How 'Iron Butterflies' Writer/Director Shines a Light on the Truth of MH17 Tragedy

'Iron Butterflies'Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Some stories must be told on an international stage.

Documentaries are crafted in a way that forces the audience to examine a situation through the lens of the director. At Sundance, these stories are bigger than ourselves. They demand a stage that the world will look at. Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Liubyi did just this with his documentary, Iron Butterflies.

The documentary follows the consequences of MH17, which was shot down by Russian forces over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people on board. This attack’s ramifications showcased how the Russian propaganda machine is still turning, often explaining away the voluminous evidence. In a world where a war crime can be defended by lies, Liubyi confronts this issue through a wealth of visual material, individual testimonies, and an artful examination of a turning point in world history.

Liubyi sat down with No Film School at Sundance to discuss his process behind this incredibly thoughtful documentary, and what his hopes are for Iron Butterflies’ place in cinema and history. 

Editors Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

No Film School: I want to say congratulations on having your documentary, Iron Butterflies, premiering at Sundance. How do you feel about this moment? 

Roman Liubyi: I have not been very surprised by this news. It felt like a pretty natural way for our film. It's the best-case scenario for the artistic documentary at Sundance, then Berlinale [International Film Festival]. It's already a big achievement that our voices will be heard by the international community. So, everything is going perfectly.

NFS: I'm so glad. I know the inspiration behind this documentary is the current war between Ukraine and Russia. But what was the driving force behind telling this specific story about MH17?

Liubyi: My debut is called War Note, and it is made from the personal recordings of Ukrainian soldiers from 2014. Then, I was working on two short documentaries about the biggest war crimes made from materials from criminal cases only. A pure documentary. After that, I was looking for something that uses all of these experiences. This is how we decide to work on the case of MH17. 

It's the most international war crime till now in Russia-Ukrainian [conflict], where the Russian propaganda machine did a horrific amount of myths about this event, about the downing of MH17. It's easier to explore how this propaganda machine works in this case.

As Ukrainians, we're already used to Russian propaganda and know how it works. We feel that we need to share with humankind that it is even possible to do what they're doing with the information, with the media, and with the truth.

NFS: Yeah, and I think you do it beautifully. You show these moments that are on TV, the different news outlets, and talking to the people who are being interviewed on these news outlets. Then, you also interweave these very artistic black-and-white interpretative dance sections. What was the choice behind those black-and-white sections in the film?

Liubyi: At the very beginning, we were thinking that we would work with only materials from the criminal case, but it became obvious that we will not have some unique access to the materials while the trial is going on. We begin to work with open-source data and with the investigation provided by different open-source investigation teams. I was looking for something to give shape to all these materials. Also, I was looking for a project to use, physical theater techniques, to use dance. It's just a very convenient way for me to speak out because words are a tricky thing, and I don't need to look for the words when using them as a visual language. When I allow myself to think about the physical theater here for this project and my team allows me. Then, the script was born in a few days.

NFS: How long did it take you from an idea to the final product? How long did this project take you?

Liubyi: We began this project in 2019. We were disrupted for sure. The whole process was disrupted by COVID-19, then with the full-scale invasion. But with all these things, I was never stressed by the delay. It was comfortable for me. I was convinced that we are going with the right rhythm. 

If we're talking about the way from the idea to the final result, it was all the way this way. The project was changing its shape in a very extreme way. So yeah, there is no complete idea at the core of it. It's all of the time. It's a lot of improvisation here.

NFS: I feel like that's the nature of documentary-making. Being light on your feet. You mentioned that you felt a sort of comfort that everything was in the right rhythm. How do you reassure your team that everything's going to be fine as the director?

Liubyi: It's really weird, but just one person in a team who was pushy, that we need to finish this film, was the composer. That sounds very backward, but everybody was fine. We're not in a rush. We can see that probably everything is on time, at the right time, and in the right places.

NFS: That's great to have a team that trusts in you so much like that. 

Liubyi: We have a huge team for this project. If you compare this film to a music genre, it's jazz because, yeah, there is a lot of improvisation. And also, it's a huge team, a huge ensemble. And as a director, I want each artist to do what they feel to be like. I was not pushy. I was not asking to do things like how I see it should be. I want to make it inclusive for each member of the team.

NFS: What was the most challenging aspect of this project and how did you overcome that challenge?

Liubyi: I can't highlight something harder than anything else. Well, probably the final cut. It was hard because it was the moment when we decided to add something from 2022 [to explain] where all the consequences of the downing of Malaysian Airlines were leading. I think it is the one story, maybe I'll lose the line. So yeah, maybe adding [current issues] and adding the parts about full-scale Novation as a natural consequence of delay with the trail. 

NFS: I know this film is looking for distribution here at Sundance. What is your hope for Iron Butterflies in the future?

Liubyi: Well, it was, for sure, created for an international audience. Also, we are using body language and dance and physical theater techniques because it doesn't have to be translated, it's international. So, I hope that it will spread all over the world. What else? Yeah, this is what I was expecting.

NFS: Do you have any advice for any young documentarians who want to follow big issues/war-related topics throughout the world?

Liubyi: Maybe just one. It's something that I get from the experience of my debut. When you're just starting the project, you have a core idea. Maybe it's blurry or it can be almost transparent. But in the end, the final cut, for me, is the hardest part of any project. You always have to get back to this core, and the answer is always there. 

Also, everybody works as they see fit. I'm trying to care about my team. Our film stage is a perfect place to be all the time. I think it's very important to care about the team. This is it. It definitely will bring you results.     

No Film School's coverage of Sundance 2023 is brought to you by Adobe.

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