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Note of Defiance Review



Note of Defiance, dir. Brian Henderson

A woman stands alone in a mostly abandoned street covered in snow. She sings a Ukranian folk song, her voice echoing through the empty streets and frosty trees. But then, sirens start to blare, interrupting her singing and warning the people of a coming attack. It is January 2023, and the icy street is in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 40 km from the Russian border. The people of Kharkiv have survived eleven months of Russian bombings in their once-quiet town. But for these resilient Ukrainians, no one else can decide how they live their life—they have never thought of leaving their hometown, even though, as Note of Defiance shows, much of it has been destroyed and abandoned in the aftermath of the Russian invasion. The people of Kharkiv live for music. Music is for everyone there, from folk songs sung on snowy street to operas performed in lavish concert halls. The air raid sirens have stopped the music for now, but not forever.

Note of Defiance profiles the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, an important symbol to locals of Kharkiv. Director Brian Henderson takes us into the theatre to meet two of its inspiring artists. First is Roman Taranenko, who described himself as a pacifist who became a dancer instead of policeman or soldier like his family wanted him to. Taranenko has worked for the Opera and Ballet Theatre for 24 years, but when we meet him in January 2023, the theatre has been closed for almost a year after civilian institutions in Ukraine became the targets of bombings by Russian forces. We also meet violinist Vera Lytovchenko, and these two artists are our guides into the empty and desolate theatre. Music, for Taranenko and Lytovchenko is like source of nutrition. “It’s not a job it’s a ministry,” he says, taking a break from a ballet rehearsal. Musicians and dancers have not performed since the beginning of the Russian invasion, and while the two look around the abandoned auditorium, a place that used to be full of energy and life, now quiet and abandoned, security cameras on the outside of the building show bombs falling just a few feet away from the cherished theatre.




Writer-director Henderson chooses to follow the same path as the artists he profiles. Rather than focusing on the death and despair brought by war, highlighting the beauty of the creation of art makes Note of Defiance into a work of art in its own right. Working with co-cinematographer Mack Woodruff, Henderson captures images of almost unbelievable beauty, capturing the modern and the ancient of the Ukrainian architecture, and meeting the people of Kharkiv in a beautiful golden hour light. A shot of dust caught in the beam of the flashlight while exploring the abandoned theatre will take your breath away; the desolation that we see is what the locals of Kharkiv feel.

Even as missile attacks continue in the dangerous region, music is important to Ukrainian culture, and it lives on in trenches and bomb shelters. The people of Kharkiv don’t just think of surviving, they want to create beauty. They are still not able to gather in schools, museums, or cultural institutions as these were some of the first targets of missiles as the Russians try to destroy their culture and language, try to erase their identity. In an act of defiance, some musicians are able to put on a Christmas concert in parking garage. People gather to celebrate and enjoy the music, when suddenly the camera cuts to black with the sound of a missile exploding. The sound of missiles is the background to everyday life now.



Taranenko and Lytovchenko and the other artists and musicians of the Opera and Ballet Theatre don’t let the oppression and destruction of the war stop them from creating. “A person with a dream is indestructible,” they say, and their dream is to put on another performance in the theatre. Even though it is still officially closed, they choose to create a performance on the stage because they feel that the people Kharkiv need it. For one night, music rings through the halls of the theatre; Taranenko dances through the empty seats, his expressive limbs never having forgotten the feeling of dance, and bringing life back where there has been none for almost a year. For now, their culture has survived, he says, “That is life here, but it is ok…I think it will be ok.”

The filmmaking team of Note of Defiance has teamed with the Sunflower Network, a registered non-profit organization focused on providing direct and essential aid to Ukrainians in need. Sunflower Network connects global partners with Ukrainian locals and ensure that the needed supplies are finding their way into trusted hands within the country. To date Sunflower Network has delivered over $3,500,000 in critical relief, and donations to the Ukrainian cause can be made on their website https://www.sunflowernetwork.io/


Review by: Joshua Hunt

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The short end of the stick: The inferior part, the worse side of an unequal deal

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