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Polish filmmaker Maciek Hamela sits with his van, in which he recorded the documentary In the Rearview. Hamela shot the film while helping people evacuate after the Russian invasion.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Polish filmmaker Maciek Hamela has spent years making documentaries about people overcoming personal challenges or confronting difficult circumstances. But when Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Hamela’s initial reaction wasn’t to get to work, but to volunteer.

At first he raised money for the Ukrainian army and other charities. Then, when millions of Ukrainians began arriving at the Polish border, he bought a beat-up van, left his home in Warsaw and headed to the nearest crossing. He began ferrying refugees to shelters and organizing buses, but quickly realized that the bigger need was much closer to the front lines.

By early March, 2022, Hamela was driving a bigger minivan – a donated seven-seater Volkswagen Sharan – across eastern Ukraine, picking up people in war-torn areas and taking them to safer places further west, where other volunteers drove them to Poland.

Toward the end of the month he invited his friend Wawrzyniec Skoczylas to tag along. Hamela wanted someone to share the driving, but he also thought about the conversations he’d heard from the backseats and asked Skoczylas, a cameraman who’d worked on several documentaries, to bring a hand-held camera and a monopod.

Over the next six months, Hamela drove roughly 400 people to safety and collected hours of footage. The resulting documentary – In the Rearview – was released this spring to wide acclaim. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and won the Grand Jury Award at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in June.

The film is shot almost entirely inside the van. At times it’s haunting, heart-wrenching, funny and hopeful. There are no formal interviews, just snippets of conversations and images of the passing scenery: wide open countryside, damaged buildings, blown-up vehicles, destroyed bridges. Skoczylas went home after a few weeks because he found the trips too stressful, and three other cameramen took turns accompanying Hamela.

The documentary opens with a group of passengers from a rural area. One woman talks about the family’s favourite cow, Beauty, and explains how it had to be Ukrainian because it ate lard. As she speaks, one of the men takes a call on his cellphone. It’s an offer of a new loan from his bank, someone jokes. On a later trip a woman smiles and talks about how she’d always wanted to travel while another woman demands that the van stop so that her cat can go pee.

Often the film lingers on passengers quietly staring out the window, their few possession stuffed into plastic bags on their laps. The silence in one scene is broken by a young girl who admires a row of unscathed apartment blocks and says to no one in particular, “Such beautiful buildings, not bombed at all.”

The children in the film often behave like typical kids on a long car journey: bored, restless and eager to tease their siblings. But it’s clear that the war has affected them deeply.

One little girl sits silently on her father’s lap, speechless because of the carnage she’d witnessed. Another girl, just five years old, holds up a folded piece of paper that bears the names of her parents and their phone numbers, just in case the family is separated by the fighting or buried in rubble. When another boy asks her what happens if a bomb falls, she casually replies, “Then we all die.”

Hamela wanted the camera to be as unobtrusive as possible, and he often kept it running for up to eight hours at a time so that it went largely unnoticed. Everyone he picked up was told about the filming, but they didn’t have to sign a consent form until they arrived in Poland, in order to make it clear that participating in the film was not a condition for the ride. Only one woman declined to sign the release.

“I never knew if they have somewhere to go or they don’t, because really, very often they wouldn’t say,” he said in an interview during the Sheffield festival. “And then, in the van you realize that they have no plan, that you have to organize it for them.”

The closest the documentary comes to showing any gore is when Hamela gives a ride to a Congolese businesswoman named Gloria who has gunshot wounds in her stomach and legs. As she stretches out in one of the seats, she recounts how she came to Ukraine to study and how much she loves the country.

Hamela speaks Ukrainian and Russian, which allowed him to connect with his passengers and navigate through military checkpoints. He’s also familiar with Russia as he produced a couple of films there, including an award-winning documentary in 2021 about the COVID-19 pandemic in Saint Petersburg. “I’ve always treated Russia as a totalitarian state,” he said. He’s also “amazingly disappointed” at the silence among Russia’s cultural leaders about the war. “There is a point where you just have to leave your house and go out on the street.”

He’s still raising money for various charities and he still has the van, which is being used to transport humanitarian aid from Warsaw to Lviv in western Ukraine.

In the Rearview will make its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Docs program in September. Hamela hopes the film will help Canadians better understand how the war affects people just like them.

“I’d like the viewer to imagine it’s him or herself in the same place, as if they were driving in this van,” he said. “The message is to really think: Does this war not concern you, and have you done anything to help? That’s the ultimate question that we want to raise in the film.”

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