Ukraine: More Than Just A News Headline

A Celebration of Ukrainian Cinema and a list of essential films to watch

By Bianca Garner

As I write this piece Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the world holds its collective breath wondering what the outcome will be. This is not a piece that will delve into the complex geo-politics of Eastern Europe, nor will I even attempt to predict what will happen to this beautiful country and it’s brave citizens. Instead, I want to focus on a celebration of Ukrainian cinema and the country’s very talented and intelligent filmmakers as well as celebrating Ukrainian stories and the country’s people.

The Ukraine has had a major role in the history of cinema, which is probably something that many of us are unaware of. There have been several prominent filmmakers from Ukraine who have had a major influence on filmmaking. One of these is Alexander Dovzhenko, who was a key player in early Soviet cinema and a pioneer in Soviet montage theory. Dovzhenko’s “Earth” (1930) is considered one of the greatest silent pictures ever made. The director made the picture in response to the collectivism of Ukrainian farms as part of Stalin’s Five-Year plan and was considered by Soviet officials to be extremely controversial and inappropriate.

Dovzhenko wasn’t the only Ukrainian filmmaker to have a significant impact on cinema. The female filmmaker Kira Muratova was also a key figure in Soviet cinema. Her films were heavily censored until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. You can find my piece on her work for In Their Own League’s Hall of Fame here. Another female filmmaker of significance was Larisa Shepitko, her 1977 film “The Ascent” was shot under harsh and gruelling conditions. “The Ascent” was the second female directed film to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival. Shepitko was described as being a “living genius” on par with the likes of Dovzhenko. In 1979, she died in a car accident, leaving behind only a small artistic output of four films.

Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to watch some of the films listed below because of the lack of accessibility. Where possible, I have tried to include links to the films and I hope to bring awareness to these films and the filmmakers behind them. I also really hope that people can try to share this piece and also share any of their recommendations.

Earth (Dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930)

This legendary film  focuses on the process of collectivization and the hostility of Kulak landowners under the First Five-Year Plan. It is Part 3 of Dovzhenko’s “Ukraine Trilogy” (along with Zvenigora and Arsenal). Dovzhenko wrote the original scenario for Earth in 1929 in response to the newfound collectivisation of small villages in Ukraine, which he described as “a period not only of economic transformation but also of mental transformation of the whole people.” You can watch “Earth” on YouTube here.

Still from “Earth” (photo credit from IMDB)
Ivan ( Dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1932)

“Ivan” is a drama that follows a young farmer and his lazy father who try to help with the construction of the Dniprohes. However, Ivan soon realises that strength alone is not enough and decides the Communist party. According to MUBI, “Much like Earth, Ivan concerns itself with the natural rhythms of country life, disrupted by the beat of looming industrialisation.” In a piece regarding the film, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that, “the final sequence includes some striking jump cuts almost 30 years before Jean-Luc Godard purportedly invented them in Breathless”, which makes “Ivan” truly revolutionary.

Shchors (Dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Yuliya Solntseva, 1939)

This historic biopic, which is set during World War I and the Russian Civil War, tells the life story of partisan leader and communist Nikolai Shchors (played by Evgeniy Samoylov), one of the few indisputable Bolshevik icons of Ukrainian origin. The film was actually commissioned by Joseph Stalin. (I managed to find the film here, the quality is quite poor but it’s worth checking out).

Still from “Shchors” (Photo credit from IMDB)
Ukraine in Flames (Dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Yuliya Solntseva, Yakov Avdeyenko, 1943)

The documentary focuses on the Battle of Kharkov, which was any one of four World War II battles in and near the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. The film incorporates German footage of the invasion of Ukraine, which was later captured by the Soviets. “Ukraine in Flames” can be found on YouTube here.

Poem of the Sea (Dir. Yuliya Solntseva, 1958)

Directed by actress turned director Yuliya Solntseva (who was married to director Aleksandr Dovzhenko), this film follows the effect of a Soviet dam project which means that many old Ukrainian villages will end up under water. Naturally, there are conflicts between the dam engineers and villagers who don’t want to move. Solntseva continued to make her widow’s projects after his passing, and “Poem of the Sea” is one of these.

Still from “Poem of the Sea” (Photo credit from IMDB)
The Stone Cross (Dir. Leonid Osyka, 1968)

“The Stone Cross” tells the story of a farmer who decides to move to Canada, leaving his land and his people, and the cathartic battle he faces with himself regarding the decision. This film is an adaptation of the novel by Vasyl Stefanyk, who was an influential Ukrainian modernist writer and political activist. You can rent and buy the film from Amazon Prime here. This film is described as being ‘thoughtful’ and features a great performance by actor Ivan Mykolaichuk.

Bread and Salt (Dir. Grigori Kokhan, Nikolai Makarenko, 1970)

Set in the turn-of-the-century, this film follows a group of peasant farmers who decide to leave their home country of Ukraine in the search of a better life in Siberia. The story follows those who stay behind in the Ukraine and their dispute with their landowner. There is also a love triangle involving a local beauty and two young men. (Sadly I was unable to find much information regarding this film, including critical reviews and whether or not it was possible to obtain the film on DVD or view it on any streaming websites).

The White Bird Marked With Black (Dir. Yuri Ilyenko, 1971)

Described by MUBI as a “optimistic tragedy”, Yuri Ilyenko’s “The White Bird Marked with Black” tells the story of a family trying to survive in the Carpathian mountain region of Ukraine near the Romanian border, and spans a period of ten years (1937-47). When World War II comes, various family members choose different paths to follow; some even choose to work for the Soviets. War, struggle, marriages, births, deaths–all these events punctuate the story of this large family. The film was entered into the 7th Moscow International Film Festival and won the Golden Prize.

The Ascent (Dir. Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

“The Ascent” was Larisa Shepitko’s final film before her tragic death in 1979. It takes place in World War II, where two Soviet soldiers (Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin) decide to brave the blizzard-swept landscape of Nazi-occupied Belorussia in the search for supplies. When they fall into the hands of German forces and come face-to-face with death, each must choose between martyrdom and betrayal. Barbora Bartunkova from Senses of Cinema wrote that “The Ascent is uncompromising in its representation of the cruel realities of war.” “The Ascent” is part of the Criterion collection and you can buy the Blu Ray here, I also found a copy of the film on YouTube which is here.

Still from “The Ascent” (Photo credit from IMDB)
Babylon XX (Dir. Ivan Mykolaichuk, 1980)

Based on the novel Lebedinaya staya by Vasil Zemlyak, this film follows the people of a small town of Vavilon who hear of the recent Russian Revolution, but their attempts to communize it are met with resistance from the rich people living in the town. Mykolaichuk’s films were often controversial and suppressed by the Soviet authorities; sometimes his films were banned from being screened by the KGB. Due to incidents with the Parajanov’s film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors ” he was banned from filming for five years by the party authorities being recognized as too nationalistic and a person of hostile ideology.

Flights in Dreams and in Reality (Dir. Roman Balayan, 1983)

As he approached his fortieth birthday, Sergei Makarov (Oleg Yankovsky) reflects back at his life only to reach the conclusion that he has achieved nothing. He hasn’t been able to make himself or anyone close to him happy. “Flights in Dreams and in Reality” is very much a film that looks at the issues men face when they enter that period of ‘mid-life crisis’ and how many of us feel unfulfilled in our lives. The film was not widely released until the Perestroika political movement which saw the Soviet Union becoming more open to the wider world.

Famine 33 (Dir. Oles Yanchuk, 1991)

This drama film by Oles Yanchuk about the Holodomor famine in Ukraine told through the eyes of one family, and based on the novel The Yellow Prince by Vasyl Barka. For those unaware of the famine that took place in 1932-33, the great famine was the result of Stalin’s five-year plan for collectivism and saw the death of millions of Ukrainians. (You can read up more on Holodomor here– trigger warning: contains details regarding genocide). You can watch a version of the film on YouTube here (a word of warning, the quality is quite poor but the film is well worth a watch for it’s historic importance).

Still from “Famine 33” (Photo credit from IMDB)
Miracle in the Land of Oblivion (Dir.  Natalya Motuzko, 1991)

According to MUBI, this film takes place in a small Ukrainian village, where a rumour begins to circulate that the Second Coming is nigh and that the Messiah is already somewhere in the region. (Sadly I was unable to find much information regarding this film, including critical reviews and whether or not it was possible to obtain the film on DVD or view it on any streaming websites).

Assassination: An Autumn Murder in Munich (Dir. Oles Yanchuk, 1995)

According to MUBI, this docudrama reconstructs the events that led to the assassination of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera by a KGB agent in Munich in 1959. (Sadly I was unable to find much information regarding this film, including critical reviews and whether or not it was possible to obtain the film on DVD or view it on any streaming websites).

Aurora (Dir. Oksana Bairak, 2006)

Set in the 1980s, this film tells the story of 12-year-old orphan Aurora Nedelina (Anastasiya Zyurkalova), who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. She lives in an orphanage in Pripyat and accidentally becomes a witness to the explosion at Chernobyl. Unfortunately, Aurora becomes a victim of the radiation from the leak at Chernobyl and her days are numbered. She is taken to an American hospital where she meets the rich American Russian, Nick Astakhov (Dmitriy Kharatyan)–the world-famous dancer who had emigrated from the USSR 15 years prior. Nick has a poor outlook on life but meeting Aurora manages to change all that. “Aurora” was a critical success in Ukraine, but this didn’t translate to the Box Office. The film was also put forward at Ukraine’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

The Tribe (Dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014)

While attending a boarding school for the deaf, a young man (Grigoriy Fesenko) joins a gang of criminals to become a thief and a pimp. The film is entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language with no subtitles. It won the Nespresso Grand Prize, as well as the France 4 Visionary Award and the Gan Foundation Support for Distribution Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week section. It was the first Ukrainian film to be successful at the International box office. “The Tribe” received lots of praise from film critics, with Jonathan Romney (Film Comment) stating that “it was a thrill to discover something so bold, innovative, and downright wayward.” You can find “The Tribe” on Amazon Prime here.

Still from “The Tribe” (Photo credit from IMDB)
The Guide (Dir. Oles Sanin, 2014)

This moving historical drama set in the 1930s, tells the story of Peter (Anton Sviatoslav Greene) a ten-year-old boy who becomes a guide to a blind bard. Peter’s father, an American engineer, is killed for obtaining secret documents about the repressions, which now are hidden in Peter’s book. The boy flees from the police with a blind kobzar (Ukrainian folk minstrel), Ivan Kocherga (Stanislav Boklan). While the film is quite melodramatic in places, it has been described as having an emotional punch. The film received some controversy due to it’s stance on the totalitarian Soviet government, and apparently upset Vladimir Putin, who banned it from being shown in Russia.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Dir. Evgeny Afineevsky, 2015)

This documentary centres on the political unrest in Ukraine that occurred during 2013 and 2014, as student demonstrations supporting European integration grew into a violent revolution calling for the resignation of President Viktor F. Yanukovich. This moving and powerful documentary received critical praise, with Washington Post film critic Michael O’ Sullivan describing the film as “a harrowingly bloody, real-life “Les Miserables.” “Winter on Fire” can easily be found on Netflix, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Julia Blue (Dir. Roxy Toporowych, 2017)

“Julia Blue” is a touching romance which follows Julia (Polina Snisarenko), a photo-journalist student living in Post-revolutionary Ukraine, who falls in love with a solider that suffers from PTSD. Julia is awaiting a response from a German photography institute and is trying to assess what path she wants to take regarding her future. This film is Roxy Toporowych‘s directorial film debut and is available to rent or buy from Amazon Prime.

Still from “Julia Blue” (Photo credit from MUBI)
My Thoughts Are Silent (Dir. Antonio Lukich, 2019)

This Ukrainian comedy/drama was a box office hit in Ukraine. The film focuses on Vadym, a 25-year-old composer and sound engineer living in Kyiv who is seeking a better life in Canada. A dream job comes just in time: if Vadym can record the song of a rare bird from his native Transcarpathia, then he’ll be able to catch his lucky break. The only issue is that he needs a driver, and the only person willing to help him is his mother. “My Thoughts Are Silent” is described as a “quirky and touching road movie”.

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