A Sniper’s War is the fascinating, disturbing, and intimate portrait of a Serbian sniper named Deki who’s moved to the rebel-declared, Russian-basked republic of Donetsk to lend his murderous expertise to fight off the NATO-backed Ukrainian Army. Blending footage from the frontlines to the kitchens of everyday residents affected by the constant fighting, we learn much about the motivations in that part of the world. Meanwhile, another sniper taunts the primary subject through social media, adding a modern and personal twist to blood-thirsty warfare.
How did you stumble upon this tale? The war in Eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian Army has been raging since 2014. That conflict became one of the the trigger points for the ongoing tensions between Russia and the United States, the two countries I grew up in. And as that war continued, those viewpoints became more opposed and I could no longer see clearly what was between them. That is when I decided to visit both sides of the conflict. In Eastern Ukraine I met Deki, a prominent Serbian sniper fighting with the pro-Russian rebels. I knew nothing about snipers. But I was immediately intrigued by him.
Was it difficult achieving the stunning levels of access that you did? Rarely have I seen such behind-the-scenes footage with an officer as well as harrowing frontline action. Getting access was not easy. At first Deki was convinced that I was an American spy. We were escorted by the military personal at all times and given a very limited access. My cinematographer, Santiago Garcia, was arrested five times wondering on his own around the city. Once on the border with Russia we were interrogated for 14 hours by the Russian Security Service (FSB). Back in New York I got a surprise visit from FBI.
But all this has made the project so much more interesting. The biggest challenge was getting access to the front lines. The rebels had to be absolutely sure that we were not going to expose their military positions to the enemy. Keeping a small crew was important. I mostly worked by myself and at times with one cinematographer which allowed me to blend in with the soldiers in order to capture an unobstructed view of their reality.
Eventually I put together a clip using the footage I shot and sent it to Deki. That is when I think he realized that the film could potentially give him a voice globally. But in order to do so he had to take the risk of trusting me.
It was interesting to see the motivations for Deki, which must be common for Serbs. Do they not believe that at least some of their people were involved in genocide? Deki’s world views had been shaped greatly by the historic events he had lived through. Trained to be a sniper in the Serbian army during Bosnian and Kosovo wars he had formed radically anti-US stands. He believes that the information about the atrocities committed by the Serbian soldiers during those wars is American propaganda.
Did you find yourself swayed by his arguments in favor of Russia and the rebels and against the West? What have viewers of the film thought about that so far? Making this film was a challenging exercise in objectivity. Being in Donetsk felt as if I had stepped through the looking glass. On that side of the mirror the beliefs were very different from the beliefs in the U.S. It was important to stay unbiased and politically neutral and tell the story subjectively through Deki’s point of view. With the help of the editor, Dmitry Khavin, I think we were able to achieve that. So far the reaction to the film has been positive in both countries, the U.S. and Russia. And that is, in my opinion, our greatest achievement.
It was also amazing how much social media is involved. Was that a unique situation or do you think that soldiers in the current world are taunting each other frequently that way? Social media plays an enormous role in this conflict. Soldiers on both sides use communication platforms like Facebook and VK to brag about their victories and to provoke each other. But I was astonished to learn that snipers go on VK to schedule sniper duels. I think it is only possible because of the nature of this particular conflict. The opponents speak the same language and operate in a small geographic area. There is no clear chain of command which gives the snipers greater autonomy. It’s a wild world!
What was the most challenging aspect of making the film? How do you tell such a complicated story? Any story of war? My biggest challenge was keeping a bird’s view over the project. Not to get lost in the details. I also had a moral dilemma over what I personally thought of Deki. The more time I spent with him the more I wondered: is he a hero or a monster? My editor and I tried to capture that duality in every scene.
What’s your next project? I cannot yet speak publicly about the project I am currently working on.