Oleg’s Choice is an honest and raw portrayal of war’s psychological effects. Oleg and Max, a commander and soldier in BARS Battalion, are both Russians who – provoked into action by propaganda – volunteered to fight in the Donbass region, in a conflict raging since 2014. Filmmakers Elena Volochine and James Keogh met Oleg in February 2015 and later followed his battalion over the course of a few months. In this time, their questions forced Oleg and Max to agonise over exactly why they chose to remain in the region – knowing the war was unjust – and ultimately resulted in both men leaving the fight. Throughout the documentary we come to know these two, watch them confront a reality in stark contrast to the propaganda back home, and hear the ways in which they cope with their horrific situation.
The film at times is difficult to watch: nothing’s sugar-coated or glamorized. On the contrary, Volochine and Keogh take great pains to stress the unromantic side of war; a side clashing with a view many men involved were raised to believe in. Even the music, not added later but simply captured in interviews or playing in the bunker or car, is about the war: its unforgiving futility and work. What we see here is boredom and relentless disorder: gunshots echo continuously in the background but no one seems sure what to do about them; men lie around smoking cigarettes and numbing the boredom with vodka as there seems no other way to cope. Throughout this, Volochine and Keogh shine a light on the conflict by breaking through the two men’s emotional armour and revealing the psychological reality beneath.
In many ways, Oleg and Max couldn’t be more different. The latter Volochine described as a romantic, ‘the guy who can’t find his place in the world.’ In the film he talks about feeling alone, unable to complain about his conditions or to handle his depression. It was easy – the directors explained – to get Max talking about his emotions in private: he was seeking psychological help, but the challenge was getting him to talk on film. Oleg, on the other hand, was happy to appear on camera but only as the strong commander. In the war, he goes by the name of Doubina; it was vital for the film-makers was get him to drop this character and confront what the war was truly about.
Oleg originally came to Donbass on a two-week holiday, but when we meet him, he’s been there for a year. The film begins on June 3rd, when his battalion was stranded without promised weapons and back-up, and surrounded by Ukrainian fighters. He lost twenty men in his ‘family,’ (his name for the battalion) and the resulting guilt begins to make him question the futility of the war and his place in it. Later, when the dead bodies – covered in maggots and decaying – are returned to the Russian battalion and a mother weeps for her son, all notions of heroism are washed away: ’It’s all meat and gut,’ explains Max. The moment marks a turning point for both of them.
While Max seems a young romantic trying to find an adventure and meaning in his life, Oleg’s clearly the central character. Towards the end of the film, his parents come to visit and, in an attempt to protect them, he puts on a brave face to convince them he’s safe from the fighting, walking them around the city as a voiceover confesses: ‘I understand that lies are bad, but lies are mandated in this situation.’ His parents, conditioned to believe the propaganda, believe him. During their visit, his mother spouts Putin’s rhetoric, claiming that Ukraine doesn’t have or deserve territorial integrity, even adding ‘We need Stalin.’ This rhetoric’s clearly what drove Oleg to volunteer in the first place, and what he grapples with throughout the film. He speaks about defending the homeland, defending ‘Mother Russia.’ But this ideology crumbles as time passes.
In the final scene, Oleg, drunk, breaks down in his car on his drive home, at last admitting he doesn’t believe in the cause he is fighting for: ’What do I care about your republic of Donetsk?’ he asks, forced finally to confront that he’s been a mere pawn in someone else’s political game.
Oleg’s Choice (Volochine & Keogh, 2016) was shown as part of the ongoing programmes of talks, screenings and panel-discussions at London’s Frontline Club.