Ukraine, film travels, and locating a country through the story of its film industry

Watching the news this week and with everything happening in Ukraine caused me to look back on the film travels exercise I did in 2020, where I travelled the world through film researching individual film cultures, watching their films, and then reflecting on what I learned through my travels.

One of the biggest things I learned is how the state of film (and the health of its industry) in any given country often mirrors, and in many cases can determine a Country’s given struggles and successes. This is why strong policies that protect local industries matter. This is why protecting against the dominating force of imports matters (see the global reality of the American film industry for example, something that has been unfortunately heightened by the dominating force of Netflix around the world, an American enterprise that has rewritten the problem of globalization). This is why the question of a country’s ability to export film also matters. Ukraine remains a great example of these truths.

Some key points in Ukrainian film history:

  • As is the common story around the world it begins with the arrival of the Lumiere Brothers, in this case at Odessa (a key point of film production going forward)
  • Photographer Alfred Fedetsky becomes a key voice early on in shaping the potential of film to capture the Ukrainian story through real world footage in a way that begins to provide a unifying voice leading up to and reaching beyond the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917 where we see the emergence of a Ukrainian Republic. With the early days of soviet rule film industries were nationalized playing a key role in allowing a distinct Ukrainian identity to emerge from its slavic roots located in the steppes and centered around a fierce attachment to this protected culture (I highly recommend the book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy for a more in depth look at this history)
  • As history moves forward we see this identity challenged and the film industry being pulled in two different directions- The Russifying of Ukrainian films on one side and the constant threat of Western dominance and imports on the other. This makes it a challenge in terms of locating the Ukrainian story, telling the Ukrainian story, and growing the culture by way of the experience of its people. The sharp and drastic decline of the film industry mirrors some dark days reaching through the 40’s and up until the 50’s and 60’s until we see the recovery of its literary staples and classics being reworked through this public and visual artform. This represented the recovery of a language that still matters to this day.
  • There are key films and key points in Ukraines history that are worth noting, but it’s not really until we get to 2014 and the recent revolution that we can speak of something significant. As one source puts it, one direct outcome of this moment was the sharp rise in Ukrainian film which goes hand in hand with the ongoing battle to protect their identity:

“More films are being made in Ukraine now than at any time in its 27-year history of independence. More government money is being allocated to keep them coming. And more than ever before, they are gaining attention at home and winning awards at top international film festivals.”

Unfortunately Ukrainian films remain notoriously difficult to access on international shores, which plays in to the relationship between the health of a culture and the health of its film industry. I still have an extremely lengthy watchlist and continue to try and gain access to its most important works. However, from my limited viewing here are some films, should you be interested, that I think are worthwhile viewing:

Winter on Fire/Olegs Choice
Two films that represent different perspectives, one capturing the real time story of Ukrainians duing the 2014 revolution and war and the other taking a camera into the Donbass region close to the Russian border to follow and explore two Russian soldiers who face a crisis of purpose as they try to make sense of why they are fighting. Both equally interesting if different types of documentaries. Olegs Choice is much more quiet and subtle while Winter on Fire is big and emotional.

Olegs Choice is available to stream for free on Kanopy in Winipeg (your library service) and for rent while Winter on Fire is available on Netflix

Everything Is Illuminated/Hutsul Girl Ksenca
Takes place in Odessa and stars Elijah Wood. Follows a Jewish man on a journey through Ukrainian soil in search for a Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfathers life during the war. Its funny and deeply entrenched in Ukrainian culture.

Hutsul Girl Ksenia is a much more artsy and creative look at Ukrainian culture immeresed in its lanuage and story and mythogies. Its less accessible but offers a beautiful portrait of the Carpathian area. Everything is available to stream on Crave and for rent and Hutsul is available for free on Hoopla in Winnipeg, also your library service.

Mr Jones
Tells the little known story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who risked his life to expose the imposed and man made famine on the Ukrainian people. One of my favorites of its year (2019) and a powerful film about Ukrainian identity.

Available in Winnipeg to stream free through Hoopla or for rent.

Almost Holy
A documentary about a pastor who sets out to attend to Ukrainian youth in the period beginning in 2001 and ending in 2015. What makes this meaningful to me is that our son was born in 2001 and was adopted in 2015, and much of this travels through territory close to where he lived and grew up giving me a greater sense of the world that would have informed his experience.

Available to watch on Tubi for free or for rent.

Winter of the Braves (or Kruty 1918)/Alisa in Warland
Speaking of the 1917 Revolution, this tells the story of a group of university students who changed the face of that war and brought about change to the Ukrainan Republic.

Alisa in Warand also tells the story of a university student, this one a student of film looking to make sense of the role of art in the oppressive landscape that becomes the 2014 revolution.

Winter of the Braves is available to stream on Prime or for rent and Alisa is avaiable for free on Kanopy or for rent.

Lastly, because this deserves its own category altogether, is the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. I’m not really into series or tv that much these days, but this is one of the most phenomenal modern works to be made in a long while. Available on Crave.

And to add that, if you want a good complimentary viewing check out The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Its equally sad but a good contrast to the darknes of Chernobyl given that it is also very inspiring, joy filled and hopeful.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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