Ukraine goes to Hollywood

Cinema’s depictions of the country’s recent political turmoil has been a whitewash, argues Celluloid Liberation Front.

Celluloid Liberation Front
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Evgeny Afineevsky’s Oscar-nominated Winter on Fire, the most egregious of a series of films that cast the battle of ideas in Maidan and beyond as a simple heroic struggle to join the liberal West

Evgeny Afineevsky’s Oscar-nominated Winter on Fire, the most egregious of a series of films that cast the battle of ideas in Maidan and beyond as a simple heroic struggle to join the liberal West

“Truth is absolute, in its relativity.”
— Vladimir Lenin

“It takes hard work to fabricate the truth.”
— Aleksandr Zinov’ev

Ukraine’s fight for freedom made it to Hollywood, Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire being nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. Although the term ‘documentary’ might not be the aptest way to describe this film, Winter on Fire has generated the kind of platitudinous pull-quotes Oscar campaigns are made of.

With the exceptions of Boris Nelepo’s and Jay Weisberg’s respective filings for Cinema Scope and Variety, Afineevsky’s film has been warmly received by critics seemingly content to see the CNN’s version of the Ukrainian affaire faithfully mirrored in the documentary. The story is simple and idealistic enough: the ‘people’ of Ukraine took to the streets of Kiev to protest their government’s decision not to sign an agreement strengthening its economic relations with the European Union (lately known for its kindly treatment of such weaker members such as Greece). Then-president Viktor Yanukovych sent in the riot police to beat to a pulp anyone in Maidan, but the heroic people of Ukraine fought back and finally triumphed. Yanukovych flinched and fled to Russia, to the Ukrainian’s unbridled joy. That, simplistic though it sounds, is the synopsis of Winter on Fire (whose crew members are now suing Afineevsky), not to mention the version of the ‘Ukrainian Revolution’ reported by the vast majority of mainstream media throughout the democratic Western world.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015)

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015)

Is all this true? Yes, approximately. Is it all there is to the story? Definitely not. What’s curious about Winter on Fire and other documentaries to emerge from Ukraine’s recent turmoil is that they all systematically leave out some certain unpleasantries that are not at all peripheral to the overall narrative. Very much like the nationalist rhetoric and sloganeering they uncritically capture, Winter on Fire, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan (2014) and Chad Gracia’s ridiculously hyperbolic The Russian Woodpecker (2015) resort to absolutist simplifications with apparent ease. When neither journalists nor film directors are able (or willing?) to produce historical contextualisation and political analysis, it is no coincidence that audiences and, most troublingly critics, tend to believe what they are spoon-fed.

While the violent degeneration of the Maidan protests was undoubtedly triggered by the brutal repression ordered and carried out by the Yanukovych administration, the people who militarised the protest and turned Maidan into (the beginning of) a civil war were not exactly ‘ordinary Ukrainians’. In Winter on Fire, if only for a fleeting moment, a yellow Wolfsangel armband makes its appearance – a symbol used by Germans SS divisions in the Second World War and now popular among the ranks of the Ukrainian far right. When a man wearing said armband is shown acting aggressively, the film is quick to demur that he and his ilk were agent provocateurs sent in by the Berkut, the special forces of Ukrainian riot police deployed during the protests. Yet the presence of neofascist formations in Maidan has been documented and their role in the violent escalation of the protests ascertained, even by the BBC, not exactly a Kremlin mouthpiece.

The Russian Woodpecker (2015)

The Russian Woodpecker (2015)

Regardless, far-right militants are not depicted as such in either Maidan nor The Russian Woodpecker, nor in other documentaries such as Kiev/Moscow (2015) by Elena Khoreva. Perhaps the latter best exemplifies the empty rhetoric of ‘showing both sides’ which, shorn of an analytical framework and socio-political context, sheds light on neither side. Characterised by very different stylistic approaches, all three documentaries flatten out nuances to present grossly oversimplified versions of recent history. All bar Maidan rely on embedded, amateur footage to legitimise their veracity – as if smartphones were intrinsically more reliable or sincere than a professional camera. Loznitsa’s arthouse pretension instead pans over Maidan as a sort of Woodstock of Ukrainian nationalism, overlooking subtleties in the dubious search for a unifying spirit of protest. The problem being that the holy spirit of Maidan and of Ukrainian heroes, as pontificated by countless priests, was haunted by far more sinister ghosts.

The common defence raised by those eager to play down the presence and influence of neo-Nazis in Maidan is that they were a minority. While that is true on a purely numerical level, the determinant role they played in the overthrown of the Yanukovych government, and the subsequent civil war in the eastern regions of Ukraine is everything but marginal. Enjoying full and uncritical support from Western governments and media, neofascist elements even made their way into the new, pro-European government.

Maidan (2014)

Maidan (2014)

A recent investigative documentary by Paul Moreira, Ukraine: the Masks of the Revolution, which aired on the French cable channel Canal Plus, angered Kiev’s authorities, which urged the network to “reconsider the possibility of airing the film on TV”. (Wasn’t the new Ukraine supposed to be all about European values and freedom of speech?) Moreira’s documentary sought to challenge the black-and-white depiction of the Maidan protests and show the presence of toxic far-right elements during and after the protests. That some of the facts he reported are also used by Moscow’s propaganda machine doesn’t invalidate them. (Indeed, the Kremlin’s deployment of anti-fascist rhetoric against Ukraine stands as an insults to those who fought and still fight the cancer of fascism, Russia now providing a safe haven to neo-Nazis from all over the world.)

Far-right extremists were not the only ones edited out from these documentaries, though. The all-encompassing ‘Ukrainian people’ may have been presented as the sole protagonist, but Maidan was not the homogeneous crowd Loznitsa’s panoramic shots would suggest. Within it were progressive and creative currents that were apparently unworthy of screen time, among them the Left Opposition’s Women Self-Defense Battalion, which Ukrainian feminist Nina Potarskaya described as “just about the only success of the leftwing in Maidan”. Yet the directors of ‘Maidan movies’ evidently considered that patriarchal priests and muscular ‘volunteers’ made for far more cinematic characters.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015)

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015)

Another crucial event incarnating the truly democratic aspect of Maidan’s marginal currents was the occupation of the Ministry of Culture by students and cultural workers on 22 February 2014. The occupants, “none of whom is better than another”, informally gathered as an Assembly for Culture in Ukraine and issued a manifesto calling for “an organisational model of the cultural process that would differ from the existing one.” Their attempt to “re-orient culture away from serving the interests of the acting power and give culture a chance to become what it really should be – a possibility to create different forms of life” went unnoticed. Too bad, because their concrete experiment of direct democracy and cultural activism would have been a pleasant diversion and needed counterpoint to the nationalistic petulance Maidan and Winter on Fire so monotonously feature.

Yet another problematic aspect of Winter on Fire is the way it points to the presence of a Jewish Battalion in Maidan to prove the ecumenical and multi-confessional nature of the protest. Though the unifying belief of neo-Nazis groups in Ukraine has more to do with patriotic sentiments than xenophobia, Oleksandr Feldman, President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, had warned about the creeping anti-Semitism in Maidan.

Maidan (2014)

Maidan (2014)

What should raise an eyebrow, if not a vocal wave of indignation, is that Western governments have not only tolerated but effectively supported neofascist elements. “The history and severity of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is of such enormity as to touch millions across the world,” Richard Brodsky reminds us, “and across the old Soviet Union and Europe, it’s back.” It is indeed, and frighteningly so. Did the American administration know about the presence of neo-Nazis in Maidan, as congressman Rohrabacher asked US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland? The same question should be asked to Sergei Loznitsa, Evgeny Afineevsky, Elena Khoreva and Chad Gracia. For a director working on a documentary about Maidan, it shouldn’t have been too hard to come across such information.

What wasn’t missing from these documentaries, to varying degrees, was a healthy dose of Russophobic hyperbole, with The Russian Woodpecker reaching conspiratorial heights. The amount of hysterical anti-Russian rhetoric in these films (and Loznitsa’s other films, for that matter) is historically understandable, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics having lived under Moscow’s iron fist. Is it also justified? Injustice, social and economic, is not an exclusively Russian prerogative, as the humiliating conditions imposed on Ukraine by the EU prove. To explain the rampant corruption of the Yanukovich government by simply blaming it on Russia is reductive at best.

The Russian Woodpecker (2015)

The Russian Woodpecker (2015)

Furthermore, the wide presumption that Russia is on a neoimperialist spree, with Ukraine just the first of its victims, lacks any factual historical evidence. Even Henry Kissinger, last seen singing with Pussy Riot on the final episode of the Colbert Report, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post urging America to de-escalate the confrontational tones and anti-Russian rhetoric.

Yet according to the ‘colourful’ protagonist of The Russian Woodpecker, the Soviet Union is back, so too the KGB, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was deliberately engineered to cover up a failed mind-control machine. In a film of such overwrought claims one would expect, if not counterarguments, at least a dose of critical detachment. But no, The Russian Woodpecker wholeheartedly embraces its protagonist’s conspiratorial rants to tell us that Stalin’s successors are plotting to snatch Ukrainian democracy from its crib.

The Russian Woodpecker (2015)

The Russian Woodpecker (2015)

It is a testament to the unyielding ability of cinema to provoke (and manipulate) empathy that Western audiences, virtually overnight, developed a pronounced concern for the fate of Ukraine and its people. Not that filmmakers were alone in this sudden surge of solidarity and interest. Hunter Biden, the son of the American Vice President, took a keen interest in the region, joining the board of directors of Ukraine’s largest private gas producer shortly after the ‘revolution’.

Very much like contemporary politics, these documentaries do not test an argument against its opposite to construe a grounded case (thesis + antithesis = synthesis). Instead of investigative critiques, we are served hysterical demonisation, absent any of the historical contextualisation which is indispensable to comprehend our current predicament, yet remains extremely hard to come by.

A Ukraine Film Weekend at this year’s AV Festival will do its bit to reverse this tendency by showing a series of films from and about Ukraine, from old Soviet masterworks to banned documentaries made during Perestroika. Felix Sobolev and Victor Olender’s The Target Is Your Brain (1986) is a late example of Soviet agitprop from which Chad Gracia could learn the basic ABC of propaganda. Heorhii Shkliarevsky’s Mic-ro-phone! (1988), meanwhile, broaches the same theme The Russian Woodpecker purportedly explores.

Levels of Democracy (1992)

Levels of Democracy (1992)

Even more interesting, insofar as it puts all these recent documentaries on Ukraine in historical perspective, is Shkliarevsky’s subsequent documentary Levels of Democracy (1992), about the genesis and infancy of Ukraine’s post-Communist independence. As the documentary isn’t afraid to show, not everyone felt the same way about the collapse of the USSR and the promise of the future.

Unlike recent documentaries on Ukraine, Level of Democracy captures the contradictory complexity and diversity of views that shook Ukrainian society as it tried to conceive an alternative course away from Moscow. Yet the totalitarian scourge of Communism was not the only thing Ukraine would leave behind – its glorious film industry too was to be dismantled under the auspices of the free market. As Gorbachev’s cordial handshakes with Thatcher and Reagan had forewarned, the future of the former Soviet Union was going to feature a fair share of American ‘values’.

Israel Goldstein’s moving Farewell to Cinema (1995) thus depicts the axing of state subsidies to the local film industry as Hollywood flicks swamped Ukrainian cinemas, and former film professionals forced to pick random jobs to make a miserable living, struggling to keep their dignity and film heritage from the amnesiac fury of neoliberal diktats. In this precious film we get a rare glimpse into what exactly was entailed throughout the Eastern Block in the passage from Real socialism to democracy, in what Soviet dissident Alexander Zinov’ev aptly re-named ‘Catastroika’.

Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas (1930)

Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas (1930)

The AV Festival programme will also show Ukrainian classics of Soviet Cinema like Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931) and the recently rediscovered An Unprecedented Campaign (1931), directed by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman. Seen after Winter on Fire, Kaufman’s Spring (1929), which also screens in the festival, evinces the involution that has befallen the cinema of that region and beyond.

From the montage of attractions to the editing of sensationalism: whereas meaning in the former is the dialectic outcome of discursive juxtapositions, the latter relies on spectacular repetition to convey its one-note message. Faced by this aesthetic regression, affecting cinema as much as the society of which it’s an expression, the need for critical nuance and depth presents itself in all its urgency. Confronted as we are with the resurgent threat of nationalism and its easy solutions, we shall rediscover in the universal language its congenital internationalism.

As (recent) history proves, it is not by supposedly defeating Hollywood-esque villains that a newer, juster vision of society and cinema will suddenly come about.

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