Inside Ukraine’s film archive

The world has been thrown into shock and disarray by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But alongside the military resistance, local film archivists are playing their part in saving Ukrainian culture, through film preservation and screenings in metro stations.

13 April 2022

By Isabel Stevens

Earth (1930)
Sight and Sound

Preserving a film archive normally involves storing it correctly to safeguard against fire, natural disasters or mishandling. But since 24 February preservation has taken on a whole new meaning for Olena Honcharuk, the acting director of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Kyiv, and her colleagues.

When we speak via Zoom two weeks after the invasion begins, it’s 8pm in Kyiv and Honcharuk must stay indoors as the city is under curfew. Her children have already left, but she remains near what she calls her “dearest working place”. Honcharuk counts herself lucky. “I have water, electricity; I can walk in the street [during the day]. Thanks to our armed forces, Kyiv stays somewhat safe for the moment.”

Honcharuk is careful to stress that the situation in Kyiv pales in comparison to the humanitarian catastrophe happening (mostly) beyond the city. That afternoon, a maternity hospital in Mariupol was targeted by a Russian air strike. “There is such a big threat to people’s lives. It’s hard to speak now about art.”

However, the Centre and its archive tell a vital story of Ukraine’s cultural identity and its independence – in contrast to the Kremlin’s view of Ukraine as part of Russia. “At the beginning of the 20th century, Ukraine was an independent player on the film scene, just as Germany or Poland was,” says Honcharuk. “In the 1920s, Ukraine had its own Hollywood, as we say. There was a state monopoly of film called VUFKU [the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, which turned 100 last month]. It offered the full cycle of film production. There were actors, film directors, distributors etc. They had their own institute, their own system of education and advertising.”

Arsenal (1929)

By 1929, the studios were making 31 films a year and employing 1,000 people. There was even an animation studio, established in 1926. Notable Ukrainian filmmakers who worked at VUFKU include Dziga Vertov, whose 1929 city symphony Man with a Movie Camera captures life in Odessa, Kharkiv and Kyiv (and which won Sight and Sound’s Best Documentary poll in 2014). And then there’s the Centre’s namesake Oleksandr Dovzhenko, whose avant-garde ‘Ukrainian trilogy’ – Zvenyhora (1928), Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930) – is considered an apogee of both silent cinema and of Ukraine’s cultural renaissance in the 1920s.

“But in the early 30s, VUFKU was dissolved by the Moscow government,” says Honcharuk. Many of the studio’s leading figures were imprisoned or executed as Stalin suppressed the Ukrainian national revival in the 1930s. “All the films that were shot in Ukraine or with the participation of Ukrainian directors were moved to Russia to the Gosfilmofond archive. And in this way, we lost a part of our history and our film memory. Ukraine became a part of the Soviet Union. So we knew only about our Soviet history. But when Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was the beginning of the process when we started to reveal our history, to fill in these blank spaces and find names and films. We were finding our films in the archives of Germany, Britain, Argentina, even Japan. It was a long process of returning them to our country.”

Gosfilmofond was initially cooperative: the two archives worked together on the films of Vertov and his younger brother, Mikhail Kaufman. Honcharuk stresses, however, that other archives in Europe, like the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, were just as helpful, and she does not regard it as “a big favour” for Gosfilmofond to lend the Centre film prints to copy and then return. “But at least it was possible to work with them, to reveal these films to Ukrainian audiences and position them as a part of our history.” However, after the Maidan Uprising in 2013-14 and the subsequent Donbas War, communication between the organisations stopped.

Since opening in 1994, the archive has been working on collecting, researching, interpreting and promoting Ukrainian cinema. “We produced a lot of cinema-based cultural initiatives: retrospectives, exhibitions, lectures, books, film restoration, film performances. In Ukraine we’ve presented silent films from the BFI’s collection: Underground by Anthony Asquith [1928], Turksib by Victor Turin [1929], Blackmail by Alfred Hitchcock [1929]. Our last film programme was the movie benchmarks filmed in independent Ukraine from 1991 to 2021.”

Before the invasion, the Centre was not without its problems. Among them, Honcharuk says, were government corruption and a lack of funding for the arts. But they had ambitions to build a proper cinema within the Centre – before the war, films were screened in a lecture hall.

A film performance at the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Ukraine

Ukraine has very few repertory cinemas. Curated programmes occasionally took place in culture centres, but it hasn’t always proved easy to attract audiences. Programmes the archive has worked on – such as retrospectives of the directors Sergei Parajanov (who worked extensively in Ukraine) or Kira Muratova – have often been more popular outside the country. But Honcharuk and her colleagues were working to arouse interest in film history: “People here are not that interested in silent movies, for instance. So we screen old movies with scores performed by contemporary musicians.”

Honcharuk is understandably reluctant to talk about what she and her colleagues are doing to protect the archive. “As we understand from the speeches of President Putin, they’re trying to rewrite the history of Russia and Ukraine. Everywhere in their media they say that there is no such nation as Ukraine, that we are a fake nation. But I think Russia is a fake nation because it is an empire. If they don’t win, it puts a big question over their existence. At the beginning of this ‘special military operation’, as they call it – but it’s not an operation, it’s a real, bloody war – they said they want to demilitarise Ukraine. And the main points they will attack will be military infrastructure. But we see now that they ruin everything that belongs to civilians: hospitals, schools, churches… We still don’t know what damage has been done in Kharkiv [the besieged city in north-east Ukraine]. It is a big intellectual centre. There are a lot of universities and museums.”

The archive – like the rest of the country – was not at all prepared for war. For the time being, Honcharuk and her colleagues are not just working to protect it: “Each person who stayed here, who didn’t leave the city or moved to other cities, we help each other – we organise to help old people, to help find food or medicine. Of course, we are afraid that bombs will fall on us but we try to stay human.”

To this end, Honcharuk and the Centre are using the archive in two initiatives. They are collaborating with cinematheques and archives globally to show films from their collection and make international audiences aware of the importance of Ukraine’s film archive and the country’s cultural independence (BFI Player aims to present a programme of Ukrainian films in the coming weeks).

And they are also putting on screenings in Kyiv’s metro stations for people sheltering there at night from Russian artillery. Films showing include animations from Ukrainimafilm [known as Kyivnauchfilm], a legendary studio which had been the subject of a planned exhibition at the Centre, highlighting its links with artists like Walt Disney. Also screening are silent films such as Aksel Lundin’s Adventures of Half a Rubel (1929), based on the stories of the writer Vladimir Vinnichenko [aka Volodymyr Vynnychenko, in 1917 prime minister of a briefly autonomous Ukraine], and Grandma’s Gift – a comedy that shows Kyiv in the 1920s.

Maria Hlazunova, who works for the Dovzhenko Centre and organised the underground screenings, has described them as a “morale shelter for the people of Kyiv”. Working with the archive to make the screenings happen was Yana Barinova, the director of the Kyiv municipal Department of Culture, who told news site Radio Free Europe: “Our mission, as workers in the sphere of culture, is not only to save culture itself from destruction, but to save those who value it.”

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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