A Sniper’s War is the story of a man known only as Deki whose anti-U.S. views led him to join the pro-Russian rebels in the Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. New York City filmmaker Olya Schechter followed the Serbian sniper for the three years he was active in Ukraine.
Deki fought in the Kosovo war where he witnessed bombings of non-military targets he characterizes as NATO terrorism in Bosnia. He says “The United States is the most genocidal state in the world.” He’d done construction work to build the Olympic village for the 2014 games in Sochi but was compelled to go to Ukraine and fight when Ukraine separated politically from Russia. Since 2014 an on-and-off war has been simmering in eastern Ukraine. The combatants are government forces (supported by NATO) against Russian-backed separatists and they have fought each other to a standstill. 10,000 have died and the region is also suffering a humanitarian crisis as a result of the war.
Military bases and frontline battles were open to Shechter as she enjoyed an astonishing level of access once she’d earned Deki’s trust. She is either a complete badass or batshit crazy or both. She and her cinematographers walked into firefights and shelling attacks with camera in focus and recording, collecting hundreds of hours of footage to paint an intimate portrait of the complex and fascinating nature of Deki, the person, and the killer.
“He says ‘The United States is the most genocidal state in the world.'”
Deki admits snipers are emotionally twisted, though he seems to have adjusted well. He cautions against looking into the eyes of a target before pulling the trigger, as that will haunt you. The gun is a fetish. No one touches the rifle, not the next soldier, not Russian officers. Snipers build an aura around their reputation with signature shots and bullets. Deki is known as the best. Rivalries spill over online. One of the most fascinating moments comes when a sniper fighting for the Ukrainian government trolls Deki on the Russian social media platform VK. Deki shakes off the trash talk until his opponent threatens his family in Serbia and a sniper duel is scheduled to settle the matter. Schechter captures all this on film, including the results.
He is a legend in Donetsk. He sees himself as a good person working for a righteous cause. More than that, he’s a Paladin sacrificing himself to defend the undefended. Introduced to a classroom, the kids look to him as a hero. Near the front lines where random shelling and sniper fire comes at night he visits an elderly woman looking after a disabled child and promises her he’ll do what he can to make the attacks stop. He is blessed by the Bishop at the Christian Orthodox church. They tell him he’s always welcome and pray for his safety. His ethics are iron-clad: he’s never killed an unarmed person.
“…asked about his skill with the rifle he smiles. ‘A little math, a little practice’… “
He’s quiet, no drama. “I saved hundreds of lives.” When asked to explain this he elaborates: “In a battle I go out first. I kill their snipers and gunners. If I don’t do my job hundreds of my men get killed.” This aspect of Deki’s mission parallels American Sniper, the biopic about Chris Kyle. They share the same ideals and ethics but Deki is pointed back this way.
He has given more thought to his morals, his life, the price he pays, and his place in the world than any American I know. He is not an extreme personality or a zealot. He’s not fit for society, but he’s not a sociopath. He reasons. He emotes. He empathizes. He’s ordered, following his logic relentlessly. These traits make him the most chillingly frightening killer imaginable. He’s not crazy and he does not miss. When asked about his skill with the rifle he smiles. “A little math, a little practice. I was good at physics.”
Schechter tried to keep politics out of it, telling the story of a man, not the story of a war. She decided the best way to do this was to let him speak. It took four edits to strike the right balance. The result is a stunning film that will knock you back in your seat and show you a wider world. It seems like an alternate universe that it’s hard to believe is only 5700 air miles from here, a 14-hour flight. It may make you question your worldview. We could say Deki was wrong, a cold-blooded assassin who kills without remorse and this makes him evil, except we also have snipers. Context at ground level is the whole story.
Screenings upcoming: February 23rd, Big Sky Film Festival and also at Missoula Hellgate Elks Lodge. The film will also screen on April 16th at the Moscow International Film Festival (where I’m guessing it will be a big hit!).
A Sniper’s War (2018) Directed by Olya Schechter.
9 out of 10