TIFF 2023 'In The Rearview': Personal, poignant portrait of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war

"For them, I was the window to the whole world," filmmaker Maciek Hamela said

Amid the ongoing news coverage of the devastating war in Ukraine, filmmaker Maciek Hamela makes his documentary debut with In the Rearview, a portrait of refugees being transported to cross the Polish border.

Hamela was among the volunteers who drove tens of thousands of kilometres to help people in Ukraine leave their homes to flee the war-torn country.

Making its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), In the Rearview is an honest reflection of personal stories of individuals and families trying to escape the war. There aren't any formal interview in the documentary, but rather raw conversations happening in a van, some completely heart-wrenching, while others are more hopeful and even humorous at times.

The filmmaker stressed that initially, he wasn't thinking about making a documentary or filming anything at all, he just thought about how many people he could transport, particularly in the winter months with snowy conditions. That's when he decided to bring on a friend, a second driver, and that's when the possibility of making a film came to Hamela's mind.

As the filmmaker explained, he was particularly conscientious to not take up any extra space in the car. In fact, the crew was so small that the filmmaker wasn't even sure this film would be possible.

"What I understood is that these people I was driving, they had this inner urge to tell their stories," Hamela told Yahoo Canada in Toronto.

"They wanted to share them, not just me with me, but with the whole world. For them, I was the window to the whole world."

In the Rearview (Courtesy of TIFF)
In the Rearview (Courtesy of TIFF)

'An attempt to help us understand how these people feel in these very fragile first moments'

Throughout the filmmaking process, Hamela always knew the documentary had to be specifically focused on the human stories of the people we see taking this journey.

"We are not a film crew going around looking for adventure in the war-torn country and trying to find the most splashy visual material that the war yields in many places," Hamela explained. "We were not going around looking for devastation just for the sake of filming it and putting it on screen."

"The only moments ... where we get out of the car with the camera [are] really the moments of pickups and and arrivals, and the rest of the time we are on the road."

But Hamela did confirm that they did encounter various difficulties and dangerous moments while on the road.

"We had some of those filmed and they would probably make for good dramatic material, but they swayed the focus from the human stories," he said.

"It's not a film about me or other volunteers going around, there's been a number of films about volunteer efforts. ... It's a film that focuses on the stories of the people that are fleeing their houses, their homes and we really wanted to be true to that, and we didn't want anything else to come in and obscure the focus."

Hamela stressed that In the Rearview is not a film about war, but rather a film about "how one becomes a refugee in any place in the world."

"It so happens that it's shot in Ukraine. It's predominantly white characters, but not only," he said. "But this is not just about Ukraine. This could be happening in Sudan, in Afghanistan, in Syria."

"We are living in a world where never before have there been so many refugees, so many displaced people by conflicts all around the world. It's an attempt to help us understand how these people feel in these very fragile first moments when they have to flee their homes."