Sundance 2023 Review: Iron Butterflies

Experimental doc unfurls Russian lies about the downing of Flight MH17

Iron Butterflies

The line between disinformation and insanity can be a thin one. When Russian catspaws first started lying about how their allies shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over the Eastern Ukraine in 2014, that line wasn't simply quickly blurred: it was obliterated.

The whole experience was gaslighting on a grand scale. The truth is that, on July 17, 2014, a BUK surface-to-air mobile missile launcher from the Russian Federation's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, crewed by pro-Russian separatists and Russian Federation military personnel, shot down a Boeing 777-200ER in Ukrainian airspace carrying 298 people, all of whom died. Those were the undisputed findings of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) and the international Joint Investigation Team.

Undisputed by everyone except Russia, which claimed that it was a military jet, that it couldn't have been their missiles, that there was no missile, that the videos of the convoy of missile systems they sent into Ukraine were fake, that the Ukrainians fired the missiles, that it was short down by a fighter, that it was a bomb planted by Western intelligence, that MH17 was taken by aliens, that up was down, white was black, and they used their propaganda system to spread the word to the only people that mattered: the Russian public.

The iron butterflies after which documentarian Roman Liubyi's has named his film are the distinctive holes left in the fuselage by the shrapnel from the missile - an important and grisly detail that recontextualizes the war crime. Its one of the facts uncovered by the Western investigators and included here as dispassionately as possible, allowing the viewer to extrapolate their own rage.

But this is not a courtroom procedural, even if director Roman Liubyi includes extensive material from hearings. Instead, much as he used POV footage from Ukrainian soldiers in the pre-invasion conflict with Russia in 2020's War Note, he uses it as part of a larger collage. Interwoven with the dry legalese are clips from Russian media, footage captured by Ukrainians on the day, conversations with the family, friends, and colleagues of victims, and the especially bizarre and jingoistic training video/propaganda piece for the BUK, filmed with the giddy bombast of a 1950s car commercial.

But an element that should be jarringly bizarre instead becomes the elegiac heart of Iron Butterflies. Occasionally, the screen goes to black and white, and what seconds ago was simple footage is revealed as reenactment. And not even simply that, but interpretative dance that probes the underlying themes - complicity, terror, loss. It is wordless exposition, simple and powerful, constructed in close conjunction with Australian choreographer Bridget Fiske.

It's in these strangely intimate moments that Iron Butterflies becomes suitably haunting. It's a place where a regular documentary would not find itself: a place to scream silently at the sins committed against those 298 people, and against the unhinged Russian propaganda campaign that only added vile insult to grotesque injury. It's the silvery thread that binds this heartrending and innovative examination of a mass murder together.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19-29. Info and online passes at

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Sundance Film Festival, Sundance 2023, Iron Butterflies, Roman Liubyi

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