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'The Occupant' is an unexpected window into the war in Ukraine


There's a 24-minute film on YouTube now, made from scenes of video found in the phone of a Russian soldier, Lieutenant Shalaev, who, we're told, was captured in Ukraine in early April. Images of his unit as it enters Ukraine, frustration over jammed equipment, villages leveled but some that are, in a sense, more unexpected.


YURI SHALAEV: (Non-English language spoken).


SIMON: Lieutenant playing with his daughter 10 months ago...


SHALAEV: (Non-English language spoken).


SIMON: ...And singing songs at a Christmas party with other army friends.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

SIMON: Lots of scenes of young soldiers getting drunk and blabbing at the camera.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SIMON: The film is called "The Occupant," and the director, Mykhailo Tkach, joins us from Kyiv. We're also joined by our interpreter, Ievgen Afanasiev.

Thanks very much for being with us. How did you get hold of these videos?

MYKHAILO TKACH: (Through interpreter) We have obtained this video from our sources. Of course, I cannot speak about these sources right now, as any journalist will respect.

SIMON: We want to make it clear NPR hasn't independently verified the footage. I think anybody seeing the video would be struck by how young the soldiers look. Did that affect you, too?

TKACH: (Through interpreter) To be honest, for me, as for an independent journalist and as for any independent journalist in the world, it is very important to show the true story about the war in Ukraine. And the true story is that it's not just Putin who wants to destroy Ukraine. It is very important to show with help of whom, with hands of whom he is doing that. And that is why for me, as for a journalist, it is very important that Russian soldiers also see this film. I think they're not very often look in the mirror so that they could understand how this life can change if they go to this war.

SIMON: When you see the film, a lot of the Russian soldiers seem more frightened than proud of what they're doing.

TKACH: (Through interpreter) I think that Russian soldiers do not really understand what they're doing here and why they're doing that. And we were even having our own investigation on why. What is their motivation? And the main motivation is because they were offered to have some mortgages to - so that they can have their own apartment, and they have some privileges if they serve in Russian army.

SIMON: Do you violate the privacy of his family by showing those scenes with his wife and daughter?

TKACH: (Through interpreter) We had a professional discussion in our editorial group. And, of course, we do not show the face of the daughter, and we think that this is ethically correct.

SIMON: Do you think of this as Lieutenant Shalaev's war or Vladimir Putin's war?

TKACH: (Through interpreter) This is the war of Vladimir Putin executed with the help by - with the hands of the soldiers like Lieutenant Shalaev. And I would like to say that this - there is a whole generation like that in Russia right now because if we look at that - all these war crimes, rapes that - raping that happened in the territories that were previously occupied by Russians, we can see that the age of these people is approximately the same. It means that Vladimir Putin - I want to reiterate it one more time - is trying to promote and drive this fascist idea through this generation, uneducated generation that is really looking into the past and not into the future.

SIMON: There are so many different ways to capture images of this war because of the cellphone and surveillance cameras and drones. Do you think that's changed the way we see the war?

TKACH: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course. It changes our perspective on the war and how we perceive the war. But I would like to mention that this technology also helps us to identify the names, the faces of the people who were doing these war crimes. And it means that in the future, I just want them to know that they will be punished for that so that it's not that Putin is going to be punished for that. There are individuals who did these crimes, and they will be punished for that.

SIMON: Mykhailo Tkach in Kyiv, who's made the film "The Occupant," now on YouTube. Thanks so much for being with us.

TKACH: Thank you.

SIMON: And special thanks to our interpreter, Ievgen Afanasiev.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.