'A Sniper's War': Film Review | Santa Barbara 2018

A potent portrait of an anti-American killer.

This doc looks at the Russian-Ukrainian conflict through the eyes of a pro-Russian sniper.

Good documentaries expose characters and conflicts that are unfamiliar to most audience members. Sometimes, however, these films also open wounds that are almost too painful to behold. A Sniper’s War, a documentary that received its world premiere in Santa Barbara, chronicles the civil war in Ukraine from the perspective of a pro-Russian sniper consumed with hatred. It is unusual to film a documentary through the eyes of an unsympathetic protagonist, but director Olya Schechter managed to achieve unusual access to a tormented soldier. The resulting portrait won’t reach a large audience, but it should stir plenty of conversation wherever it shows.

The film’s protagonist, Deki, is a Serb still bitter about NATO bombing of the region during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Because of this hatred, he declares, “The United States is the most genocidal state in the world.” His passions led him to fight against NATO forces in Ukraine, serving some time in a POW camp there. Then he traveled to the pro-Russian state of Donetsk, in the eastern part of Ukraine, where he fights alongside Russian troops, killing Ukrainian soldiers when he can.

Schechter tries to probe into Deki’s background, and he reports that his mother was an alcoholic who beat him. Whether his violent behavior is due to the abuse he suffered as a child or to nationalistic anger against Western forces, he kills without compunction. When asked what he feels when he kills people, Deki responds, “Nothing,” and he adds, “They are all armed.” However, a flaw in the doc is that while it shows Deki shooting at enemies, it never really shows the victims of his relentless attacks. The film gained remarkable access to a contemporary killer, but in the process, Schechter sacrificed footage of Ukrainian victims of Russian attacks.

Nevertheless, A Sniper’s War is a powerful and disturbing doc from a perspective we don’t often see. The film benefits from superb cinematography by Santiago Garcia and Alex Gritsenko. Near the end, there are haunting images of a makeshift cemetery amidst bombed-out buildings and overgrown fields in Donetsk. Billy Martin’s mournful music adds to the impact of these scenes. Eventually Deki left the battlefield and settled in Russia, where the disturbed sniper may have found a congenial home.

Director-producer: Olya Schechter
Directors of photography: Santiago Garcia, Alex Gritsenko
Editors: Dmitry Khavin, Dmitry Rozin
Music: Billy Martin

81 minutes