DOCU/UKRAINE: opportunity to look at the dynamics of Ukrainian society

26 March 2017

These dynamics are determined by the social changes of recent years, related to the Revolution of Dignity and the war in the East, and by processes that have been going on for a much longer time, since the Communist period. And all these processes have had a considerable impact on the Ukrainian society, causing it to be polarised. Ihor Hrabovych and Maria Muradkhanian have agreed to discuss this year’s national programme.




I would like to start with a certain generalisation, a working hypothesis which considers Ukrainian society as a whole. I suggest that we look at it through the time axis that stretches from the past into the future. For a long time, Ukraine was in a frozen state, it was the Ukrainian SSR, where nothing ever changed and even nothing was ever a problem in any way.


It was as if the country was torn out of the historical process; the main slogan here was stability and equilibrium. Later, the equilibrium was disturbed, and some changes came which we can safely call irreversible. Apparently, it is too soon to evaluate them, but it is important to record the very moment of the historical movement which led to a break with the past, in particular, with the Communist past.


Most of the films in this year’s competition, in my opinion, speak about the power of the past, about a certain inertia of history, which is so hard to overcome. But not everyone wants to do it — and I mean here both the protagonists and the filmmakers.


For me, the film which can serve as a key to this year’s national competition is the film Grey Horses by Mykola Ridnyi. It presents to us the rather eventful story about the director’s great-grandfather, the anarchist Ivan Krupskyi (1901– 1971). He managed to fight both for the Bolsheviks and for Makhno, and to lead his own squad that acted of their own accord and fought a war against the Soviet government.


Later, when the Stalinist ‘stability‘ arrived, he became an unwelcome participant and witness to events, and had to live in hiding. After a while, all traces of him were lost, and today Krupskyi’s descendants do not even know where his grave is. And now, Krupskyi’s grandson is attempting to reconstruct his grandfather’s biography using family recollections and the records of police interrogation made during Krupskyi’s arrest.


And he does in in a rather untraditional way, involving people who play the same roles today as the used to do in the past. So his police records are read out by actual policemen, the anarchist squad’s members are re-created by contemporary anarchists, and so on. Basically, for all the historical events, the director finds contemporary analogies.


The result is nontrivial, but it is rather controversial, and in some ways risky, because it is hardly possible to equate the characters of then and now, even if they are called the same. And the past here is not actually the past, but some ahistorical, timeless factor which is nearly impossible to overcome. History is running in circles, and it knows neither progress nor development.


Another film that links the past to the present is The Fall of Lenin by Svitlana Shymko.


In this film, the present and the past are literally sewn together by the editing, which organises the meaning of this film. Soviet chronicles and films from the ’perestroika’ period here are joined together with contemporary shots, creating a kind of timeless unity. The film tells the story of Ukrainian monuments to Lenin, from their creation until they were destroyed. And the central theme of the film is a series of excerpts from the 1992 film by B. Kustov titled The New Information about the End of the World, in which a group of people are trying to evoke Lenin’s spirit at a seance.


Thus, the film’s demonstration of the falls of Lenin in Ukraine during the last three years is commented upon by a 1992 film and Soviet chronicles. This technique allows us to put the events of the present in the context of the past, but, at the same time, it deprives the film of its historicism, and obscures both the fall of Lenin and the processes of de-Communisation, which are compared in the film with the Bolsheviks’ iconoclasm.


Another film on a similar topic tells the story of two choirs from the Chervonohrad People’s House. It is titled Alive and Undefeated. We see a singing couple called the Undefeated, belonging to the Chervonohrad Brotherhood of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army Fighters, and a choir of war and labour veterans called the Living Memory.


This film also starts with the fall of the local Lenin monument which happened back in 1990. This event is a kind of starting point, which seems to launch a process of division of the city community into two parts, one of which is still loyal to Soviet values, and the other which is creating new, nationalist values. The two choirs, presented in a symmetrical manner, seem to be equal in the film. It is as if each of them represents an equal part of the community, but is that really so?


Sometimes the filmmakers even seem to share their characters’ points of view, as in the film Metro by Lera Malchenko and Oleksandr Hants, which tells the story of the shortest subway in Ukraine, located in Dnipro. The construction of a subway line in Dnipro started in 1982, in the Brezhnev period, and ended in 1995, in an independent Ukraine.


The Dnipro subway has only six stations, although the plan envisioned several more lines. The first line was supposed to provide industrial locations with transportation. Most of them today do not operate at the same capacity as they used to in Soviet times. Therefore, some metro of the stations are mostly empty. The subway is unprofitable. Many of its employees have been laid off. Everything is sad and gloomy.


Later, it turns out that money has been found to open three new stations. But the plans for the future are not very specific; the future does not seem to interest anyone in this film.


Another example of the past in isolation from the future is the film Coda by Anna Korzh. The protagonist of the film is a violin teacher at a music school. Her life is all about music, her students, and her past. A classic story told in a classic way.


The film looks nostalgic, although it is about a very contemporary situation. People like the protagonist do exist, and  will probably continue to exist; although, who knows – education is reforming, its staff are being replaced, but something will inevitably be left in the past.


This film resonates with The Winter Garden’s Tale by Semen Mozgovyi. This film is the story of Valentina Voronina, who has to retire after forty-five years of working at a floriculture pavilion of the Kyiv Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy. Here, the past seems to be inscribed both in the ‘body‘ of the pavilion, which is constantly being renovated, and the body of the film’s protagonist herself, which needs some rest. The past presents itself to us through its tangible traces, very expressive and persuasive. At the same time, the future in this film will not be different from the past in any way; even Valentyna’s successor will have the same name.


Meanwhile by Yulia Appen is also mostly about the past, but this past is purely private. It is about a group of emigrants who speak about the homeland they left in Skype conversations with the filmmaker. These memories are told in different keys, and the only thing they share is the characters’ unwillingness to return home. They may visit their homeland, which has either stayed unchanged or, on the contrary, has changed, but they already live in a different reality. The film’s author lifts the curtain hiding  their present lives, but only slightly; it is obvious that they are strikingly different from their past.




The other part of Docudays UA’s Ukrainian competition of is precisely about private life. The characters of the films See You Later, Komunalka and The Diary live in the present, which is immersed in the war that is being waged both in the country in general and inside the people themselves. The war transforms people’s consciousness, making them fight the past, and the Soviet past in particular. This fight is only possible with young people. Thus, this part of the programme is about youth.


The film See You Later by Yulia Kochetkova-Nabozhniak is a story about a young couple who are in love and whose life changes when the war starts. The guy is sent to the frontline. The intimate feelings of the two people are here interwoven with the social reality, with the feeling of duty and the inevitability of change. This is the only film in which the war comes to the fore and is shown upfront, directly involving the protagonists in it.


The subject of the film Komunalka by Andriy Pryymachenko, Uliana Skytska, Valeriy Puzik, Yulia Ilchenko, Maryna Lopushyn and Mariam Shelia, is also fighting the past. Here he is trying to renovate the bathroom of a communal flat in Odessa, which has not been renovated for 50 years. The young guy, together with his friend, is destroying the old system in this simple, mundane way, holding a toilet seat in one hand and plaster in another. These are people of the new generation who completely reject the past, but they have to fight against its remnants in the present.


The young soccer player Alina Shylova, the protagonist of the film Home Games by Alisa Kovalenko, also faces a difficult life choice. After her mother’s death, she has to take care of her little brother and sister. So she faces the choice between the children and soccer.


This film also combines eras in its own way: the Soviet era when female soccer was supported by the state, and the present, when it struggles to exist. And it creates an additional context for this story – however, it is not necessary, since her career in soccer feels rather uncertain.


Thus, Alina’s existential choice comes to the fore. She becomes the master of her own future.


The most positive story in this respect is demonstrated in The Diary by Oleksandra Chuprina. This is another intimate story, where the closeness with the protagonist reaches its peak. The film’s protagonist is a 14-year-old who hangs out with his peers, plays the guitar and spends time with his classmate Marta, whom he is in love with. The value of this story lies in the intimate feelings of the teenager, a group whose lives are usually hidden from outsiders. It is the world of a person who belongs to a new generation, who lives in his own feelings about the present and the future. He does not care about our Soviet past with all its contemporary manifestations that no longer hold him back.



The artistic form in which these ideas are implemented is also important. In almost all cases, the films avoid debate, direct conflict and, of course, pathos. Some things are just shown indirectly, through their reflections, such as the daily life of the army in the film See You Later, which we mostly see through pictures in a smartphone. In The Diary, the medium is monologues recorded on video. It is important that the protagonists of the film are also often its authors.


The film Coffee vs. Barbecues by Dmytro Burko is quite witty. The film feels like an antithesis to Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes, which is built completely on intellectual dialogue. Here, the familiar coffee metaphor, which is still the symbol of educated, socially active people, is joined by the barbecue, which is a vulgar image of the irresponsibility, relaxation and indifference of post-Soviet people.


Finally, I would like to say a couple of words about Refuge by Anastasia Maksymchuk. This film is completely focused on the present, although the roots of its central conflict reach deeper. It is about a de facto war between protectors of homeless dogs and their opponents who want to destroy these animals. It is a kind of philosophical dispute which deals with the very foundations of our social life.


The war is present in every single film of this year’s Ukrainian competition. It breaks into the lives of the filmmakers and the characters, forcing people to either challenge the present and the past, or to hide in that past.


Photo: "Komunalka" by Andriy Pryymachenko, Uliana Skytska, Valeriy Puzik, Yulia Ilchenko, Maryna Lopushyn and Mariam Shelia


25 – 
April 2022