Drones Allow People to Witness War at a 'Visceral Level,' Says Filmmaker in Ukraine

This is your town on war.

Graham Phillips's YouTube

English journalist Graham Phillips has been loading up his YouTube channel with scenes from the War in Donbass — a.k.a. the War in Ukraine or War in Eastern Ukraine — since it began in the spring of 2014, and his latest, uploaded today, is a chilling picture of a city emptied.

“If you have a war in Syria or Iraq that’s one thing, but these people in Pervomaisk were living a life recognizable to any Westerner just 18 months ago — going to supermarkets, cafes, etc.,” Phillips tells Inverse via email. “Journalists hardly go there, it hardly gets covered. To my knowledge this is the first drone footage of the town.”

“I selected this area as Pervomaisk is kind of a ‘forgotten town’ of the war,” Phillips says about the city in Eastern Ukraine. “I’d been there many times before, filmed there, but never put a drone over it, which took a bit of negotiating as the situation in the town is tense, it stands on the frontline, and a drone is highly likely to be shot as a ‘spy drone.’”

“The town was actually one of the boom zones in the area a couple of years ago, with a prosperous factory employing some 1,500 it was a bustling town,” says Phillips. But after a year and a half of war that resulted in an estimated 1,000 deaths, the population now sits between just 3,000 and 4,000. It was more than 38,000 in 2001.

Phillips shows through the lens of his DJI Phantom 3-Professional Drone almost four and a half minutes of aerial footage (pulled from a total of 30) of the deserted city. He added actual explosion audio he recorded in February to the beginning

In Phillips’ other videos, he captures the morbid reality of war — a trip to the Donetsk morgue — and the novelty of a power vacuum — like a tank doing tricks. Whatever he’s shooting, Phillips says there’s an enormous impact when one lifts the camera above the fray:

“I started using a drone in [the eastern Ukraine region of] Donbass about five months ago and immediately noticed a huge boost in retweets, reaction, hits, response as compared to standard footage,” he says. “It really allows people, at a visceral level, to see the real scene. It conveys what other cameras can’t.”

This isn’t the first time that drone footage has been used to document destruction in the Ukraine. The BBC published in January footage of a destroyed Donetsk airport that coldly depicts post-apocalyptic desertion silently from the air. “A scene like something from The Road,” Phillips says of the city’s emptiness.

So who’s doing the shelling? Phillips says it’s the Ukrainians:

“In Pervomaisk, there’s no question: This is a result of shelling by the Ukrainian military, exclusively by the Ukrainian military,” He says. “The West in many ways gets led into supporting Ukraine believing that they are standing up against an ‘aggressor’ nation in Russia. But as a woman there told me, ‘It’s not Russia who’s attacking us, it’s not our own (people’s militia), it’s the Ukrainian army. And they aren’t attacking ‘separatists’ or ‘terrorists’, they are killing us.’”