What to watch inform yourself about the rich Ukrainian cinematic tradition
This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
One of the few people to criticise Putin’s war against Ukraine on Russian state TV — though he supported the 2014 invasion of Crimea — is Karen Shakhnazarov, chairman of one of the oldest Russian studios, Mosfilm. “I have a hard time imagining taking cities such as Kyiv,” he told a Putin fan-boy host. “I can’t imagine how that would look.” He has since been branded a traitor by outraged viewers.
When many people hear mention of Russian cinema, they immediately think of the famous scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin when ranks of Cossacks descend the Odessa steps firing rifle volleys towards the civilians gathered below and a woman loses control of a perambulator which starts its rickety downward journey.
One of my favourite Soviet-era directors, Larisa Shepitko, was Ukrainian
The scene makes for powerful drama but it is “fake news”. Civilians were shot in the Ukrainian port at the time of the Potemkin sailors’ mutiny, but no such massacre took place on the Odessa steps. Thankfully, at the time of writing Odessa, with its international film festival and Museum of Cinema on the site of the first studio established in the Russian Empire, has yet to be attacked by Russian forces.
What should you be watching to inform yourself about the rich Ukrainian cinematic tradition? Your first stop — easily accessible on Netflix — ought to be Evgeny Afineevsky’s extraordinary 2015 documentary about the Maidan Revolution, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (right).
Anyone who watches this will have no problem believing that ordinary Ukrainians will continue to resist the Russian advance. Their struggle in the winter of 2013–14 resulted in the midnight flight of Putin stooge Victor Yanukovych. The footage Afineevsky assembled is truly impressive, and several key players who became popular heroes are highlighted.
Another must-see is Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), a revenge tale set in in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine, based on the novel by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky.
Shot in vibrant colours, Parajanov’s first feature was a rare Ukrainian-language film, in which the characters speak in the Hutsul dialect. The director refused government requests to dub the film in Russian. It was once described by the American critic, Roger Ebert, as “one of the most unusual films I’ve seen, a barrage of images, music and noises, shot with such an active camera we almost need seatbelts”.
One of my favourite Soviet-era directors, Larisa Shepitko, was Ukrainian. Her 1966 film Wings, about a Second World War female fighter pilot and her difficulties adjusting to life in peacetime, and her 1977 war film The Ascent, set in Belarus in 1942, are both masterpieces and available on a single DVD (The Criterion Collection).
In 2018 came the release of Donbass, a feature directed by Ukrainian documentary-maker Sergey Loznitsa. (I wrote about his more recent documentary Babi Yar. Context in this column last November and recommend it here again).
Donbass concerns the outbreak of war in the eastern region of Ukraine in 2014 and opens with a scene in which Russian actors are being made up in a trailer to play the “victims” of a Ukrainian shelling that has not actually taken place, for the benefit of Russian TV.
While it accurately depicts the gradual slide from social breakdown into war, with many scenes based on first-hand reports, it has been criticised for being too one-sided and for including an invented war crime in its final scene. Nonetheless, I urge you to watch it with subtitles on membership site EasternEuropeanMovies.com or on Amazon Prime.
2019 saw the release of Agnieszka Holland’s political thriller Mr Jones, about the Welsh journalist who broke the story of Stalin’s Holodomor, the systematically-imposed famine in 1930s Ukraine, while the New York Times and left-wing intellectuals sought to brush it all under the carpet. (The creepy New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty is played by Peter Saarsgard). Mr Jones was shot mainly in Kharkiv, which has since been heavily bombed. It is also available on Amazon Prime.
Homeward (2021) is the first feature by Nariman Aliev, a family-conflict drama about the Crimean Tatars, who were granted the right to return to their homeland after Ukrainian independence, having been displaced by the Soviets in 1944. (Again, on Amazon Prime).
Which brings me to a more controversial film. Rhino is not yet available to watch in the UK, but has already garnered praise at festivals in Venice and Stockholm. One reason that it is so powerful, perhaps, is that its lead actor, Serhii Filimonov, is a former football hooligan with far-right associations. He has now reformed and eschews racism and xenophobia. The neo-Nazis who loom inordinately large in Putin’s narrative do exist, but not a single far-right group is represented in Ukraine’s unicameral parliament.
Rhino follows the story of Voya from his childhood in the 1980s into the gangland violence and corruption of the early years after Ukrainian independence. It is scheduled to appear on Netflix next year. The film’s director, Oleh Sentsov, received the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought in 2018 after he was sentenced to five years in Russian prisons for “terrorist offences”, that is to say for protesting against the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
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