Written by Sonia Lowman

Why I Chose to Shoot In a War Zone

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, I had just left my job with the global humanitarian relief organization International Medical Corps, after learning that I had been living with undiagnosed Lyme disease for 20 years—more than half my life. I knew that I needed time to heal after working nonstop with the exhausting and at times debilitating symptoms of Lyme, through the making of two independent films about racial justice, travels to global war and disaster zones, and a full-time job with a nonprofit working on the frontlines of humanitarian relief. Yet as I watched the horror unfold in Ukraine, the question inevitably arose in me: Should I make a film illuminating the humanity of the Ukrainian people?

Or rather: How could I not?

As a documentary filmmaker, I often find myself drawn to the unjust and inhumane. With all that I have witnessed and willingly exposed myself to as a storyteller and activist, one might think I would feel hopeless. Yet I remain relentlessly, ferociously optimistic. I believe fundamentally in the connective tissue of humanity—that inextinguishable light of the human spirit that turns on in the darkest of times.

This is what connects me with International Medical Corps, which provides critical medical care and training across every major disaster in the world, reaching the most underserved and disparate places on the planet. When they approached me with the story of a psychiatric hospital that had survived on the frontlines of the conflict in Ukraine, I knew I had to help tell it. And I trusted them to keep me safe in an active war zone.

In the end, it took months for the film trip to come together. While I fought off Lyme disease, Ukraine battled a relentless Russia, defying everyone’s expectations with its refusal to be vanquished in the face of a much larger enemy. Before I even set foot in Ukraine, I named my film Indomitable, in honor of the defiance and resilience of its people.

Finally, the day of my departure arrived—just on the eve of the one-year mark of the invasion.

A Journey to the Frontlines

My trip from Los Angeles to Kyiv took four days in three planes and three cars. International Medical Corps’ security team took extra precautions, with much of the world expecting Putin to violently commemorate the war’s “anniversary.” I felt inexplicably calm, despite the risks. After a year sabbatical from filmmaking, I knew it was time to return to my life’s calling. And when I walked across the border from Poland into Ukraine, stronger and healthier than I had been in decades, it felt like a homecoming of sorts.

I am not a trained filmmaker, and I never went to film school. The first time I held a camera was in South Sudan, when my videographer shoved his extra DSLR into my hands. But I immediately fell in love with filming in the field, where the challenging physical circumstances and unnerving security conditions demand focus and flexibility, resulting in the kind of intuitive and magical filmmaking that I love. I brought the same videographer with me to Ukraine and, just as in South Sudan, we had only the two small DSLRs that he could carry in his shoulder bag, and no special equipment.

During our nine-hour car journey from Ukraine’s border to its capital, I gazed out the windows at the country’s dense, magical forests, gentle rolling hills and sporadic villages. I could feel, palpably, the rich culture and history of the land—and the precarious future of the people on it. When we arrived in Kyiv, I discovered, to my surprise, a bustling, highly Westernized city not unlike any European capital, and virtually unmarred by the visible destruction of war.

The disassociation came on rapidly. The first time I heard an air raid siren, I had been sleeping off my jet lag. I jolted awake, heart pounding, and ran downstairs in my pajamas, my tangled hair held back by my sleeping mask. I was mortified to find my disheveled self, half asleep and panicked, standing in an elegant conference hall full of sharply dressed wait staff, calmly laying out polished silver on tables covered in crisp white linen cloths.

“Where is the safe room?” I frantically asked a businessman in a suit. “Oh, none of us go there anymore,” he replied with a smile. I quickly learned that the Ukrainians had given up running for cover, unable or unwilling to suspend their lives every time a warning rang out.

Later, I enjoyed a meal at a vibrant Italian restaurant, marveling at the hip, young patrons determined to sustain a sense of normality. But the constant air raid sirens, which everyone chose to ignore, still caused a flicker of worry to cross their smiling faces. I could sense a deep inner landscape in the people I met, full of complexity and dissonance, despite their cheery assertions that they would win the war and win it soon. And I scanned the blue skies warily, trying to shove aside the thought of missiles raining down.

Documenting a Tale of Horror and Survival

After sheltering in place during the long weekend’s war “anniversary,” my videographer and I traveled with a small International Medical Corps team several hours north to Chernihiv, passing military checkpoints and WWI-like encampments in woods full of camouflaged Ukrainian soldiers. Located just over the border from Belarus, Chernihiv endured some of the earliest and deadliest battles of the war, with entire villages razed to the ground. A year later, stark juxtapositions remained: a packed grocery store bustled beside an eerily empty, firebombed shopping mall. Morning commuters on cellphones walked past a hotel reduced to rubble.

We headed to the Chernihiv Neuropsychiatric Hospital, located on the outskirts of town. Here, 30 staff and about 300 patients survived 37 days of Russian occupation hiding in the hospital basement without running water, heat or electricity in the dead of winter as Russian snipers patrolled the premises. Their story lies at the heart of my film, which is a meditation on the mental health crisis unfolding across Ukraine.

The hospital’s stoic medical director, Svitlana, lived in the hospital for three months without break, refusing to abandon her patients. She risked her life numerous times to meet aid convoys at Russian military checkpoints up the road from the hospital, to ensure that her patients and staff got the food and medicine they needed to stay alive. Speaking only Ukrainian, loosely translated through an interpreter, I asked Svitlana to recount her experiences. I tried to read her emotions, but she was largely unflappable—save for the time she tearfully recalled burying a few of the elderly patients outside the hospital in the snow because the Russians would not allow them transport to the cemetery.

My videographer and I did the best we could with minimal time and equipment, and no knowledge of the Ukrainian language. We followed Svitlana along the dark, dank halls of the hospital basement, capturing shaky, shadowy shots, while shuddering at the thought of being trapped there for even one day, much less 37. Svitlana was unfailingly brisk and businesslike—until we asked her to sit for some B-roll shots and I watched her eyes drift away into harrowing memories.

All in all, we spent just more than a day in the facility, due to patient sensitivities and a busy staff eager to return to the demands of their patients. On my final day in Ukraine, I woke in the dark to meet the driver who would take us back to the border. A gentle snowfall had blanketed the sidewalks overnight, and it glowed orange in the soft streetlights. I walked past an empty playground and some colorful graffiti, knowing I was irrevocably changed from the trip.

For weeks after I returned to LA, I continued to feel the dual sensations in my body that I had absorbed from the Ukrainian people: profound grief, alongside unfathomable resilience. I wondered how I would translate this disorienting mind-body split of trauma onto the screen—how our feet can exist in a world that keeps moving forward, but our hearts can stay anchored in the past.

Assembling the Indomitable Story of Chernihiv

To capture the haunting sensation of living through war, I collaborated with Grammy Award-winning musician Ben Harper. During his process of creation, he stumbled upon a YouTube video of four elderly Ukrainian women sitting on a wall in rural village, singing a folk song. He translated this influence into his own plaintive vocal piece that features in the basement segment of my film, sonically depicting the despair of the patients trapped in the dark. Actress and activist Sienna Miller recorded the voiceover, which consisted of lines of poetry I had scribbled down on the drive back from Chernihiv:

And still, we refuse to be vanquished.

We remain stronger and braver than we ever thought possible … forging beauty from brutality … regenerating amidst destruction … clinging to the spark that lit our resistance.

Fueled by our own inextinguishable light, we will burn bright across this dark night for as long as it takes.

For we know what’s at stake.

And we are … indomitable.

The film editing process was emotionally grueling, logistically challenging and fraught with translation complications. Our first translator turned out to be more of an interpreter, elaborating on contextual details for our benefit, rather than literally translating the words of the interviewees. When we discovered this—after assembling a first cut—we essentially had to start over. Furthermore, we had extremely limited footage from our short time in the hospital and had to use nearly every one of our shots, while struggling to bring to life a story from the past with hardly any real-time imagery of the story being depicted.

By the time we finished, in the summer of 2023, I was thoroughly exhausted, and reminded of the physical and psychological tolls of humanitarian work. Meanwhile, the highly anticipated summer counter-offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces did not prove as successful as hoped. The casualties continued to stack up and the mental crisis spread exponentially. October brought a war in Gaza and the world’s attention shifted. And as Ukraine slipped from the headlines, Russia ramped up its attacks, unleashing a relentless barrage of air strikes on civilian infrastructure across the country.

The World Moves On—But the People of Ukraine Endure

When we finally premiered Indomitable at the Justice Film Festival in New York City on February 24, 2024—the night that marked two years since the Russian invasion—I was stunned by all that had changed since I’d filmed not even a year earlier. The Western world, which had so gallantly rallied around Ukraine at the start of the war, had devolved into political polarization and paralysis, with US financial support hanging in the balance. The same Ukrainians who appeared in the documentary, who just one year prior had expressed unwavering optimism about their impending victory over Russia, were now anxiously asking me: “Who is still with us?”

The film that I had hoped would serve as an inspiring portrait of human resilience now felt like an ominous warning: Here’s who we’re leaving behind. But herein lies the reason for doing what I do, despite the impacts on my health and risks to personal safety: We cannot look away.

Today, the humanity of Ukrainians remains under assault, threatened by an enemy that seeks to eradicate their very existence and a world that may be too exhausted or distracted to stop it. But, as before, I still believe in the inextinguishable power of the human spirit. The stunning courage and resilience of the Ukrainians continues to confront and inspire us, individually and collectively. It asks: Can we be braver than our fear? Can we be stronger than our pain?

How can we not be?

Sonia Lowman is best-known as the award-winning writer and director of the documentaries BLACK BOYS (2020) and TEACH US ALL (2017). Lowman serves as the principal filmmaker for International Medical Corps, which works on the frontlines of some 30 countries affected by conflict, disaster and disease.