Issue 63 (2019)

Denis Shabaev: Mira (2018)

reviewed by Victoria Donovan © 2019

miraDenis Shabaev’s Mira joins a corpus of documentary, semi-documentary, and pseudo-documentary works about the conflict in Donbass that explores the relationship between fact and fiction in cultural narratives of the war. Since the war’s beginnings in 2014, journalists in Russia and Ukraine have produced a mass of speculative commentary about the conflict’s origins, perpetrators and victims, in which the representation of fact has frequently been subordinated to emotive claims and political agitation. The post-factual treatment of the war has had catastrophic consequences for relations between the two countries: perceptions of events in Donbass in Russia and Ukraine are often ill-informed, politically biased, and colored by conspiracy theory. Artists and filmmakers are aware of this situation. At the premiere of his feature film Donbass in the Cinema Le Balzac in Paris in September 2018, Sergei Loznitsa (who, like Shabaev, is best known for his documentary works) underlined the role played by the camera in the “mediation” of the events in Donbass. The experimental, genre-blurring works on the subject that have emerged in recent years, which include both Loznitsa’s and Shabaev’s high-profile productions, but also lesser-known works, such as Alina Yakubenko’s short film Svetlograd and other pseudo-documentaries featured in the My Street Films Ukraine festival, might be understood as a creative response to this highly mediated political reality, in Shabaev’s words, an attempt to create a new kind of cinema “that functions on the edge of fiction and documentary” (Tuula 2018).

Shabaev’s Mira borrows from the arsenal of documentary filmmaking to create a narrative film that is infused with the darkness of the current political situation in Donbass. As the director has explained in interview with Kinometro (2018), he researched the film as he would have a documentary production, living side by side with his characters in Donbass, attempting to understand their hopes and dreams, and observing them as they moved around a landscape of empty buildings, hollow mine shafts, and abandoned factories. The film’s characters, who bear the same names as the individuals who play them, are almost all non-professional actors who drew on their own biographies to craft the stories represented on screen. These stories mix documentary fact with fiction: the background of the film’s eponymous hero, Mira, for example, corresponds closely with that of the real-life Miroslav Rogach who plays the role, a professional soldier in the Czechoslovak army who, after the collapse of socialism, drifted from country to country, existing at the margins of society and searching for political causes to support. This documentary detail is interspersed with fictional narrative: Mira’s (the character’s) mission to restore a number of Soviet monuments in a town in the Luhansk region, and hence the local community’s cultural identity, was, for example, the director’s invention, though one that was enthusiastically endorsed by the actors, Shabaev claims (Tuula 2018).

miraThe film opens with an establishing shot of Mira trudging through the snow alongside a factory boundary wall, behind which we glimpse the decrepit relics of Soviet industry. This is a familiar trope in cinematic representations of the Donbass region (see, for example, Vasilii Pichul’s Little Vera [Malen’kaia Vera, 1988], or, more recently, Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export, [2007]), but serves here not only as a means to assert the bleak reality of post-industrial Donbass, but also to establish Mira’s status as a perennial outsider, someone who always exists outside the boundaries of a particular community. In the scene that follows we discover that Mira, a Russian-speaking Slovak migrant, has been arrested in Donbass for unspecified reasons. A police officer questions him about his motives for coming to the war-torn region, to which Mira responds: “I had this feeling of being no use to anybody.” This statement serves as a prologue for the film’s principal narrative, which moves back in time to trace Mira’s journey from a marginal existence stacking supermarket shelves in London to Donbass, where, following a failed romantic liaison, he employs two local residents to help him restore a number of abandoned Soviet monuments. In the course of carrying out this restoration work, the men debate politics, drink, fight, and reminisce about their military experiences. During one drinking binge, they discover a time capsule embedded inside a monument that contains a letter from the town’s communist predecessors to the Donbass miners in the twenty-first century: “It’s difficult to say what’s going to happen in 50 years,” the letter reads, “but we’re sure you’ll be worthy successors of the glorious revolutionary fighting and working traditions of our generation.” Disgusted by the utopian optimism of the sentiment, which stands in stark contrast to the bleak reality that surrounds them, the band decide to burn the letter. 

As they advance with their work, Mira becomes increasingly disillusioned with the restoration project and ends up destroying an effigy of Lenin and burning the workshop to the ground. These actions lead to his arrest and with this the plot comes full circle with a reiteration of the police interview scene, in which Mira reflects on his actions and pronounces that he is “sick and tired of this global Russian community.” In what serves as the film’s epilogue, an Orthodox priest is shown blessing another of the restoration projects, an ensemble of figures that includes a miner, a communist, and a pioneer, after which a member of the present-day mining community reads aloud a decidedly anti-utopian message for future generations, the antithesis of the communist miners’ letter: “We left our naïve faith in progress behind us, together with the utopian Communist project and the Capitalist future… probably you will be no greater and stronger and wiser than us. But don’t feel desperate and don’t ever give up. Never put anything off until tomorrow. You are creating your own tomorrow. And you’re doing it now.” On this ambiguous note, an intertitle informs us that Mira has left Donbass to return to the UK, where he now works as a lorry driver.

miraMira’s interest lies less in its narrative progression than in its governing themes. Some of the most adeptly handled of these, and ones that Shabaev has already explored in his award-winning first production Not My Job (Chuzhaia rabota, 2015), are economic migration, social isolation, and political radicalization. The character of Mira, an anonymous EU migrant who has filled the void left by family and community with conspiracy theories and invective, is a dark portrait of labor mobility in contemporary Europe. Raised in a country that no longer exists (Czechoslovakia) during an era of political turmoil (during his police interview, his year of birth is established as 1968, the year of the Prague Spring), he is a human relic of Europe’s discredited communist past. His precarious social status and political persuasions draw him towards the hyper-militarized and lawless culture of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic. This war-torn region, struggling to determine its own identity in politically precarious conditions, forms the closest thing to home for the ideologically dispossessed Mira. It is here that he attempts to ground his sense of self through the resurrection of the communist symbols of his and the local community’s past.

The shots of the monuments and their restoration are some of the most lyrical in the film. As Mira’s band of makeshift restorers begin their work on a surviving monument of Lenin reading to a child, which has fallen into disrepair, the camera pans around the sculpture in gentle accompaniment to the piece’s intended theme. Likewise, the ensemble piece of miner, communist, and pioneer, which the group exhumes from a mine shaft, is featured in a long take at the end of the film, snow settling gently upon the various figures. The question of cultural memory and heritage preservation is one that is hotly disputed in present-day Ukraine; following the de-communization law of April 2015, communist symbols are now outlawed in the country. The film addresses this question directly, though its message about the value of these cultural relics is far from straightforward. While Mira reassures the damaged Lenin monument that “we’re going to fix you, Grandpa,” senior residents are later shown looking askance at the restored icon. The viewer necessarily draws a connection between this decrepit heritage and the industrial ruins that loom, ubiquitous, on the horizon. While treating the problem of cultural memory with sensitivity, Shabaev appears to suggest that the source and potential resolution of the region’s political woes lies elsewhere. 

By Shabaev’s own admission, this is not a film that will appeal to a broad audience. The bleak visions of post-industrial decrepitude and broken lives will undoubtedly alienate some viewers. But this hard-to-watch quality is arguably one of the film’s strengths. As the director has explained in interview: “All [of the characters] are complicated people and personalities. The people who feature in the film are just as they are in real life. We wanted to show that space, that reality, what’s really going on there, the hell that’s consumed an entire region and thousands of people” (Sputnik 2018). Shabaev’s choice to mix documentary detail with artistic invention appears to be an ethical choice, much like the strategies of other artists who have attempted to render difficult subject matter in literature or film. When watching Mira tramp along the snowy Donbass street, I found myself thinking of Varlam Shalamov’s Through the Snow, a Chekhovian short story that draws an analogy between committing to text for the first time the memory of political repression with making a path through virgin snow (Shalamov 1998, 7). Both enterprises, Shalamov suggests, are doomed to failure; one can only hope to make “small black pits” that will later be widened into a comfortable path along which readers can travel. Shabaev’s film seems to have something in common with this story. While not the first attempt to commit to film the troubling reality of life in war-torn Donbass, it is still reticent to “tell” this story in entirely fictional terms, preferring instead to walk in the footsteps of others’ experiences.

Victoria Donovan
University of St Andrews

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Works Cited

Shalamov, Varlam. 1998. “Po snegu,” in Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh, Vol. 1. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literature/Vagrius.

Sputnik 2018. “Denis Shabaev: ‘Ia khotel razobrat’sia v tom, chto real’no proiskhodit v Donbasse’,” Radio Sputnik: RIA Novosti, 7 June.

Tuula, Maksim. 2018. “Denis Shabaev: ‘Ia khotel pochustvovat’, chto razlito v vozdukhe Donbassa’,”, 4 June:

Mira, Russia, 2018,
Color, 82 minutes
Scriptwriter and Director: Denis Shabaev
DoP: Irina Shatalova
Production Design: Valerii Arkhipov
Music: Mikhail Nozhkin
Editing: Denis Shabaev
Cast: Miroslav Rogach, Aleksandr Zaslavskii, Arkhip Petrov
General producer: Natal’ia Mokritskaia
Producers: Ul’iana Savel’eva, Mila Rozanova, Irina Liubarskaia
Production and Distribution: Novye Liudi [New People] Company

Denis Shabaev: Mira (2018)

reviewed by Victoria Donovan © 2019

Updated: 2019