Abel Ferrara’s documentary is an awkward meld of the Ukraine conflict with a Patti Smith installation

Turn in the Wound

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘Turn in the Wound’

Dir: Abel Ferrara UK/Germany/USA/Italy. 2024. 77mins.

In this hybrid performative documentary, director Abel Ferrara interleaves a series of interviews shot in Ukraine with borrowed footage of front-line battles and extracts from a live audio-visual installation presented by Patti Smith and Soundwalk Collective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris from October 2022 to March 2023. It was a show that had, and still has, no obvious connection with the war on Europe’s eastern border.

Will transform nobody’s understanding of the conflict

“I am an instinctual filmmaker”, says Abel Ferrara to a Ukrainian TV anchor who is interviewing the veteran US indie director during his time in Kiev making this film. “I just felt I had to be here”. That does not quite answer the bigger question which floats unspoken: Did you come here for us, or did you come here for you? The 77-minute result of Ferrara’s Ukranian foray suggests it is a little bit of both, but perhaps more the latter. Ferrara has made a film that will transform nobody’s understanding of the conflict, though it may connect emotionally and aesthetically with those who are not made angry by this cinematic exercise.

True, there is less actual footage of Ferrara in Turn In The Wound than there is of Sean Penn in Superpower, the Hollywood actor-director’s even more heroically egotistic take on the conflict which screened at last year’s Berlinale. Both films are sincere in their own way, showing pugnacious US filmmakers struggling to process what they see and learn in the short time they spend in Ukraine. Neither has an ounce of the power of a film like 20 Days In Mariupol. Turn In The Wound is formally more interesting than Superpower, but here too its fortunes will turn entirely on the audience’s regard for the man who made it. Most likely it will play a few more festivals after its Berlin debut before becoming one more entry in Ferrara’s filmography.

The impression we get from the dirty, ad hoc yet undeniably potent digital interviews that constitute the backbone of the film is that Ferrara and his small crew simply turned up with a fixer and an interpreter in places like Borodianka – a town devastated by Russian bombing during the first wave of the assault in March 2022 – and found some people to talk to. Standing outside her temporary shelter, a grandmother tells a moving story of loss and courage. An orthodox priest reflects bitterly on how Putin has created an artificial, self-serving divide between two countries with a common culture. This is moving stuff, veering into the shock zone when we see uncaptioned smartphone footage of dead bodies or an anti-tank brigade going into battle.There is also an interview with Volodymyr Zelensky.

But Ferrara’s impressionistic meld of Patti Smith channeling the works of her favourite French poets, Rimbaud, Artaud and Daumal, with the sober testimony of a Ukrainian soldier who lost an arm in battle seems likely to irritate at least as many as it inspires.

Smith is intense on stage as she intones lines of her own or others against a granular video installation by ‘live cinema’ artist Pedro Maia. It’s as if Ferrara had two separate documentaries in the works, and had the bright idea of combining them when he realized that neither could be spun out to feature length. Occasionally, the montage is evocative but mostly it feels random, sometimes even offensive. When footage of Russian assault helicopters is immediately followed by the American poet-rocker’s chanting “I salute the sickness”, what are we supposed to think? That Ferrara wants us to embrace the nihilism of destruction? Or that he was not really listening to the words?

Production companies: Rimsky Productions, Maze Pictures, Ventana, Interlinea

International sales: contact diana@rimskyproductions.com

Producers: Diana Phillips, Philipp Kreuzer

Editing: Leonardo Daniel Bianchi

Cinematography: Sean Price Williams, Emmanuel Gras, Alessandro Abate

Music: Patti Smith