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Atlantis is centered around the post-war wasteland where the film’s protagonist, Sergiy, fought on the Ukrainian side of a full-scale border war against Russia.Courtesy of Grasshopper Films

Almost one year ago, I came across a film still of a man bathing inside a detached excavator bucket. It was heated by a burning wood fire and surrounded by an orange-grey expanse of rock, Martian in its desolation. The name of the film is Atlantis, and I quickly found myself captivated by a dark, hidden presence outside each of its frames, where the weight of shared, catastrophic trauma pressed in at the edges. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s film feels like a memory, yet it prophesies the future of ecological sterilization, post-traumatic stress disorders and mass unmarked graves that may soon plague Ukraine.

I watched the film through one of the online festival premieres that became so popular during the pandemic, so I was streaming it from home, its postapocalyptic depiction of 2025 Ukraine unfolding before me in my bedroom. At the time, I had little awareness of the escalating border conflict with Russia or the rapidly deteriorating Donbas groundwater that threatened to ecologically sterilize the entire region. But Vasyanovych had already taken them to their logical conclusions.

Atlantis is centred around the postwar wasteland where the film’s protagonist, Sergiy, fought on the Ukrainian side of a full-scale border war against Russia. In Vasyanovych’s imagined future, Ukraine won the war, yet the land for which they fought remains scorched, sterilized and riddled with land mines. Sergiy continues to train each day as if the war is still on, but sudden loss and joblessness force him to confront his crippling PTSD. He joins a humanitarian organization dedicated to exhuming and identifying the countless corpses buried amid the mines and mud.

On that first viewing, I was unprepared for the future that Atlantis depicts – although its geographical scope was limited to the Eastern border region and did not predict the nationwide conflict now unfolding in Ukraine. Its central characters, played by veterans of the Donbas conflict, appear spectral, mere shadows of their former selves. They move as if trapped inside a cultural void, their senses shell-shocked, their eyes small, sullen windows of grief. If a film such as Elem Klimov’s classic, Come and See, shows us how the trauma of war imprints itself upon the human psyche in real time, Atlantis depicts its lingering effects.

The film was so desolate, so desperately lonesome and haunting, that I initially had difficulty connecting with it. It was reminiscent of the isolated characters and wandering plot lines of director Tsai Ming Liang, particularly in his film Stray Dogs. Vasyanovych’s film was so remote that either I could not face its implications or I needed to feel the shock and horror of Putin’s war machine looming overhead to truly engage with the film on a gut level – to grasp a piece of people’s pain, and to experience the feeling of second-hand shell shock that we now, in the West, are indirectly reckoning with amid the most highly documented conflict in history.

Atlantis is so desolate, so desperately lonesome and haunting, that I initially had difficulty connecting with it.Courtesy of Grasshopper Films

Conflict on this scale, in this era of internet media, is resulting in a more direct, more immersive feed of information. Our eyes are witnessing war crimes while millions of TikTok users watch Ukrainian teens vlog their experience fleeing Kyiv as cluster munitions pummel the streets.

So this week, when revisiting Atlantis in my digitally shell-shocked state, I found that its silence deafens, and its emptiness overwhelms. It foretells the sense of trauma that will come to linger upon the scorched Ukrainian psyche, and with a silent, severe aesthetic composition demanding big-screen presentation.

Fortunately, Atlantis’s distributor, the U.S.-based indie outfit Grasshopper Film, is touring the film across art-house cinemas, including the Vancouver International Film Festival Centre (April 1), the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (April 7, as part of TIFF’s free Ukraine: Dichotomy & Opposition program), the Calgary Cinematheque (April 7) and the Winnipeg Film Group (April 23). I hope that Atlantis, along with Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire and Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, will soon become available digitally, too, so that audiences across the country – and the world – can witness these fearless auteurs at work.

Right now, Vasyanovych is on the ground in Ukraine working to document the nightmarish reality so that the world can see what Putin is censoring. The director recently told Reuters that even he never imagined such a scenario with “cities destroyed to such an extent that places like Kharkiv and Mariupol … are simply being wiped off the face of the Earth.”

The incredible loss of human life and extensive damage to infrastructure and Ukraine’s natural environment goes far beyond the scope of Atlantis. I can only hope that Vasyanovych makes it through this endless night, along with everyone else fleeing, fighting and trapped under siege in Ukraine. But in the meantime, we can all make the effort to watch his remarkable film, and ask what might come next.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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