Sundance 2023: ‘Iron Butterflies’: A Thought-Provoking Look at Russian War Crimes


(Courtesy of the Sundance Institute and Babylon ’13)

By Zach Anderson, Arts Writer


“Iron Butterflies,” directed and produced by Kyiv residents Roman Liubyi and Andrii Kotliar, investigates the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and the Russian’s desperate attempts to dismiss it as a conspiracy. The best way I can describe this experience is a collection of visual poems connected by a story that has a biting, topical edge of the Russo-Ukrainian War. With harrowing evidence presented in a style similar to a detective’s corkboard, “Iron Butterflies” gives its audience a glimpse into the horrifying effects of Russian war crimes on the world, as well as their deception tactics, all in a confusing, gaslit package.

Wide Net, Big Catch

One of the most interesting fixtures of “Iron Butterflies” is its intersection between authentic evidence that anyone can find on YouTube and things that were crafted specifically for the film. There are three main sections: evidential pieces that were collected beforehand, documentative pieces that were shot by the filmmakers and black and white interpretive dance sequences that convey the emotions of the Ukrainian people. At first, these sections by themselves seem disjointed, but as the film gains more of its stride, the sections move together in a beautifully paced dance.

As these sequences dance together, the story alternates between a wide variety of information, from utility propaganda adverts teaching the audience how to use a BUK missile to a section entirely drawn in crayon. On paper, this variety of mediums wouldn’t work to tell a consistent narrative, but because of the disjointed nature of the documentary itself, it feels dynamic and natural. “Iron Butterflies” casts a wide net with what it wants to accomplish and does all of those things in great stride.

Authentic Lies Brought to Light

Something you don’t see in the news is what people from other nations see in the news. Furthermore, you don’t see how this news affects their actions. “Iron Butterflies” bears it all with a great eye for detail. An image I found particularly shocking was a group of soldiers believing that they had shot down a military plane, basking in the wreckage of their “victory.”

However, the film doesn’t do this in a conventional documentary style. Instead of deliberately telling you everything the Russians did or getting it on an encounter-by-encounter basis, it shows the audience what Ukrainians saw as the events unfolded, like newsreels and smartphone footage.

One scene I found particularly amusing was a news network trying to dismiss the evidence of a BUK missile launch with “an esteemed psychic woman” convinced there was foul play at the scene of the crime. It all ends with a bone-chilling thesis of isolation and hopelessness. Though the case of flight MH17 is now closed, it was reported that none of the people found guilty of shooting the missile at the airplane ever faced indictment. What bureaucratic loopholes will we face next that will stop justice from being served?

With great respect for audience intelligence while somehow not being overly demanding, “Iron Butterflies” is a must-see for any festival-goers hoping to gain a new perspective told in an original, thrilling documentary.


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