As the world’s media focuses on the plane crash that appears to have killed Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, Ukranian director Roman Liubyi’s new documentary Iron Butterflies sets out to draw viewers’ attention to the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 back in 2014. The scheduled passenger flight, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by Russian forces as it flew over the contested Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine, an event that acted both as a harbinger of the larger war to come, but also as a terrifying example of the campaigns of secrecy and lies that often lie at the heart of Russian propaganda.
Though much of the world may think they’re familiar with the circumstances surrounding the downing of the civilian aircraft, which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board, there’s a wealth of new information to be found in this cinematic deep dive–particularly around how the Russian media and government twisted the agreed-upon facts to fit their troubling narrative. The Dutch-led investigation team determined that a BUK surface-to-air missile, launched from Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, brought down MH17. Russian authorities have continued to maintain their innocence, despite their account of what actually occurred varying wildly over the past nine years.
Liubyi uses a wealth of visuals and audio to clearly showcase the sequence of events from the 17th of July, 2014. From court testimony to Google Maps, and from audio logs to civilian-shot footage, he paints a disturbing and full picture of the tragic events and how they unfolded. As the facts pile up, including physical and forensic evidence like the BUK-specific butterfly-shaped shrapnel discovered in the pilots’ bodies, so too do the cover stories from Moscow. The director spends equal time displaying those artfully crafted, powerful layers of fiction. From clearly contrived “facts” to an actual psychic who testifies that the plane could not have been shot down, the Soviet propaganda machine has all corners covered. Hearing individual stories is certainly disturbing enough, but to see them laid out back-to-back–some rolling out mere hours after the crash–is devastating. It’s clear that this event should’ve acted as an international wake-up call, but it soon dropped from the headlines in favour of other news.
That said, Iron Butterflies is at its most effective when focusing on the victims at the heart of this tragedy. The crash abruptly and devastatingly ended the lives of 298 people, with hundreds more losing dear family and friends. Liubyi channels that sense of loss and frustration both through emotional balletic vignettes and simple footage from both the trial and the news. The film effectively reminds us that there’s a very human story at the centre of an event that has become, for some, more about political posturing than about humanitarian justice.
Liubyi’s documentary–a truly remarkable cinematic criminal investigation–is a must-see for those looking to parse events leading up to the current conflict in Eastern Europe, but also for those seeking an effective demonstration of just how Putin’s propaganda machine functions almost as a living, breathing entity within Russia.
Iron Butterflies premiered at Sundance earlier this year and opens in select Canadian theatres today, as a part of The Impact Series.