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#Sundance2023 Review: Iron Butterflies

January 23, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Roman Liubiy, Iron Butterflies is a documentary that sets itself up as an investigation into the downing of Malaysian airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, which was accidentally shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. But Liubiy’s film unfolds more as a somewhat experimental video essay culled together from a variety of sources.

Named for the butterfly-shaped piece of shrapnel that got lodged in the pilot’s body, Iron Butterflies unfolds through a mix of different multimedia sequences, including old military propaganda videos being shown on reels of film, news clips from Russian television offering changing reports, intercepted audio from Russian soldiers, and scenes of Dutch investigators piecing together the strewn debris of the plane to create a 3D model. They are somewhat loosely connected together by more abstract moments, such as a child’s hands playing with bits of iron shrapnel, and staged musical and interpretive dance performances in Ukrainian fields that are presented in black-and-white.

The Russian forces responsible for downing MH17 subsequently covered up their involvement and never faced prosecution for what amounted to a war crime, with the film ending in tribute to the victims. The material itself is important (especially with the ongoing war in Ukraine), and there are some interesting moments including personal testimonies, but the film as a whole is a bit too expressionistic and lacking in overall focus to offer a ton in the way of new insight. But if you are looking for more of an art project than a standard investigative documentary, you’ll probably find something of value here.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19th to 29th in Park City, Utah, with in-person and online screenings. More information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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