places where they live with their families, where they meet their friends, where they pursue their hobbies. Aware of the constant threat that his region faces, in one scene Andriy tells his little brother: “Imagine, in 50 years, our village will be gone. Everyone will die, the rest will leave” (00:35). With resignation, the teenager accepts that the place where he was born has no future. It is one of the scenes that hits hard. While Andriy did not know at this time that his prediction would become reality sooner than he thought it would, as viewers we know already – or we learn about it at the end of the documentary – that his village was destroyed by Russian artillery. Any hopes for a better future did in fact fade away.

Thinking of Ukraine nowadays, we immediately have the daily news about the full-scale war that shaked Europe in mind. Of course, neither Andriy nor Kovalenko knew at that time she was filming the scene what would happen in the now present future. Originally, the filmmaker’s plan was to focus on an expedition the teenagers should take part in. As Kovalenko revealed in several interviews, for example with the Eastern European Film Bulletin, she got the idea for the documentary after meeting Ukrainian explorer Valentyn Sherbachov who told her about his plan to organize a trip to the Himalaya mountains in Nepal for a group of teenagers from the crisis-ridden Donbass as a form of “adventure therapy” (interview with Zoe Aiano, 2023). Kovalenko explains that this idea appealed so much to her that she decided to join the process. She started to film every step of it, including the preparations and the open calls which were also distributed via TV.

Enough transparency?

But this is not how the documentary begins. In the first 40 minutes of the 1:40 hour film the expedition is not mentioned at all. It is introduced when Andriy watches a video of the Himalayas on his smartphone, accompanied by a male voice: “This is an invitation on a journey. […] Friends, if you are 14, 15, 16 years old, if you are dreamers and romantics. […] This exciting and romantic journey will be organized for you” (00:41-00:42). Although Sherbachov might be widely known in Ukraine, a big part of the international audience will not recognize his voice. We then observe the teenagers doing daily workouts and recording themselves addressing the mysterious Valentyn whose identity is revealed shortly after. As a viewer we easily get the impression that this open call is something that happened unexpectedly during the filming process rather than something that was at the starting point. Since we watch the teenagers taking videos of themselves to send them to Valentyn, it seems like they are applying for the trip and we begin to share their excitement: Will they succeed or not? As a matter of fact, the group of five gets the opportunity to go on the journey. In the interview with EEFB, Kovalenko explains that she originally thought the documentary would be focused more on the expedition and that Sherbachov would appear more often in it. But after a while she changed her perspective: “It’s not about the expedition, it’s not about the mountains or adventure therapy, it’s actually about the power of dreams and how you can still believe in your dreams when you are living in this kind of depressing place […]. So for me that became the main point […]” (interview with Aiano). Eventually, we witness how the young adults pave their way through the Nepalese mountains and it’s almost painful when we hear Liza saying: “It’s like I’ve never known what beauty was, and now I see it” (01:24) knowing about the dreadfulness she will face back home.

Focus on everyday life makes the film authentic

One could reproach Kovalenko for giving to little information about how she gained access to her protagonists and about how the edited material was altered again after the start of the full-scale war. One could feel like the filmmaker took the viewers for a ride for believing the expedition popped up unexpectedly. In his article “Human Rights Documentaries as Representational Practice” Ari Gandsman criticizes human rights documentary makers that have a determined script from the very beginning. He states that “the imposition of external narrative structures […] resul[t] into works where images are forced to fit a pre-existing text rather than vice versa” (p. 9). This is not the case with We Will Not Fade Away. When Kovalenko was on her way to Donbas to record some final material for the documentary, full-scale war began, and she re-started editing the shots after voluntarily serving in the army for four months. She did not stubbornly follow her agenda but altered the documentary due to the changed circumstances. After all, the trip to Himalaya is not the most important part of the documentary. It is the focus on the everyday life of the five protagonists that gives the film its authenticity and therefore credibility. Although viewers do not learn how Kovalenko got to know the teenagers she portrays, they can easily understand that she must have established a very close relationship with her subjects. What Gansman observes referring to another documentary, that “only close participation between filmmaker and film subjects could led to it documenting its small-scale human tragedy, less the agenda of the filmmakers but the concerns and daily life struggles of one family” (p. 17) can also be detected regarding We Will Not Fade Away. As viewers we are not directly stumbled upon the human rights violations that happen in the Donbass. Kovalenko does not show shocking pictures from the frontline, nor does she use archive material from battles. The film assumes that its audience knows about the war in Donbass, so it does not focus on conveying sober knowledge, but rather immersive knowledge (cf. Nash). Kovalenko’s camera seems to be a friend to its subjects that is welcomed even in the most intimate situations. Although she uses the observational mode, we do not get a sense of surveillance [like that which Gansman criticizes in his article, cf. p. 15]. It is obvious that the protagonists feel comfortable with the camera, so we do not feel uncomfortable looking in their private sphere either.

Sense of “being there” creates compassion

The audience watches the young protagonists doing normal things like playing outside with their siblings, sitting at a campfire, or hanging Christmas decorations, at the same time we hear very abnormal sounds: the sound of gunfire in the background. Even more abnormal seems the fact that the teenagers seemingly do not care about those sounds at all. For them, the sound of shootings is part of everyday life, just as moving in areas where mines and shells are lying in the ground. In one scene, we see Andriy digging in the soil, close to a warning sign that says “Danger! Mines!” because he wants to dismantle the aluminum from a cable that he wants to sell in order to make money for a motorbike (cf. 00:33). In another scene, we see Liza, her sister and her father going for a walk in the forest where a shell sticks out of the ground. Instead of keeping distance, the young girl starts touching the shell stating it “didn’t explode yesterday, so it won’t explode today” (00:37). Kovalenko lets these images speak for themselves. As Gansman observes “invisible forms of violence are not easily amenable to visual documentation” (p. 11), but even though we do not see the frontline, we get a sense of how it affects the life of the people who live close to it. When Liza and a friend of her talk about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and her friend explains in tears “I was eleven when the war happened… and after that… fuck, to this day I still have the feeling of it happening. It still affects my life” (00:39), this conversation evokes stronger feelings of empathy than a news article could. It is the concentration of the images without using voice-overs, the sense of “being there” (cf. Nash, p. 159) that lets us feel with the protagonists, that lets us wish that those young people could live a life in which the sound of gunfire is not normal, that makes us wish we could do something to improve those teenagers’ lives.


Aiano, Zoe (2023, February). Alisa Kovalenko on We Will Not Fade Away. https://eefb.org/country/ukraine/alisa- kovalenko-on-we-will-not-fade-away/
Gandsman, A. (2012). Human Rights Documentaries as Representational Practice: A Narrative and Aesthetic Critique. Academic Quarter | Akademisk Kvarter (5), pp. 8–19.
Nash, Kate (2018). Film That Brings Human Rights to Life. Public Culture 30 (3), pp. 393-412.

Elena Hesterkamp
ELTE BTK Film Studies