Why Ukrainian perspectives on cinema matter

13 Jun

After two years of online events due to the pandemic, Victoria Leshchenko and Yuliia Kovalenko and their team of organizers were looking forward to finally celebrating the Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in person.


But then, just as they were completing the planning of their festival, to be held March 25 to April 3, Russia invaded Ukraine. It has since been postponed indefinitely. "This is a painful story for us," festival programmer Kovalenko told DW via video from Odesa.

Kovalenko stayed in the country with her parents, while Leshchenko, the festival's program director, managed to flee to Berlin. Even though their lives were disrupted by war, they have pursued their mission of promoting Ukrainian cinema by establishing a film curators' initiative, called Sloik Film Atelier.

Collaborating with the two curators, the Berlin-based Deutsche Kinemathek is now releasing a special program called "Perspectives of Ukrainian Cinema." From June 12 to 30, cinemas in Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig will be screening — free of charge — an eclectic selection of Ukrainian films, accompanied by discussions with filmmakers and experts.

"We don't know as much as we should know about Ukrainian culture, society and history," said Rainer Rother, artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek at a presentation of the film series. By screening these films, the German film archive aims to increase people's awareness that "Ukraine has a culture of its own. As we know, Russian propaganda denies the existence of Ukrainian culture," he added.

This idea was also echoed by Germany's culture commissioner, Claudia Roth, during her official visit to Odesa on Tuesday. "This war is also a war against culture," she said, noting that after more than 100 days of war, 375 cultural institutions and 137 churches have been destroyed or damaged. "This clearly shows it is about attacking the cultural identity of Ukraine," she added.

Greetings from Ukraine's oldest film studio

At the press presentation of the series "Perspectives of Ukrainian Cinema," co-curator Kovalenko sent a video message filmed in front of the Odesa Film Studio. Her choice of location was not random. The film studio, which officially celebrated its centennial in 2019, is a symbol of Ukraine's longstanding filmmaking tradition.

But recently, on May 18, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that Russia considers the film studio a "military facility" and a likely target for a missile strike. The fact that Russia is threatening to destroy this cultural symbol reawakens painful memories, as Ukraine's flourishing filmmaking scene was already suppressed by the totalitarian Soviet regime last century.

Ukraine's long history of filmmaking

Ukrainians are proud of their cinematic tradition. As Kovalenko pointed out, the inhabitants of Odesa see their city as the home of the invention of the world's first movie camera. Inventor Joseph Timchenko held a screening of films shot with his own apparatus in 1894 — two years before the Lumiere brothers' first projection, which went down in history as the birth of cinema. Timchenko, however, never patented his design.

The state-led Odesa Film Studio was officially founded in 1919, on top of the remnants of private cinema studios held by Myron Grossman and other producers. Initially managed by a state agency called the All Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, "for the first 10 years it was still possible to work independently from Moscow," explained Kovalenko. It was the golden era of Ukrainian cinema, and Odesa was seen as "the Ukrainian Hollywood," said the film fan.

Odesa Film Studio

But then, starting in the 1930s, the studio fell under Moscow's control, with many creators fleeing as they faced political prosecution. "It was a dark period of terror against intellectuals and citizens," said Kovalenko.

Among those who suffered was Les Kurbas, who is seen as one of the most important Ukrainian theater directors of the 20th century. He was executed in 1937, among the estimated 700,000 to 1.2 million killed during Joseph Stalin's campaign to solidify his  hold on power.

Another notable name is Isaac Babel, a screenwriter and author whose books have been translated into several languages, including his "Odessa Stories." Having traveled around Ukraine in the early 1930s, he witnessed the USSR's brutal collectivization process and Stalin's deliberate famine, the Holodomor, which killed an estimated 4 million Ukrainians. Babel was arrested in 1939 and, according to Soviet authorities, died in a Siberian gulag camp in 1941. His family assumes he was executed soon after his arrest.

Revisiting "Arsenal"

"Perspectives of Ukrainian Cinema" opens with a film classic by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, who managed to keep working during that period since he supported communist ideals. "But despite his communist beliefs, he didn't try to produce agitprop films," Kovalenko pointed out.

Dovzhenko's 1929 avant-garde expressionist film, "Arsenal," portraying the 1918 uprising of workers in the Kyiv factory of the same name, avoids tracing clear ideological lines and evokes wartime absurdities, which could be interpreted as questioning the morality of violent revolution. "It is really interesting to analyze and rethink the film today," said Kovalenko.

A new generation of Ukrainian filmmakers

All the other films in the "Perspectives of Ukrainian Cinema" series are recent works, directed in the past five years. Ukrainian cinema has been experiencing a revival over the past decade, boosted by a strong documentary filmmaking scene. From there, many moved on to directing fiction, Leshchenko  pointed out at the press presentation of the program.

This new generation of directors carry the torch of the country's rich cinematic legacy, the film fans said. Their works not only showcase a broad palette of genres, Leshchenko noted, but many films also bear witness to the fact that the current conflict with Russia sadly didn't start in 2022.


Edited by: Louisa Schaefer

Author Elizabeth Grenier    

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