The mark of a sensitive filmmaker is allowing the subjects to steer their own narrative; Iryna Tsilyk’s documentary, The Earth is Blue as an Orange, observes the Trofymchuk’s family, never interfering with their groove. Essentially a ‘making of’ film, Tsilyk hooks onto the family’s fascination with cinema. Myroslava, the eldest, even dreams of becoming a cinematographer and is directing her own project. In war-stricken Donbas, Ukraine, a region packed full of military tanks and demolished houses, their lives are being upended daily due to the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict.

Having experienced such danger for most of her adolescence, Myroslava takes the lead by recreating scenes of hiding from explosions in the nooks of her house and interviews her family members about their trauma with the delicacy and honesty of a pro. Movie-making has allowed the Trofymchuks to work through the heartache of it all, taking back control over their lives while their country is under siege. However, the effects of the war are never far away, as filming is interrupted by nearby booms and armed soldiers popping up, stealing the film’s playful, innocent flow.

Chockablock with contrasts, matriarch Anna yearns to guide her children towards rebuilding their city, all while it’s impossible to get an outside shot without the debris of buildings scattered in the background. Cut back to the Trofymchuk’s home and audiences are invited into a warm, imaginative space. One scene exhibits a minor disagreement between Anna and Myroslava as they bicker over the best way to paint five years of war in Myroslava’s film, since their city looks metropolitan and civilised, yet still permanently demolished, all at once. Their attitude mirrors any typical mother-daughter relationship, but their normality is strikingly harsh. As the tone yo-yos from optimism to suffering, from documenting daily routines to taking cover in a bomb shelter, this family won’t succumb to the emptiness of war and will forever maintain their safe haven.

What is so touching about Tsilyk’s refrained, quiet camerawork is that she shares her directorial role with Myroslava, as the latter half of the documentary inserts Myroslava’s own clips and poignantly candid talking heads. Accompanied by Myroslava’s younger brother on a toy accordion for the soundtrack, the film zones its attention onto this family’s creative vision. The Earth is Blue as an Orange is brimming with their strong personalities, the shining beacon underneath truly unfathomable circumstances. It has the comforting air of a homemade movie that simultaneously nudges the outer world to the fact that war hasn’t ceased to exist.

Screening as part of Document Human Rights Film Festival 2021