Still one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Arriving in Ukraine for our adoption, unaware that it was their Independance Day and walking out of our apartment in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti to this. As someone who lives in the heartland of Canadian Ukrainian immigration, which stems largely from here in Winnipeg down the Yellowhead Highway towards Edmonton, I knew shocking little to nothing about Ukrainian heritage and history. That is until I married into a Ukrainian family and, with no grandchildren yet on that side decided to adopt from Ukraine. It was there we had a chance to travel from central Ukraine (Kiev) to the south where our son is from (Odessa and Izmail right on the southern border), to the West where that distinct Ukrainian language and culture is still very much alive near the Carpathian mountains. Tracking down my wife Jen’s family village was also part of our journey, immersing us in the more remote rural setting that once led to their move to Canada.
I am thankfully a little more read and familiar now then I once was, although still very limited I am sure relatively speaking. Given it is their 30th anniversary this year, as part of Ukrainian Independence Day I thought I would put together a list of memorable films and books dealing with Ukraine that I have encountered.
Happy 30th Ukraine as you celebrate your #IndependenceDay
Chernobyl (HBO Miniseries)
It would be difficult not to lead with this masterpiece of miniseries. It’s not simply the impressive budget and production values, it’s the intimate look at one of history’s most familiar series, brought to life with striking performances and a strong script that set this apart. A must for anyone interested in great filmmaking, as well as anyone interested in an invested dramatic take on a truly horrific moment in time that has proven to have long standing consequence on Ukrainian identity and development.
The Babushkas of Chernobyl (2015)
A perfect pairing with a viewing of Chernobyl, as the looming darkness of that story is offset by the hope and beauty of these strong, determined Ukrainian women. It offers a slightly different perspective on the disaster by reminding us of the people and faces living with and within it.
Almost Holy (2015)
This is another documentary that brings us up close and personal with the people who have struggled in its ongoing pursuit of independance. This one hits close to home for us as the time frame of the film begins around the same time as our son’s birth and coincides with and ends at the time of our adoption, taking place close to where our son is from. From that angle it’s a really unique opportunity to see the world that shaped our son’s life span, memories and experiences that frame, at least in part, that hidden part of his story that are living in to along with his new life in Canada.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
A powerful and revealing read that revisits the story of World War 2 and the Holocaust under the premise that the picture of this period handed down in the pages of history has severely limited our understanding and the view of the bigger picture of the Bloodlands. What’s most interesting is the degree to which Ukraine orms that middle ground, stuck between Hitler and Stalin, and subsequently the emerging powers of East and West.
One of my picks for favorite films of 2020, Mr. Jones remains well implanted in my memory, and for good reason. It’s a really strong film with some compelling things to say about how it is we uncover the truth behind the noise of media and politicism, something not unfamiliar to the Ukrainian experience and fight for independance. The under discussed and little known story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, the one who risked himself to expose the Russian imposed and created Ukrainian famine gets a full blown treatment here. That is just the start of what makes Mr. Jones worthwhile though, as the film also happens to be brilliantly scripted and shot as well.
There is a throughline here that turns this film into a discussion about media and journalism that makes it one of the best I’ve seen in that genre. In some sense, the true life story lends itself to a bit of mystery (given where Jones’ story goes). One of the obvious sentiments being mined in the story is that of truth- what it is, how we know it, and what we do with it. We know certain things standing on this side of history, and yet what this film uncovers is that all of history is told through certain perspectives. It is often a mix of perspectives that allows us to gain a semblance of a demonstrable, singular truth, and Mr. Jones does this by using the elements of its story and context as building blocks with equal mystery. You have characters, documented realities, and governments all vying for the right to tell the story, and as we follow Mr. Jones we see him moving between all of these things at once, trying to guide our focus by way of his camera and uncovering.
Winter on Fire (2015)
This exceptionally made documentary is a must see for anyone interested in an on the ground and symbolic picture of the Maidan Revolution. With footage capturing much of this in real time, the film is also not afraid to reach for an underlying and motivating narrative, resulting in a highly emotional climax and finale.
First Star I see Tonight: Ukrainian Christmas Traditions by Orysia Tracz
It’s never too early to get into the Christmas spirit, and this book, penned by a local author, offers a great overlook at these specific Traditions which can seem confusing for those unfamiliar with some of this Eastern language and symbolism. They of course have adopted specific expressions in their translation Westward, and this book does a great job at demonstrating the deep roots in a Country, exprience and people.
Battle For Sevatopol (2015)
Similar to Mr Jones, this tells a lesser known story about a strong and determined woman who not only accomplished something extraordinary, but left a firm imprint on universal history as well. It’s a dramatic film, not a documentary, and as such it proves to be as entertaining as it is inspired and informing.
Everything is Illuminated (2005)
Stumbled across this the other day and decided to give it a try. I was intrigued by Elijah Wood given I was unfamiliar with the title.
A surprisingly emotional story. It takes place in Odessa, where Wood’s character, a young Jewish man, has set out on a journey across rural Ukraine to the find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the war. He is accompanied by his Grandfather, who is shockingly antisemitic. Figuring out why this is is a big part of the journey.
The film is an interesting mix of conventional type characters and an unconventional approach to the story itself. It has a good deal of humor, and in its more weighty moments brings in some nice visuals to elevate the film’s emotional presence and concern. Much of the film rests on a distinct, Ukrainian character and charm. The film is a mix of English and Russian language, letting us in on both the young, English speaking man from abroad, and his grizzled, hardened on the outside but soft on the inside, Russian speaking Ukrainian Grandpa. While these might at first appear to be caricatures or types, there is a lot more going on underneath the surface.
Really liked this one a good deal. Our adopted son is from the Odessa region, and my wife’s Grandpa of Ukrainian heritage fought in the war before coming to Canada as well, so there were some definite personal ties.
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy
This is still to me the most exhaustive, revealing and informative history of Ukraine I have come across (with a shout out to Ukraine: A History, a 1988 book on the history of Ukraine written by Orest Subtelny). It’s written in a way that feels like an epic, with an eye towards filling in some of the gaps of the modern plight, particularly when it comes to a crisis of identity fueled by controversies and disagreements over borders, religion, and history itself. Plokhy is uneniably sympathetic to the Ukrainina plight treading a path towards a distinct Ukrainian identity, but he does so with a scholarly eye, compassion and a well articulated thesis.
Hutsul Girl Ksenia (2019)
It’s a Ukrainian Folk (Fairy) Tale Musical. That’s really all you need to know. It’s fun, eclectic, colorful, weird, not for everyone, but a rare film to capture the Carpathia Mountains, a section of the West that is immersed in natural beauty and authentic Ukrainian cultre and language.