After two years of online events due to the pandemic, Victoria Leshchenko and Yuliia Kovalenko and their team of organizers were eager to finally celebrate the Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in person.
But then, just as they were finishing planning for their festival, which will be held from March 25 to April 3, Russia invaded Ukraine. It has since been postponed indefinitely. “It’s a painful story for us,” festival programmer Kovalenko told DW via video from Odessa.
Kovalenko remained in the country with her parents, while Leshchenko, the festival’s program director, managed to flee to Berlin. Even though their life was disrupted by the war, they continued their mission to promote Ukrainian cinema by creating an initiative of film curators, called Sloik Film Atelier.
Film curators Yuliia Kovalenko and Victoria Leshchenko
Together with the two curators, the Berlin-based Deutsche Kinemathek is now releasing a special program titled “Perspectives of Ukrainian Cinema.”
From June 12 to 30, cinemas in Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig will screen an eclectic selection of Ukrainian films free of charge, 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 Deutsche Kinemathek during a presentation of the film series. By showing these films, the German Film Archive aims to raise awareness that “Ukraine has its own culture. As we know, Russian propaganda denies the existence of Ukrainian culture,” he added. .
This idea was also echoed by German Culture Commissioner Claudia Roth during her official visit to Odessa on Tuesday. “This war is also a war on 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 that it is about attacking the cultural identity of Ukraine,” she added.
Greetings from the oldest film studio in Ukraine
During the press presentation of the series “Perspectives of Ukrainian cinema”, co-curator Kovalenko sent a video message filmed in front of the Odessa film studio. His choice of location was not random.
The film studio, which officially celebrated its centenary in 2019, is a symbol of Ukraine’s long cinematic tradition.
But recently, on May 18, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia considered the film studio a “military installation” and a likely target for a missile strike.
The fact that Russia is threatening to destroy this cultural symbol brings back painful memories, as Ukraine’s thriving film scene was already suppressed by the Soviet totalitarian regime in the last century.
Ukraine’s long cinematic history
Ukrainians are proud of their cinematographic tradition. As Kovalenko pointed out, the people of Odessa see their city as the cradle of the invention of the world’s first motion picture camera. Inventor Joseph Timchenko organized a screening of films shot with his own camera in 1894, two years before the Lumière brothers’ first screening, which went down in history as the birth of cinema. Timchenko, however, never patented his design.
The state-run Odessa Film Studio was officially founded in 1919, above the remnants of private film studios owned by Myron Grossman and other producers.
Initially run 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,” Kovalenko explained. It was the golden age of Ukrainian cinema and Odessa was considered “Ukrainian Hollywood”, said the movie buff.
The Odessa film studio is more than a century old
But then, from the 1930s, the studio fell under Moscow’s control, with many creators fleeing from political prosecution.
“It was a dark period of terror against intellectuals and citizens,” Kovalenko said.
Among those who suffered was Les Kurbas, considered one of the most important Ukrainian theater directors of the 20th century. He was executed in 1937, among an estimated 700,000 to 1.2 million dead during Joseph Stalin’s campaign to consolidate 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 through Ukraine in the early 1930s, he witnessed the brutal collectivization process of the USSR 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.
“Perspectives of Ukrainian Cinema” opens with a classic film by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, who managed to continue working during this period because he supported communist ideals. “But despite his communist beliefs, he didn’t try to produce agitprop films,” Kovalenko pointed out.
An expressionist masterpiece: “Arsenal” by Oleksandr Dovzhenko
Dovzhenko’s 1929 avant-garde expressionist film ‘Arsenal’, depicting the uprising of Kyiv factory workers of the same name in 1918, avoids drawing clear ideological lines and evokes wartime nonsense, which could be interpreted as a questioning of the morality of violent revolution. “It’s really interesting to analyze and rethink the movie today,” Kovalenko said.
A new generation of Ukrainian filmmakers
All other films in the “Perspectives of Ukrainian Cinema” series are recent works, made within the last five years.
Ukrainian cinema has seen a revival over the past decade, boosted by a strong documentary scene. From there, many moved on to directing fiction, Leshchenko pointed out during the press presentation of the program.
This new generation of directors carries the torch of the country’s rich cinematic heritage, moviegoers said. Their works not only feature a wide palette of genres, Leshchenko noted, but many films also bear witness to the fact that the current conflict with Russia unfortunately did not begin in 2022.
Edited by: Louisa Schaefer