Ukrainian cinema in focus

Boasting a formidable cinematic heritage that stretches back to the early days of film, the country has recently seen a renewed flowering of auteur cinema.

Maidan (2014)

The term ‘Ukrainian cinema’ may not have been common currency in cinephile circles, at least until recently. But Ukraine played a significant part in the birth of modern cinema, and not only in the legendary Odesa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925): the groundbreaking 1929 documentary Man with a Movie Camera, by ‘kino-eye’ pioneer Dziga Vertov, was substantially filmed in Kyiv and Odesa. Many key names of 20th-century cinema were Ukrainian – although their national identity has been obscured by their inclusion under the umbrella of Soviet cinema: Alexander Dovzhenko, Sergei Bondarchuk, Larisa Shepitko, Kira Muratova (not originally from Ukraine, although she spent most of her filmmaking career there).

This “cultural imperialism”, says director Maryna Er Gorbach, extends to other great Ukrainians, and she wants it to stop. “We don’t want to call [Mikhail] Bulgakov, [Nikolai] Gogol and [Kazimir] Malevich ‘Russian artists’, because they’re not. Lots of films were forbidden in the USSR – they were called ‘nationalist’, because they’re in Ukrainian. Russia would call me a nationalist because I just want to speak a language my mother speaks.” Ukraine’s new cinema has been inspired by the desire to speak that language – and to develop a screen language of its own.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the hope is not just that Ukrainian cinema will survive, but that it will continue to flourish, given how healthy the country’s recent auteur cinema has been. The Ukraine of this new filmmaking generation – the nation that so aggrieves Vladimir Putin that he has set out to annihilate it and its culture – began in November 2013 with the ‘Euromaidan’ demonstrations for closer connections with Europe and against then-president Viktor Yanukovych. The following year, two major Ukrainian films emerged. One was Maidan, in which Sergei Loznitsa – active in documentary and fiction since the mid-90s – recorded the events in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, from the authorities’ attacks on the public to the backstage of revolution (down even to the sandwich-making), in a detached, composed style that made the film’s content all the more acutely vivid.

The Tribe (2014)

The second was Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe, which won top prize in Cannes Critics’ Week. Set in a school for deaf teenagers, and evoking an enclosed, wordless world of violence and hard-edged sexuality, it was an audaciously realised film that made you experience the relationship between image and sound in a radically unfamiliar way. The Tribe was a dazzling debut, and a follow-up has been a long time coming, but it has now been confirmed that Slaboshpytskiy will direct a Siberian-set environmental drama, The Tiger, starring Alexander Skarsgård.

It was also in 2014, though, that Russia annexed Crimea, and that conflict started in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbass between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. Some see the current war as an intensified continuation of that conflict – and, indeed, it was Putin’s declaration in February that he was recognising the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, in that region, that essentially notified the world his invasion was about to start.

Among the recent films I watched for this article, practically all are marked by the Donbass war one way or another, many addressing it directly – notably Loznitsa’s Donbass (2018). A series of episodes, some in a black comic vein, Donbass has a Felliniesque ring of the grotesque but is inspired by real incidents, depicting the abuse of authority and power, and of visual media: soldiers and officials terrorising visiting journalists and locals alike; a captured soldier tied up to be brutalised by passersby who film him on their phones. Nightmarishly excessive as Donbass sometimes feels, Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent, testified that its scenes “ring sickeningly true”.

Volcano (2018)

Dark humour also inflects Volcano (2018) by Roman Bondarchuk, a filmmaker who is also the art director of the DocuDays UA human rights documentary festival in Kyiv. In this downbeat, dream-like comedy set in the Kherson region in the south, an official for an observer organisation finds himself stranded and penniless in a distant backwater, where a local family helps him through various catastrophes, including random beatings by soldiers and teenage boys alike. Volcano’s distinctly cynical humour chimes strikingly with its powerful images: notably when the protagonist Lukas (Serhiy Stepansky) finds himself trapped in a pit in a seemingly endless field of parched sunflowers (Volcano is not the only film discussed here that makes bitterly ironic use of this much-romanticised national plant). Every nation on earth makes its films about city slickers out of their depth in the boondocks; here it’s done with a rueful sense of a world only just holding back from the brink of chaos (in one scene, a brawl erupts out of nowhere and turns literally explosive). There’s also a nice barb at Putin, pontificating on TV about his proposed confederation of ‘Novorossiya’ (New Russia): “You ignoramus,” snorts a weary matriarch.

In contrast to this caustic tone, Nariman Aliev’s 2019 Homeward is a gentler road drama focusing on Muslim characters, Crimean Tatars – a young man and his father transporting the body of the older son, killed in the war. A story of familial reconciliation, it’s also about overcoming the restrictions of masculinity and about local identity and solidarity. “Crimea is our Jerusalem,” one character comments. “Who will need us if we don’t need each other?”

One of the most prominent names of the current generation is Oleh Sentsov, from Crimea. He made his name with Gamer (2011), about a teenage gaming obsessive, before being arrested in Russia, falsely accused of plotting terrorist acts; imprisoned, he went on a 145-day hunger strike (his story is told in Askold Kurov’s 2015 documentary The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov). While in prison, he directed the pared-down dystopian drama Numbers (2020) remotely, in collaboration with Akhtem Seitablayev.

Freed in late 2019, Sentsov has since made Rhino (2021), the brutal story of a gangster’s progress in the post-Soviet 90s onwards; his antihero’s survival under ordeal feels somewhat like an indirect statement about his own uncrushability. A dazzling long-take sequence at the start speeds us through the passing years, before we see Rhino reviewing his career and casting a sour look at the world around him: “Everyone’s either dead or in prison. The sly ones became politicians. Just yesterday they were burning people alive, now they’re on TV. The cops took over our business” – a comment that can be read about the former USSR as a whole and, presumably, Ukraine in the pre-Maidan years.

Atlantis (2019)

A director who absolutely maps out his own unrelentingly stark terrain is Valentyn Vasyanovych. This former student of Andrzej Wajda was producer, director of photography and editor of The Tribe, and made a significant festival splash of his own with his fourth fiction feature, Atlantis (2019). Shot in and around Mariupol – including scenes at the city’s steelworks, which have featured so dramatically in recent news – it begins with a caption telling us that the year is 2025, “one year after the war”. The story is about two men, Sergiy and Ivan, both traumatised war veterans. After Ivan kills himself, jumping into the flames at the steel foundry where he works, the plant is shut down by the multinational that owns it. Later, Sergiy (Andriy Rymaruk) meets Katya (Liudmyla Bileka), a volunteer for an organisation that retrieves bodies from the war zone: the grimly matter-of-fact long take in which forensics experts log the damaged corpses starkly brings home the difference between this real brutalised flesh and the life-size metal cutout soldiers that Sergiy and Ivan shoot for target practice. Atlantis is horribly prescient in predicting a Ukrainian landscape ravaged and literally made toxic by the poisons of war. And yet Vasyanovych finally stresses the power of life, bringing the film to an unexpected but plausible redemptive close.

His follow-up, Reflection, is another journey through earthly hell – this time set in 2014, at the start of the Donbass conflict. It follows a doctor (Roman Lutskyi) who joins the army and is captured by Russians; the scenes of torture that follow are shown in unflinchingly vivid long takes. Some may find Reflection, with its frontally shot tableaux, too calculatedly composed an exercise in art cinema. But to my mind, it confirms Vasyanovych – who also shoots and edits his films – as an auteur of exceptionally uncompromising vision. There’s a chilly theology hanging over Reflection – yet once again, Vasyanovych offers hope of salvation, not just for his characters but for his nation.

Most films discussed so far present a very male picture, either specifically of war or of social violence generally. But among those focused on female experience, either from women directors or in their themes, the brutality is no less uncompromising – and, given recent reports about sexual violence by the Russian army, we’ve only begun to see this topic explored. For example, Natalya Vorozhbit’s Bad Roads (2020), originally written for the stage (it played to acclaim at London’s Royal Court Theatre), presents a quartet of episodes, the bookending sections marked by caustic humour – as in the story of a city woman facing sly, unsettling menace from a rural couple whose chicken she has run over.

Another is rueful and intimate: a teenager’s protective grandmother tries to persuade her to come home, away from the separatist soldier boys that local girls are dating. But the third, longest story is harrowing and brilliantly acted at a sustained pitch: Yulia (Maryna Klimova), a captured journalist, is held prisoner by a soldier (Yuri Kulinich) who submits her to horrific abuse.

Butterfly Vision (2022)

Similarly, Maksym Nakonechnyi’s Butterfly Vision, which premiered in Cannes last month, is about a woman returning home from months as a prisoner in Donbass and fighting to overcome the trauma of her experience. It was inspired, Nakonechnyi says, by an episode he learned of while editing a documentary about women in war – and the fact that such horrors continue is brought home by a note that Nakonechnyi sends me about another woman affected by the current war. Yuliia Paievska, aka ‘Taira’, came into the public eye when she released footage of the war that she had filmed on a body camera. Subsequently, however, she fell into Russian custody. “She’s in captivity now,” says Nakonechnyi, “having been detained in Mariupol more than a month ago. She’s a volunteer paramedic, a civilian in fact, not a part of the military – so they have no right to keep her, but they do.”

Also tackling women’s war trauma is Maryna Er Gorbach’s Klondike, seen in Sundance and Berlin this year. Set at the start of the 2014 war, on the Russian-Ukrainian border, it focuses on a couple who are about to become parents: at the start, a missile tears the wall off their house, leaving it exposed to the landscape (the film is brilliant in its deployment of space, both enclosed and overpoweringly wide open). The last scene, depicting a male warlike world’s indifference to female suffering, is the devastating culmination of a superb performance by Oksana Cherkashyna.

Klondike (2022)

Klondike also centres on a real episode, the crash of Malaysian airliner MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, shot down in the region on 17 July 2014 – according to the evidence, by a Russian missile system. That was the inciting spark for Er Gorbach: “17 July is my birthday, and I’d just had my second child. In my mind, the sanctions against Russia which are happening now should have happened then. The international silence around this crime posed a huge question for me: where are the voices of local Ukrainians, the Ukrainians living on the border while Russia was bringing rockets to this territory?”

Documentary will clearly play a vital role in the war and the period of reconstruction that must follow. Some filmmakers have joined Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces – among them, Oleh Sentsov and documentarist Alisa Kovalenko, while prominent actor Pavlo Lee was killed in March, defending the city of Irpin. Others have mobilised themselves to film the war and its effects – among them, Vasyanovych and Maksym Nakonechnyi, director of Butterfly Vision (when I talk to him, he has just received his conscription notice).

One name to watch in the field of documentary is Alina Gorlova, whose This Rain Will Never Stop (2020) is a complex patchwork of internationally shot episodes – the connecting thread being the experiences of a young Syrian-born Red Cross volunteer. The effect is sometimes perplexing, but the visual texture and dynamic rhythm are formidable. Ostensibly more conventional but with a beautifully structured narrative drift is The Earth Is Blue as an Orange (2020), Iryna Tsilyk’s portrait of a Donbass family: despite the ever-present background of bombardment, teenager Myroslava Trofymchuk determinedly pursues her dream of becoming a cinematographer. The film is a tenderly intimate, upbeat group portrait and a portrayal of how artistic dreams endure and give purpose in the midst of daily troubles. When I talk to Tsilyk, she has just returned from Kharkiv to Kyiv with her son, having arrived within a day of Russian bombs falling. As for the family in her film, Tsilyk tells me, she helped them leave their Donbass hometown of Krasnohorivka just before the full-scale invasion started, and they are now safely in Vilnius. “Myroslava is studying, and she’s had a chance to film – but they don’t know if they still have a place to return to. Krasnohorivka is under fire all the time.”

The Earth is Blue as an Orange (2020)

It’s difficult to believe that the current war will be anything other than the central topic of the nation’s cinema in the years to come, although Ukrainian audiences and f ilmmakers alike may not want to think exclusively about conflict. Nakonechnyi says, “After the first shock wave of 2014, there was a discussion about audiences wanting more entertaining stories. I even promised myself that after Butterfly Vision I’d make a comedy. Now war keeps affecting us, so even if the stories aren’t directly related to war, it will be a presence in upcoming films.”

Tsilyk agrees: “I pitched a new fiction project last year, I was too focused on this war theme for the last eight years. But we’re again trapped by this topic, and I understand that festivals are waiting for new war films from us. I’m not really happy about this, but it’s hard to imagine that I would make films about anything else now.” In the meantime, she has completed her new fiction feature, Rock. Scissors. Grenade, based on a novel by her husband Artem Chekh, currently an active combatant.

There is other Ukrainian cinema, of course, and a commercial mainstream – as Er Gorbach points out, the nation’s president (and, formerly, popular comedian) Volodymyr Zelenskiy was also a successful film producer, with his company Kvartal 95. Meanwhile, even the arthouse sector offers lighter relief: despite its moody title, Antonio Lukich’s My Thoughts Are Silent (2019) is a very engaging slacker comedy about a nebbishy sound recordist and his glam taxi-driver mum setting out in search of a rare Ukrainian duck. What’s striking is how fiercely individual these films are in their style, something Er Gorbach attributes partly to the legacy of directors like Larisa Shepitko, and a will to explore a national artistic signature. Gorbach and Vasyanovych both studied at the same film school in Kyiv where, she says, “Our professors were always telling us that we have to fight for our identity.” Maksym Nakonechnyi also points out, “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no state support – and that brought artists a feeling of freedom, [a feeling] that the priority should be the expression of the author’s vision.”

My Thoughts are Silent (2019)

Ukraine’s film community is apparently tight-knit: Nakonechnyi founded production company Tabor with Alina Gorlova; Butterfly Vision is co-written by Tsilyk, and it co-stars Bad Roads writer-director Natalya Vorozhbit; and Volcano lead Serhiy Stepansky more usually works as a sound designer, his credits including The Tribe, Vasyanovych’s films and another title that premiered in Cannes, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Pamfir. “Since the start of the invasion,” Nakonechnyi says of the community, “our bonds became even closer,” noting the establishing of the Docu/Help Foundation, which helps supply filmmakers with both protective and filming equipment for shooting the war. “It’s not just about creative collaboration.”

Ukrainian filmmakers have called for a boycott of Russian cinema, including films by opponents of Putin – partly, says Er Gorbach, because they want to see solidarity from their Russian counterparts. “I believe in the sharing of responsibility on this war. We don’t understand that people are being bombed and you’re thinking about screening your movies. We understand that you can’t post ‘I Hate Putin’ on Facebook, you’ll be imprisoned – but there are other ways you can protest.”

As for the future, Ukraine’s resilience continues to inspire the world; talking to these filmmakers, you get a powerful sense of their determination and courage under f ire. Says Er Gorbach: “There are real people who are fighting and beating this huge Russian army, and this new energy and new events will bring new stories. The stories will still be dark, but there’s hope because Ukrainian people have given us filmmakers a truth and a hope to represent.”

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