The Team Behind Sundance-Winning Doc ‘Porcelain War’ on Sharing the Film With the World: ‘What Is Happening in the Ukraine Can Happen to Any One of Us’

In “Porcelain War,” U.S.-based director Brendan Bellomo and Ukraine-based artist-director Slava Leontyev worked together to tell the story of porcelain artists whose lives are turned upside down by the terrors of the war in Ukraine. The film follows Leontyev and fellow artists Anya Stasenko and Andrey Stefanov, who all opt to help their countries fight off the Russian invasion. Despite daily shelling, Stasenko finds resistance and purpose in her art, Stefanov takes the dangerous journey to get his young family to safety abroad, and Leontyev becomes a weapons instructor for regular people who have become unlikely soldiers. In the film Leontyev states, “Ukraine is like porcelain — easy to break, but impossible to destroy.”

“Porcelain War” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize for U.S. documentary. The doc has been on the film festival circuit for the last six months playing for audiences at fests including Hot Docs, Doc 10 and Mountain Film. The 88-minute film will screen on June 22 at the Nantucket Film Festival.

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Variety spoke to Bellomo, Leontyev, Stasenko and doc’s producer Paula DuPré Pesmen ahead of the NFF screening.

How did this film come about?

BRENDAN BELLOMO: I had gotten to know Slava and Anya, and admired their remarkable art, for years. When Russia brutally invaded Ukraine in 2022, I immediately made contact with them. At that time, they explained that they were determined to stay in Ukraine and would continue making their art. It was also the first time that Slava revealed he was a soldier in the Ukrainian Special Forces. Over the next few weeks, as the war progressed, they expressed that many Ukrainians, while they wanted the world to understand what was happening in their country, felt frustrated with what people were seeing. We collectively decided that putting the camera into their hands and empowering them to capture their own experiences was a way for them to have a voice and share their story with the world.

When you began filming you and Slava had never met and you both spoke two different languages. How did you know co-directing this film would work?

BELLOMO: Slava and I were confident that co-directing “Porcelain War” would work because, despite the language barrier and 6,000 miles between us, we knew we were both fluent in the universal language of visual art, which allowed us to communicate fluently using drawings, photographs, storyboards, and paintings to convey our ideas, despite only speaking via an interpreter. We shared not only aesthetic instincts, but a guiding principle that the focus of the film should not be on destruction itself, but on the goodness of those people who resist that destruction and the culture they are trying to preserve.

Brendan, you sent 15 cameras to Leontyev. Stefanov became the cinematographer. How did the three of you work together to form the film?

BELLOMO: We began by sending Slava and Andrey one camera. Every day they were filming, they were also going through a mini-film school, so to speak, learning a new facet of filmmaking every step of the way. They would shoot and send footage back to the US, via secure servers, so we could review dailies together remotely. I would give feedback on the technical aspects of what they had shot, but it became clear to me very quickly that the aesthetic quality of their footage was always absolutely amazing, because they are such gifted artists: the camera was simply just a new tool. Additionally, we trained the members of Slava’s Special Forces unit how to use body cams and drones to record their missions. By the time we were in the midst of production, the team in Ukraine was using 15 cameras. What they accomplished as first-time filmmakers, in an active war zone, amid constant air raids and blackouts, was extraordinary.

Anya and Slava, was there ever any hesitation about making this film? Why or why not?

ANYA STASENKO: We never had any hesitation about making this film. People in democratic countries have their own unique culture, art, music, and language. It’s important for us to have the same – our freedom to choose how to think and how to create. The goal of a totalitarian government is to take away all these things that make us unique. Creating our art and giving it back to the world is our resistance. To share our story is our form of resistance.

SLAVA LEONTYEV: What is happening in the Ukraine can happen to any one of us. Democracy is in danger now more than ever. This is the largest attack on a European country since World War ll. It’s a strange feeling when war is right outside your door, but it’s not a unique experience to Ukraine. If Russia is not stopped, many people will soon see it from their own windows. We hope that the audience will leave knowing that we are on the same side. It benefits all of us to work together. “Porcelain War” is about all of us. It’s about keeping our humanity in the darkest of times – because when everything is taken away from you, that is all you have left. And that is beautiful and worth fighting for.

Paula, what would you consider the biggest challenges of producing this film and how did you navigate those challenges?

PAULA DUPRÉ PESMEN: For our producing team, this film was logistically and emotionally complex on many levels. Our entire team spanned multiple continents. Our co-directors were in different countries and spoke different languages. The film participants were learning how to use cameras for the first time while fighting in a war zone, facing daily shelling and blackouts. We navigated these daily challenges with calmness, clarity, and by prioritizing security at every step.

In terms of distribution are you at all surprised that the film has not been bought given the success the film had at Sundance and the fact that a doc — “20 Days In Mariupol” about the Ukraine won the Oscar this year?

DUPRÉ PESMEN: Yes, but “Porcelain War” continues to be validated by incredible audience reactions as we share the film at festivals here and abroad. We are committed to releasing the film in 2024.

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