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A slow burn inspection of digital bystanding and the normalisation of a war.

Film Name: Bystander

Director: R Colvile (UK)

Year of production: 2023

Length: 14.39

Bystander is an art film about the changing experience of watching the war in Ukraine online, war fatigue and digital bystanding. Made on iPhone, the film combines the landscapes of the internet with those shaped by previous conflict in neighbouring Poland.


R Colvile is a London based artist and writer, working primarily in film. Bystander is the third in a trilogy of films made using iPhone. His previous films True Love Story and Nightlife were both screened at VAFT (2018, 2022) and his work has been shown internationally, including at the Tampere Film Festival (2022), the Aesthetica Short Film Festival (2019) and the Slow Film Festival (2023). Find out more here.

R Colvile: Reflections for VAFT Online Exhibition (2024)

My desire to make something like Bystander came from a place of emotion following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022. Twinned with that desire was always a sense of fear. The fear came from a recognition that the underlying nature of the conflict was immeasurably serious. Making the film, I was keenly aware of not wanting to do that a disservice. In the end, the story which Bystander tells is a deliberately small story: one which focuses on the experience of the online consumption of media about the war, rather than the war itself. Nonetheless, in an age of digital bystanding, where the video, sound and text of an unfolding tragedy can be instantly accessed at any time and in any place, I hope the work has at least a degree of universality.


As Bystander tells, in the days post invasion, I - like many others - experienced the horror of it through my screens, and in particular on my iPhone. Later, there felt an authenticity in trying to use precisely that same device to create something which reflected on the experience it had produced. As such, the images from Poland which feature were shot on the same machine on which I had followed the Kyiv offensive weeks before. Throughout production I would return to the iPhone as a filmmaking device whenever I could and try to integrate it into the process - for example, in the sound design or the construction of abstract images to reflect the landscapes of the internet. The decision to exhibit this film online in the first instance, so allowing the audience to experience it on their own phones should they choose to, feels a fitting completion.


One of the most distressing aspects of the war to the point of Bystander’s production was the siege of Mariupol. The destruction of buildings here and across Ukraine, seemed to me - perhaps naively - drawn from a different time. Growing up in Britain, the Second World War is an important shaper of national identity, but the sporadic hints at bomb damage which dot London’s streets appeared suddenly trivialised by the events which were unfolding abroad. That impression of trivilisation was compounded by the Second World War sites I visited in Poland, for the first time, in the summer of 2022. Here, natural landscapes, former military infrastructure, and re-built cities all evidenced, on a disturbing scale, the effect of war on a country. At the same time, similar devastation, with the threat of more, was happening in the present day and only just across a border. 


The Polish locations featured include the military installations of the Hel Peninsula (fought over in 1939), the re-built centre of Gdańsk (shelled in 1945), and the atmospheric and unsettling ruined bunkers of the Wolf’s Lair (Hitler’s Eastern European headquarters from 1941-1944). These joined idyllic landscapes, like those of the Tatra Mountains, as my friends and I enjoyed a holiday, and in Ukraine the war continued.


Part of the emotions which gave rise to the film was guilt. A guilt, that the outrage felt at what was understood to be happening in February 2022 could not be maintained, or at least not in the same way. This is the ‘normalisation of the war’ which features in the work (and is also sometimes referred to as ‘war fatigue’). Tell ourselves what we want about this, however - and to bring things back to the production - in the online age, our phones are both detailed and unblinking as an evidential record of our shifting attentions and changing mental state. 


When I finished the film, I wondered how the question it poses at its end would age. I hoped it would become irrelevant. Sadly, two years since the full-scale invasion, it has not.


I am very grateful to all those at VAFT for their interest in Bystander and ongoing support of my work. Thanks also go to those who feature in the film, whose images are produced with their consent. The sculpture featured is by Marian Dreszer (Zakopane; June 2022). 


There are many humanitarian charities through which one can support people in Ukraine; one is the British Red Cross:

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