Tribeca 2023 Review: “Rule of Two Walls” Quantifies the Incomprehensible

The window of Lyana and Stepan in Lviv, Ukraine has an inscription written in a Sharpie that reads “Sad stupid world…or no?”, looking out over the grey skies that have hung over the country since Russia invaded in February of 2022 in “Rule of Two Walls.” You wouldn’t necessarily know anything was wrong from the view outside besides the tape bracing the glass in the event of explosions getting too close as a soccer game commences below and Stepan drinks his morning coffee as one suspects he did six months earlier, but the relentless air sirens that can be heard throughout the city as people go about their normal routine is a reminder that what’s going on is anything but. One suspects that the words were written out of boredom when every decision to leave the apartment carries significant risk, but along with the yellow masking tape, it frames the experience in a way that makes sense of the situation, not for the reasoning behind it, but how one endures when the less creative answers are unthinkable. In those rare trips out of the house, Lyana is a director at the Lviv Municipal Arts Center, where artists are collaborating on a show called “Shelter,” with one who hopes to show a different side of Mariupol seemingly letting go of any physical attachments she may have had to the city after she’s says she’s now without a home or a theater to go to, but holding onto the idea that art can be a powerful act of resistance, adding “[This is a way] to gain some control over all this crazy shit.”

Director and editor David Gutnik has a tall order in attempting to quantify the madness, but impressively moves beyond the question of how people cope with the daily threat of violence to how they understand it for themselves in order to move forward with their lives, extending the gaze of the collective of artists he embeds with into a vivid evocation of the ongoing war and its effects on the Ukrainian people. According to the film’s press notes, at least some of the premise may be an invention for the film, but even without distinguishing itself as either nonfiction or drama, those details are far more acceptable as the truth than the surreal scenes of tanks piled upon one another in the streets and dead horses in the sides of rural highways that couldn’t possibly be staged. One of “Rule of Two Walls”’ great insights is how the film will hustle through public spaces as the average citizen might when to stare for too long might be paralyzing, and for those watching from the outside, these images have the ability to still shock when they look different than what typically has appeared on the nightly news, but what becomes resonant is when the film will tucks into studios and soundproofed rooms that might’ve been refuges for artists in one sense before, but now have become them in an entirely different way.

When art at its best can reveal the subconscious, thoughts that may be too difficult to articulate in words at the moment are expressed here in paintings and music and there’s so much passion on display that the film never wallows in its unquestionably grim subject matter, though there’s also no ignoring it, leading to a particularly elegant solution on Gutnik’s part to invite his Ukrainian crew to offer up their own personal accounts of being displaced by the combat and how they look to their role on the production as a place where they can feel at home. “Rule of Two Walls” will surely live on as important documentation of Ukraine during this war, but when it all depends on how you look at it, it could just as easily serve as a crucial testament to the internal struggle the conflict has inspired among individuals who ultimately use that energy towards productive ends, defiant in the face of being silenced and creating a legacy for the culture that can’t be wiped away with violence.

“Rule of Two Walls” will screen at Tribeca Festival on June 10th at 2:45 pm at the Village East, June 16th at 5:15 pm at AMC 19th St. East 6 and June 18th at 8:30 pm at the Village East.

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