Before February: two films from Ukraine

The two Ukrainian films at this year’s LFF provide valuable insights into life immediately before the Russian invasion.

28 September 2022

By Peter Hames

Butterfly Vision (2022)
London Film Festival

Ukrainian cinema is not as well known as it should be. If one includes films produced during Ukraine’s membership of the Soviet Union, its history dates back to the 1920s and Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s classic films Zvenigora (1928) and Earth (1930). Later landmarks include Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) and Yuri Illienko’s A Well for the Thirsty (1965, released 1987), which inspired the era of Ukrainian Poetic Cinema. Film studios have operated in both Kyiv (founded 1928) and Odesa (1919) since the early years of cinema. Kira Muratova’s innovative Russian language films were almost all based in Odesa, with nine of them produced in the post-Soviet years.

Donbass (2018)

Ukrainian films have been a regular presence at the BFI London Film Festival. They have included Minor People (Muratova, 2001), At the River (Eva Neymann, 2007), House with a Turret (Neymann, 2012), The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014) and of course the films of Sergei Loznitsa – My Joy (2010), Maidan (2014), Donbass (2018) and Babi Yar: Context (2021). Although ‘international’ films with Ukrainian participation (in the best sense), Loznitsa’s films have an obvious relevance. Vitaly Mansky’s Close Relations (2016), another co-production, charted differing reactions to the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Born in Ukraine, Mansky adopted Russian nationality (but moved to Latvia).  In his film he visits relatives in Lviv, Odesa, Donbas and Sevastopol (Crimea), charting different reactions — and reflecting on the nationality of a Polish grandmother from Lithuania. It was a profound analysis of the contradictions of history, politics and identity. Loznitsa’s Donbass opted rather for an approach based on black humour and the absurd, analysing the human reaction and prejudice lying behind political events. The two films in this year’s festival, Klondike and Butterfly Vision, both completed before the current war, provide disturbing and powerful portraits of the realities that preceded it. 

Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike, filmed near Mariupol, premiered during this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is a dramatically staged work set in 2014, the year of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner – an event that forms a part of the film’s narrative. It’s set in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where Irka and Tolik work a smallholding but find themselves drawn into the world of those supporting the separatists. Irka is expecting a  baby and their personal life is set against a political conflict that explodes into violence and confrontation. 

Here Gorbach attempts to give a voice to the ordinary people caught in a conflict not of their making. War literally enters their world when a random shell hits their home. The family is split, since Tolik’s brother Yarik is committed to the Ukrainian side while Tolik enjoys a ‘passive’ link to the separatists. Gorbach, who wrote, directed and edited the film, describes it as a film ‘for women’ but its dramatic staging against a broad landscape (the Ukrainian ‘Klondike’) sometimes recalls the films of Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó and a number of classic westerns. 

Her first solo work after several previous collaborations with her Turkish husband Mehmet Bahadir Er, Klondike is a film she wishes she “did not have reasons to make”.  In a recent interview, she argues that the Russian invasion has turned the conflict into a cultural war – a struggle for the survival of national identity.

Maksym Nakonechnyi’s striking debut film Butterfly Vision is based on a number of interviews with returnees from the war zone. It examines the problems of Lilia as she tries to reintegrate with society after undergoing horrendous experiences, experiencing a trauma that goes largely unrecognised in a world where normal life still prevails. Lilia had worked as an aerial reconnaissance expert, using drone technology, and this is reflected in much of the film’s formal approach – providing the ‘butterfly vision’ of the film’s title. 

Nakonechnyi, who had previously worked in documentary, states that the film derives very much from the experiences of survivors, which affected not only the script but also the roles and the acting. The ‘butterfly vision’ is intended to reflect the subconscious, with television footage, social media and flashbacks combining in a cross section of contemporary experience. Lilia’s past, which she tries to forget, forces its way to the surface. Her pregnancy (which may or may not be related to rape) adds another dimension. There’s further conflict in the role of her husband, Tokha, who becomes an ultra-nationalist involved in the persecution of Roma. Both films contrast everyday life with the simplistic ideologies that have led to a war of unnecessary fratricide. Both emphasise the survival of women and the realities of birth in the face of an unknown future.

As Jonathan Romney’s comprehensive article in the summer issue of Sight and Sound demonstrated, Ukrainian cinema embraces a dynamic younger generation – and there were some 30 new films in post-production at the end of March. For a comprehensive coverage of post-Soviet Ukrainian cinema, there is also much to discover in the July special issue of the online journal KinoKultura.

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