There’s room for experimentation on topics that are well-known to the masses. Sadly, the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 qualifies as one of those events. After Klondike made waves at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Iron Butterflies puts focus back on the topic. As the war in Ukraine rages on, documentarian Roman Liubyi asks the important question: could all of this have been stopped if the world had held Russia accountable in 2014?
On July 17th, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crashed on the border of Ukraine and Russia. Immediately, both countries blamed each other. As international organizations began to examine the evidence, it appeared damning for Russia. Their explanations continued to change over the weeks, while the evidence pointed to a sad conclusion: MA17 had been shot down. Using video of those on the ground, Russian propaganda, and audio from the incident, Iron Butterflies seeks to understand why Russia was let off the hook for killing hundreds of civilians.
Liubyi never lets the audience forget this fact. However, the way in which he depicts the incident is rather experimental. Instead of traditional reenactments, Iron Butterflies uses artistic representations of the events. Some sequences read like experimental dance, while others remind us of the cost in lives (a shot of chairs in a field is particularly effective). However, some of these sequences distract from the information, making the delivery of information less helpful than one would hope.
These artistic interludes help to keep the audience focused in a documentary with long, drawn-out evidence dumps. However, the evidence is damning. Western officials have so much evidence they can narrow it down to the type of launcher and the exact model of rocket used by Russian forces. They explain the shrapnel patterns in the victims, which is where the film draws its name. They have every piece of data in a row, making what comes next all the more frustrating.
Meanwhile, the use of Russian propaganda is stunning. Editing it against the sections of evidence forces the audience to consider the thesis of the film. A steady diet of disinformation can sway the audience, no matter how damning the evidence. The actual clips are upsetting to hear and only get worse as Iron Butterflies progresses. Russian state media pumps out excuses and their own findings, placing the blame solely on Ukraine. In fact, they lay the groundwork for the war to come. In their words, Ukraine is not just bad but killed civilians to spark tension. It’s an unfathomable idea, yet in the hands of a master propagandist, the dialogue for war begins.
Luibyi’s continued trackbacks to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine only highlight the importance of Iron Butterflies. Though the world was angry about the deaths of 298 civilians, nothing was done. No soldiers were held accountable in the public eye. No arrests were made. If Russia was able to kill 298 civilians from around the world, why would these countries intervene when Russia commit war crimes against the Ukrainian population? Given the power of other films at the festival, this question lingers and becomes more relevant every day.