Retrospective as a New Perspective: An Insight into the 4th Ukrainian Film Festival Berlin
By Oleksii Isakov
With this year’s motto No Time Like Home (Дім в часі in Ukrainian), the fourth edition of the Ukrainian Film Festival Berlin took place from the 25th to 29th October. Having screened a total of 19 short films, ten recent full-length films and three additional films in the Retrospective programme, as well as three recent Georgian films, across five different cinemas, the festival proved to be a growing success in Berlin’s cultural landscape. Themes of home, war, forced migration, nostalgia, homesickness and many others were explored through films, live performances, Q&A sessions and panel discussions, providing important insights into both the traumas and resilience of Ukrainian society and culture.
The new Retrospective section was a particular highlight. It was introduced in collaboration with the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre and focused on the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1970s. Largely inspired by the Ukrainian avant-garde cinema of the 1920s and revived by Sergei Parajanov in 1964 with his famous film Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), this outstanding movement in the history of Ukrainian cinema is defined by its use of rich symbolism and polysemy, visually expressive techniques, innovative camera work and a deep interest in Ukrainian national identity and culture. This became possible in the 1960s and 1970s by the partial liberalisation of the cultural policy during the Thaw period, and the loyal support of individual policy-makers including Vasyl’ Tsvirkunov, the director of Kyiv Film Studio, Sviatoslav Ivanov, the head of the State Film Committee of the Ukrainian SSR, and Petro Shelest, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Ukraine.
However, the Moscow-based state censorship of films was still in operation. After a period of strong visual and narrative experimentalism in the 1960s, Ukrainian poetic film directors shifted towards using more clearly articulated plots in their works, thus making them more comprehensible to a broader viewership. This was in no small part the result of a series of prohibitions imposed by the state control authorities on several finished films produced in the latter half of the 1960s, which were deemed overly complex and thus posed a danger to the Soviet audiences. Ukrainian filmmakers had to find ways how to camouflage the themes that were important to them and thus try to evade the censorship machine.
The work of Yuriy Illyenko (1936-2010), one of the two directors featured in the Retrospective, can serve as a good example of this situation. After receiving high praise as the camera operator for Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, he decided to try his hand at directing. However, his first two films, Krynytsia dlia sprahlykh (A Well for the Thirsty) from 1965 and Vechir na Ivana Kupala (The Eve of Ivan Kupalo) from 1968, were banned directly after production and were only re-discovered during the late 1980s. Illyenko’s third film, Bilyi ptakh z chornoiu oznakoiu (The White Bird Marked with Black) from 1971, which was the first screening in the programme, was his first public success. In the summer of 1971, it received the Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival and was then widely screened in Ukraine, throughout the Soviet Union and abroad. Bilyi ptakh z chornoiu oznakoiu was also one of the first films tackling the topic of the morally and politically divided society in the west of modern Ukraine during the Second World War from a critical perspective.
Its storyline centres on the life of a poor Ukrainian family, the Dzvonars, as they struggle through hunger and the authoritarian Romanian rule in interwar, predominantly Ukrainian-populated Northern Bukovyna. According to the plot, when the Soviet Union annexes the region in 1940 and subsequently when Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union in 1941, the family gets divided. One of the older brothers, Petro, joins the Red Army, while another one, Orest, flees into the forest where he becomes part of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The complexity of their moral choices and the tragedy of a family torn apart by the war and political upheavals are brilliantly portrayed. In addition, a love drama between Dana, the daughter of a local priest, and the three older Dzvonar brothers embraces the plot by giving it a sense of fatality and at the same time by symbolising the continuation of life under any circumstances. Ukrainian folk songs, authentic Bukovynian music, played in the film by local musicians, and especially the beautifully filmed traditional Sabash dance, which appears three times over the course of the plot and serves as the emotional climax of the film, contribute greatly to the overall poetic atmosphere.
At this point, the figure of Ivan Mykolaichuk (1941-1987) deserves special attention. Born and raised in Northern Bukovyna, he became one of the central personalities of the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Mykolaichuk’s talent as an actor first unfolded in Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, where he played one of the main characters, Ivan Paliychuk. Over time, he began to move into other areas of filmmaking, so that by the time Bilyi ptakh z chornoiu oznakoiu was in production, he was involved in it not only as an actor (in this film he played one of the older brothers, Petro), but also as a co-writer and even composer. Mykolaichuk can also be seen as a unifying figure for all three films screened in the festival’s Retrospective, as he directed the other two, Vavylon XX (Babylon XX) from 1979 and Taka piznia, taka tepla osin’ (Such Late, Such Warm Autumn) from 1981.
Vavylon XX was created at the time when the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema had already been officially banned after the change of the communist party leadership in 1972 and 1973. Despite that, it still conveys the main features of the movement established by Sergei Parajanov, Leonid Osyka and Yuriy Illyenko. Based on the 1971 novel Lebedyna zhraia (The Swan Flock) by Vasyl’ Zemliak, the film depicts the change of life in the fictional Ukrainian village of “Babylon”, ironically divided into the upper and lower parts, during the first years of forced land collectivisation in the 1920s. Ivan Mykolaichuk not only directed the film, but also played one of the main roles, that of the village philosopher Fabian, who observes his fellow villagers with a certain detachment, but also with neat irony and growing concern for their future. The metaphor of Babylon, where people stopped understanding each other when they started speaking different languages, can clearly be applied to the Ukrainian society, which underwent multiple political and geographical changes throughout the 20th century.
Taka piznia, taka tepla osin’, the last film in the Retrospective, shares many characteristics with the Ukrainian Poetic Cinema movement, but does not explicitly belong to it. The movie combines these features with the new, more realistic style of the 1980s. It tells the story of a Ukrainian peasant, Mykhailo Rusnak, who leaves ruinous interwar Bukovyna with his small daughter Orysia to Canada, urged by poverty and the desire to work hard for a better future. Fifty years later, already old, almost blind and driven by nostalgia, he decides to visit his homeland with his granddaughter, also Orysia, named after her mother. While Mykhailo fails to reconnect with his original home, feeling a deep shame about his emigration half a century ago, his granddaughter falls in love with a village man, played by Mykolaichuk himself. A difficult decision must be made: will Orysia return to Canada with her grandfather, or will she follow her heart and stay where her roots lie? A romantic drama full of tense emotions and subtle humour, Such Late, Such Warm Autumn was the last film directed by Ivan Mykolaichuk.
Each film in the Retrospective came with a short historical and cinematic introduction to give the audience a sense of the specific context in which the films were made and the plots unfolded. After the screenings, Q&A sessions between the moderators and the audience allowed for a more detailed analysis of the films, a search for hidden meanings and an exchange of impressions.
It is also important to note that all three films underwent extensive changes during the production process, which were forced on them by state censorship. For example, the scripts had to be re-written several times and the footage for Babylon XX, which had been planned as a duology, was reduced to a single-part film. Thus, after all the censorship cuts, relatively little of the original ideas remained. Nevertheless, the core themes of the films persisted: the exploration of the roots of Ukrainian national and cultural identity, the impact of political shifts on the lives of ordinary people, as well as the complexity and severity of transitional periods in the history of ethnically Ukrainian lands. Particularly at a time of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine, these themes seem to be extremely important for both Ukrainian and international audiences, helping them to better comprehend Ukrainian history and the unwavering devotion of the Ukrainian people to their country.
About the Author
Oleksii Isakov graduated in linguistics and translation studies from Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University in Ukraine and finished his master’s degree in intercultural communication studies at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). Since April 2021, he has been working on his PhD project on literary adaptations in Ukrainian Poetic Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s under the supervision of Annette Werberger and Andrii Portnov at Viadrina University.
Citation: Oleksii Isakov, Retrospective as a New Perspective: An Insight into the 4th Ukrainian Film Festival Berlin, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.11.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49302