On first glance, Maciek Hamela’s heartrending new documentary In the Rearview is based on a simple premise. After an unassuming introduction, we join an assorted group of travellers in a van, as they settle in for a long journey and discuss their lives. Under better circumstances, it could almost be the setup for an indie road movie featuring an ensemble of colorful characters. But as information is slowly revealed through conversations, the harsh reality kicks in that these are refugees fleeing war.
Indeed, these are scenes from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, spurred by a Russian invasion in February 2022, aimed at expanding their territory by reclaiming their former Soviet ally. Driving this van is the filmmaker himself, a Polish man offering volunteer aid to evacuate vulnerable civilians. His passengers range from young to old, and include both Ukrainian nationals and expats. As they make their way to safety across dangerous terrain, this migrant carvan of sorts offers a sobering depiction of life during wartime.
Reframing the visual language of war films, Hamela rarely leaves this central setting of the van, leaving intermittent views of the surrounding landscape and radio reports to establish context. Rather than conveying its anti-war message through scenes of explosions and bloodshed, he focuses on the states of mind of his passengers, who recount various sources of fear and anxiety, ranging from the violently traumatic to the comparatively mundane. For some, it’s the sound of bombs nearby, for others it’s the thought of leaving their cows behind. But to his credit, Hamela portrays the range of concerns with equal sympathy, thanks to the raw honesty of the filmmaking. And the intimate camerawork further captures their despair, particularly in precious close-ups of despondent children who simply want to go home.
In the Rearview does spotlight several key moments outside of the confines of the van, as the travellers encounter harrowing reminders of their precarious situation, such as through streets littered with mines and ravaged cityscapes. Meanwhile, security checkpoints and medical emergencies further amplify the tense atmosphere. And together with the personal testimonies, it makes for haunting viewing.
Ultimately, In the Rearview finds remarkable power in its relatively quiet approach. Indeed, it stands out amid myriad recent documentaries about armed conflicts and refugee crises, including other accounts of this very war. As it focuses on the often ignored details of the lives disrupted, it effectively communicates the elemental human cost of war.