Those eight-years-and-counting are the through line of Hontaruk and Khitsinska’s current project Company of Steel, a mammoth character-driven documentary that observes the lives of three young men—a TV presenter, an engineering graduate, and a tattoo artist—as they endure the horrors of the battlefield in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Following their first period of voluntary military service, Shakhta, Dancer, and Potter (as they are codenamed) struggle to rehabilitate in civilian society, only to be thrown back into the war in 2022. Filmed over much of a decade, the project is currently in the rough cut stage, having received support from the IDFA Bertha Fund and pitched at Cannes Docs in the fall of last year.
This war—omnipresent throughout their lives and the film—is what drove the filmmakers to come together as a team and to stick with each other, and their protagonists, through a shooting period that has spanned most of a generation. It’s also the deadening barrier that has continually put their lives at risk, changed the course of their film three-fold, and now, prevents access to basic amenities like power and internet. The result is a collection of fragments: shards of reflections, relationships, and documentary material that make up the story of this film.
Company of Steel is not a war documentary. Not in any conventional sense, at least. Made by filmmakers who evade easy categorization, the project is best understood as a culmination of a lifetime of artistry and craftmanship.
“I’m an art critic and producer,” says Khitsinska, whose former job titles include Managing Director of the Film Industry Association of Ukraine, Managing Director of the Commercial Productions Association of Ukraine, and Head of the Film Industry Office at Odesa International Film Festival. She never intended to become a producer, she explains. “I wanted to help our film industry—to create a good environment for all our producers and directors. But when the war started, everything changed. A lot of our filmmakers went to war.”
Hontaruk, for her part, holds degrees in thermal engineering and film directing, and is a member of the National Union of Cinematographers in Ukraine. She’s directed a number of short films, in addition to the mid-length title 10 seconds, which came out in 2016. Having spent much time in eastern Ukraine, she’s lived and worked as a filmmaker under shellfire since age 25.
It was around then that Hontaruk first encountered her protagonists. “I decided that I was making a film about young guys who volunteered for the war,” the filmmaker says of her first visit to Mariupol in 2015, and her early attempts to make meaning of the project. “I couldn't take up weapons and go fight. But I could talk about those who sacrificed their education, businesses, and physical and psychological health and went to defend my home.”
Working on Company of Steel began as an act of friendship between Hontaruk, Khitsinska, and fellow Babylon’13 producer Alexandra Bratyshchenko back in 2015. “When the war started, the three of us simply talked like friends,” Khitsinska recalls. “Yuliia told us: ‘Girls, I want to finish this film. You have to help me do this.’”
Supporting Hontaruk’s project is what got Khitsinska into producing, she says, but the idea for the film resonated with her first and foremost as a citizen of Ukraine.
Fast forward a few years, and the team felt that same spirit of friendship and solidarity when Latvian co-producer Uldis Cekulis signed on to the project—Khitsinska jokingly refers to him as their godfather in producing.
“Uldis was the first international co-producer who joined our team, our team of girls, and he believed that these stories should be told to a wider audience,” Khitsinska says. “You know, three girls, in a country with war, and we’re shooting a film on a military theme—it’s a tricky situation, but he believed in us.”
Khitsinska recalls a production meeting shortly after the full-scale invasion started in February last year. It was a Zoom call with the whole team, but Hontaruk wasn’t turning up. When Khitsinska finally got a hold of her, she was in a shelter on a military base under shellfire. The situation was urgent. She could only speak for a second.
“After that, Uldis understood that we will do our best to show this story, and that Yuliia is really a woman who shoots on the ground and knows how to shoot the taste of war, the taste of death, and the taste of blood.”
The lengthy production period amounted to over 1000 hours of footage and four walls of sticky notes in the editing room. But despite being confronted with difficult questions of when to put down the camera, which material to cut, and how to make sense of the film's subject matter, Hontaruk never wavered from her staunch visual language.
“My camera is always close to the characters. I hardly see the world around them—I observe them and their condition,” she says.
“This is the language of Yuliia’s way of directing,” Khitsinka adds. “For me, it was why I joined this team. Because I saw and understood emotionally what Yuliia wanted to make...she's a perfectionist. She needs a lot of footage to make this global portrait of a character and to understand the protagonist more deeply.”
Of that plenitude of footage, about 15% was captured directly by Hontaruk’s characters—a participatory means of conveying subjectivism, and a practical way of gaining visual access to the battlefield.
“In 2022, I went to shoot at military bases that were close to the frontlines, but in this already big war, they did not want to take me on combat trips. So, I made the decision to give my protagonists GoPro. Of course, GoPro reveals more deeply,” Hontaruk says.
“Often you just physically cannot get to the combat zone or, for example, get to somewhere like Azovstal, when the city is surrounded. So, I asked [my characters] to shoot video on their phones or GoPro and send it to me.”
Beyond being a stylistic element and production practicality, the recurring theme of soldiers taking the camera into their own hands speaks to a significant aspect of Hontaruk’s directing: her utter devotion to her protagonists.
“I lived with and filmed them at a military base. I filmed them on combat missions, sat with them in the trenches, and fell under fire. Probably because of that they began to trust me and let me come so close to them,” Hontaruk reflects. Even upon returning to civil life, the characters’ relationship to the filmmaker continued to grow. The young men divulged their innermost feelings to her, opening up in a way they couldn’t with anyone else.
“To make a film about a person, you need to understand him,” Khitsinska explains. “I like how Yuliia goes closer and closer to the protagonist. She becomes some kind of friend with them. Some of them even call her ‘Mom’. She’s so close to them that sometimes you can’t even believe how this footage could be shot. This kind of friendship could be only when you’re with the character for some time.”
At one point in the film, a character notes that it’s impossible to go through the war without a trace. He asks himself: Why do you survive while someone else dies? The whole film, Hontaruk says, he is searching for an answer.
Likewise, the entire team—whether soldier or civilian, protagonist or filmmaker—emerged from the grueling production period with new understandings of life and death. The former, both Hontaruk and Khitinska affirm, is the most important.
“All my characters essentially went through the same experience: They had to accept their own death in order to exist in war, to not be afraid to perform tasks, to not be afraid for their lives. This acceptance has a great impact on a person. Leveling your life, you become something more: titanium.
“Everyone experiences death in their own way. But in the end, everyone has a desire to live. If earlier they went to fight with a willingness to die, now they want to survive, to expel the enemy for the sake of living in this country. They all want to survive this war,” Hontaruk says.
Khitsinka elaborates that all of us will encounter death at some point in our lives, especially with war on the doorstep. In these moments, death feels like an abstraction that just gets a little too close, she says.
“But when you meet death the second time, like this big, full-scale war...death is no longer some kind of substance that makes certain choices in your life very important. The only thing you want is to live, and not just to personally live—you want your parents, your neighbors, and everyone to live. When you see a lot of deaths, you nevertheless have to believe in life. And you have to believe in the future,” Khitinska says.
In the end, Hontaruk and Khitinska return to the same thing: Company of Steel is a story about a generation. And part of that generation is a group of young women filmmakers who refuse to be compartmentalized. Speaking to them, it becomes crystal clear that this film is not a war story. It’s not a national story. And it’s certainly not a “women’s story”. Perhaps, most of all, it is a story about the act of storytelling itself—at a time when it’s needed the most.