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Frontline directors Tom Jennings and Annie Wong were hard at work on a documentary about Viktor Orbán in Hungary when Russia abruptly invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022. Suddenly, Jennings, Wong and a journalist from the Associated Press that they were collaborating with — investigative reporter Erika Kinetz — were the team at Frontline that was closest to the biggest story in the world. Without any prior experience reporting in Ukraine, the three reporters pivoted and began figuring out how to get into country and start filming.
“We just had to really turn quickly because the stories that were coming out in those first couple weeks just couldn’t be ignored,” Wong recalls. Adds Jennings, “It was very evident from the very beginning that there were war crimes,” which “became our focal point right from the get-go.”
The result of that team’s subsequent reporting, the Frontline documentary Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes premiered on PBS on Tuesday and is now available in full on YouTube, Frontline’s website and the PBS Video App. Part of the AP’s and Frontline’s larger joint effort to cover Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (a collaboration that has also produced the database War Crimes Watch Ukraine), the film investigates several potential war crimes, but especially two incidents that took place outside Kyiv, in Bucha and Zdvyzhivka: One, an instance where eight men dressed in civilian clothing were executed outside a building that Russian troops were using as a command center and another where two men were tortured and executed, with their bodies and three others left in the garden of a house where Russians soldiers were living.
The filmmakers tell the story of these incidents through interviews with eyewitnesses, neighbors, loved ones and prosecutors as well as a trove of evidence uncovered well into the reporting process — intercepted phone calls from Russian soldiers and hundreds of hours of CCTV footage.
Not long after they finished the documentary, Jennings and Wong spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about their experience filming in Ukraine, the likelihood that the International Criminal Court will prosecute potential war crimes in the country and their hope that the film “is going to help frame these crimes and offer the families, the survivors, a sense of justice.”
Over what period did you end up staying and filming in Ukraine, and what was that experience like for you?
Jennings: We did three separate trips in the Ukraine. The first one was in the middle of March and we just stayed for about five days there in that first trip. I don’t know if you recall, but at the beginning, those first few weeks of the invasion, there was a lot of targeted attacks on journalists in the war zone. And the war zone at that point was really Kyiv and points east, so there was a lot of hesitancy on the part of both AP and Frontline to allow us, actually, to go beyond certain points in Ukraine. So we went to Lviv, and Lviv is in the far west, it’s about an hour drive from the border with Poland. We ended up going there first, to just kind of dip our toes into it, and we established contacts with the prosecutor general of Ukraine there, and after we did the filming and reporting there, we came back out, stayed in Poland and then for about three weeks we were trying to figure out how to get back in. And in that time, the Russian pullback happened at the end of March. When they pulled back out of Kyiv, a couple things happened: one was that the threat level, the level of danger to journalists and reporting had just dropped dramatically. But the other thing that happened was that there was this revelation of all these atrocities in Bucha, primarily. And that’s when Bucha because kind of a catchphrase for war crimes in Ukraine and in this war, so we just packed up and moved our operation right back to Ukraine and into Kyiv. And that trip, we stayed for about three weeks and then we came back out and then we went back in again in July for three weeks. That was the bulk of our reporting. But we did a lot of work in between, a lot of work in London, a lot of work in Poland, in between those moments in Ukraine.
Wong: That time also was kind of spent hopscotching around Europe as well, following the story. This was about war crimes prosecutions and what could be done, and there were a lot of interviews that were happening outside. Some notable ones in London, we had gone to the European Council [Council of Europe] in Strasbourg when they did the formal kicking out of Russia. So there was other reporting around Europe that we did on that end, on what are they trying to do hold Putin and the Russian leadership accountable?
As you mention in your film, Ukrainian authorities have opened thousands of investigations into potential war crimes and the ICC has investigators on the ground also looking for evidence of war crimes. Why was it important for AP and Frontline to independently conduct their own investigations, in your view?
Wong: There are just so many stories, it’s like how do you not get in there to try to bring people’s stories out?
Jennings: One of the reasons that it was important to do this is because the process of obtaining justice for these kinds of war crimes is very cumbersome and very long-term. And there’s a real question if there’s going to be any kind of success in doing that. What we wanted to do was understand the process, not just of the act of war crimes happening and documenting victims and their stories — which is a very important part of it, but in some ways, this is not to be glib about it, but it’s the easier side of things, it’s the easier side to document. Every corner in Ukraine there are stories to be had about the difficulty and suffering that people are going through. What’s harder, much harder, is finding a way to tell the story about prosecuting these war crimes and also documenting the process of prosecuting war crimes. That was what we really needed to get into and understand, is the bureaucratic and political obstacles to this kind of thing and the real-world necessity for them. We decided early on, we knew from the very get-go that we were not going to be able to witness and document the active prosecution of war crimes, really. We’re not going to see the end result of it. But we’re going to just see the very beginning of this process.
Because of the nature of prosecutors, they do not want to give up evidence to journalists, they don’t want to work collaboratively, really, with them on the record. We had a lot of prosecutors we were working with, but they would not go on the record. But what we had to do was find a way to tell the story of the very early stages of these investigations that were just getting underway and what the possibility of their success might be. And because they didn’t cooperate with us, which is the nature of prosecutors, we decided that we had to go out and effectively do our own, not prosecution, but our own investigation into what might turn into a prosecution. So that’s what we did. We found two stories, primarily — one was one that was very well-known as the central war crime of Bucha, it was at 144 Yablunska Street, where eight men were assassinated, executed. It got a high amount of publicity. And then there was another set of circumstances, very similar but in a neighboring town, where five people had been arrested and then executed and nobody one was paying attention to that. No investigators, really, were paying attention to that. And we focused on that as if we were investigating a crime that could be prosecuted later on, down the road.
How willing did you find Ukrainian civilians who had witnessed information important for your investigation to speak for this documentary? Were they hesitant or eager to share what they had learned?
Wong: I think they were surprisingly eager, considering what they’d seen and what they’d been through. I think they want people to know. I don’t think there was any hesitation despite how maybe traumatized they were, maybe it was shock, I’m not sure. But I don’t think there was any real hesitation on anyone’s part to not speak to us: I think they want people to know.
When in the process of filmmaking did you uncover intercepted calls and CCTV footage about the Russian invasion and did that change the direction of where you decided to take the reporting and the film?
Jennings: Yeah, that was fairly recent. We had just left Ukraine in July and we had all these stories that we were going to tell. We were focused on those two I was mentioning before — the Bucha story was this one at 144 Yablunska Street. And Erika Kinetz, our collaborator, had sources in the government that she was able to successfully use to obtain this massive amount of video and audio information that came from Bucha, primarily. One tranche of it was CCTV. It was a hard drive with thousands of hours of CCTV footage from all over Bucha, but primarily across the street from this one building, 144. Then there were the intercepts that came from a different source, it wasn’t on the same hard drive, but it was a lot of communications between Russian soldiers and people back in Russia, usually family members. All this stuff really hit about a month and a half ago, so we were well out of Ukraine and, yes, it did change the nature of the storytelling. It changed how we were going to be able to document especially what we knew about 144. Because before that, we had the witness to that crime, this man named Ivan Skyba, who she interviewed. But this suddenly gave us this visual evidence of that instant where we had these nine men paraded across Yablunska Street. And you can see in dramatic fashion the whole, what Erika calls “the sweep.” There’s a Russian word they use, “cleansing,” which is not like ethnic cleansing, but it’s like securing a perimeter. You see the whole sweeping operation that the Russians did of this neighborhood right around 144. So in a lot of ways, it became additive. It wasn’t changing as much as it became this amazing set of visual evidence that we could then use to tell that story. It was great. It changed a lot. Suddenly the film pivoted: We could peer into and document exactly what happened in a way that nobody had before.
Have any important developments for the story of Kolia and 144 Yablunksa occurred since you stopped filming?
Wong: I think the prosecutor general’s office is taking a much closer look at the Zdvyzhivka story about Kolia and what happened there, so they definitely have their eyes on it and they’re looking at it almost like 144. What we’re finding is — and what any prosecutor will tell you — is it’s all about the evidence. And what’s unfortunate about Kolia’s story is that it’s a lot of eyewitnesses and not a lot of hard evidence. Not like what we have with 144 Yablunska where you have the survivor and you have this incredible video documentation around that building. While you don’t see the actual shootings, everything surrounding that event is there for them. Unfortunately there hasn’t been any movement as far as cases that are being brought: They have indicted the head[s], Chaiko and Chubarykin, for their activities there and for what Ukrainians are saying is crime of aggression, charged through Ukrainian courts, and I know Chaiko is being brought up, and there was supposed to be a trial in absentia last week. That’s being, I think, rescheduled. But it also goes to show you how extraordinarily long it takes for these war crimes prosecutions to really happen. I mean, the investigations, and especially in the fog of war, are extraordinarily difficult and will take probably years.
Jennings: We’re really curious to see if the film and Erika’s stories that are coming out concurrently are going to change things there, if it’s going to catalyze more focus, more of an investigation, kind of a bigger prosecution on not just 144 but Kolia’s story and what happened in this little town of Zdvyzhivka. And it could. There’s a long history of journalism catalyzing that kind of prosecutorial investigation and prosecution and we’re hopeful that what we’ve done is going to help frame these crimes and offer the families, the survivors, a sense of justice.
Is there anything else you want to add about your hopes for what effect your film could have?
Jennings: It’s interesting, I was having this conversation with our colleague Taras [Lazer], he’s in the film and he’s an important part of our team, he’s still in Kyiv, and he was saying how it seemed like we were focusing everything on this one attribute of the Russian persecution of Ukrainian citizens, this idea of spotters, people who are actually spying. That is exactly what happened with Kolia: He was charged with being a spotter for the Ukrainians and he lost his life for it. There’s no evidence to suggest he was doing that, but even if he was, you don’t go killing people for it, you don’t take them prisoner and kill them then. But I think our focus has been on him, his story and the others who were killed from the small town that he came from and then also on 144. They’re kind of stand-in stories for the broader prosecution of this illegal war by Russia against Ukraine. That’s not to say that this is the definitive story: Literally 40,000 investigations are being undertaken by the prosecutor’s office in Ukraine for war crimes. And these are just two of those. 144 will definitely be prosecuted, our hope is that Kolia’s story will be prosecuted as well, but I think what we started out understanding quite well is that Kolia’s story is emblematic of the vast number of stories of war crimes that never get prosecuted. These 40,000 cases that they’re opening up, it will be lucky if a couple dozen actually get prosecuted at the end of the day. We’re fairly confident 144 Yablunksa will be one of those. But before our reporting, it was very unlikely that Kolia’s story would have ever been focused on, but now we’re hoping that it will be.
After your reporting, how likely do you think it is for the International Criminal Court to take real action on any potential war crimes committed in Ukraine?
Wong: That’s hard to say. I know they’re actively investigating, but they really go after leadership, prosecutions, so I think they’re really having to work with the Ukrainian prosecutor general. [doesn’t] have command responsibility, which is a leadership crime, on the books. So if they want to get someone like Chaiko on war crimes, that is something they could give over, if the ICC wanted to take it or could take it, bring those charges against higher leadership. But that’s really for the ICC to decide. And who knows how much evidence they need to do that? They are an international court, so it’s not just Ukraine that they’re having to prosecute crimes for. That’s something that people tend to forget. The ICC is small, so I think they probably just take the best cases that they have the evidence for.
Jennings: Now, with Ukraine, I think it’s a moment where they seem to think it’s a bit of an inflection point for them and also a proving ground for their viability. It’s a bit of an existential moment for the ICC: They really have to do well with this because it’s a fairly black and white situation. Even saying that, as Annie says, they don’t have a huge staff and at the end of the day they’re not going to come out with a huge slate of prosecutions, it will probably be like 5-10. So the world’s not going to see the great justice that a lot of people are hungering for through the ICC. Although it’s one route that needs to be used, it’s not the only one.
Anything else you want to add?
Jennings: Well one thing that I’m not sure we got across as much as we needed to is I feel like the waging of this war and the aggression that Putin has unleashed is something that some people feel is fairly new, but it’s not new at all. Russia has a very long track record of this kind of warfare where they target civilians. And with Putin in particular, it goes back to when he first came to power in 1999 and waged a war against Chechnya and laid waste to the city of Grozny, turned it to dust. And then he invaded the Donbas in Ukraine and then annexed Crimea and then he joined forces with Bashar al-Assad in Syria and laid waste to cities and targeted hospitals and schools and government buildings. All this is now playing out again in Ukraine.
The interesting thing from our perspective that we wanted to get across in the film is that it takes two to tango: He does this and it’s definitely on Russia and on Putin that this is happening, but there have been plenty of instances in the past 20 years where the international community could have called him out and stopped that pattern of violence. And so that’s partly what’s at play here that gets missed, is that we in the West have given him a pass. And the sense of impunity he has is not just something that he has created whole cloth for himself, but something that’s kind of been given to him because he hasn’t been called out on it. Now there’s an attempt to call him out on it. But I think it’s a moment not just of castigating and calling him out on it, there’s a point at which we have to really look at ourselves and what we’ve done and not done successfully in the West to police these kinds of actions. So there’s a moment now where we can change these things and I hope that this is it.
Wong: The only thing I would say is that there was this groundswell in the beginning of support for Ukraine very early on and that continued for a couple of months and I’m not saying it’s gone, but as the war keeps slogging along, the world has other things to think about. And I think it’s something that I’m hoping that people don’t let go and forget about and understand what a horrible situation this country is in. People are getting sort of war fatigue by this point. I think it’s going to be long and it’s going to be drawn out, but I think that people cannot let go of that need to keep the foot on the gas pedal to try to do something about this, to hold Putin to account and the Russian leadership.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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