"A critical look at cinema should be a basic skill." Olha Birzul about the Editing Transition programme

30 May 2023

Olha Birzul is a former journalist who has long worked as a programmer at Docudays UA and then launched the film department at the Ukrainian Institute. When Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Olha, her husband Viktor Onysko and daughter Zakharia evacuated to west Ukraine. Later, Vitia, a well-known film editor, went to war. On 30 December 2022, he died in Soledar.

In memory of Vitia, Olia edited the non-competition programme at this year's Docudays UA: the Editing Transition programme features four films that offer a different look at the art of editing and cinema in general. Daria Badior talked to the curator about the programme, its multilayered nature, its themes, refrains and messages for our festival guide.

When you said that you would make a programme about editing dedicated to Vitia at this year's festival, I thought that it would be about editing as an aesthetic. However, it seemed to me that three out of the four films in the Editing Transition programme were more about editing as a political gesture. Was my impression correct? Please tell us how you selected the films, what guided you, and what was your initial idea.

First of all, I wanted to talk in detail about the whole variety of montage in this programme: as a technique, a political gesture, a reconstruction of memory and a time machine. I tried to show the scale of this phenomenon. After all, montage is the grammar of the film language. Before the emergence of montage theory, cinema was pure entertainment. After that, it became an art. 

At first, I chose three films, as you say, political ones: The March on Rome by Mark Cousins, Private Footage by Janaína Nagata and Arcadia by Paul Wright. Together with their critical optics, they all are just suited for a montage cinema slot. But I couldn’t get Lea Glob's beautiful Apolonia, Apolonia out of my mind. I felt that conceptually it was a bit out of place. It's a personal and even confessional film, which, by the way, also includes a lot of politics and activism, but at the same time, editing stops playing a major role there. The film is not cut up or used as a method of researching reality. In Apolonia, Apolonia, we see the other side of documentary cinema – a work with time. 

I watched this film at IDFA in November during a trip organised by the Docudays UA team for Ukrainian film curators and festival programmers; it made an unforgettable impression on me, and I even messaged to Vitia that we would definitely watch this film together, because it is, in particular, about the masterful work of the editing directors. 

Lea Glob had been observing her protagonist for 13 years and couldn't finish the film. Do you remember how she has been saying throughout the entire film that she doesn't know where to stop? From my personal experience of living with an editor, I know how difficult it is to collect such personal and time-stretched stories.

I also wanted this programme to be multi-layered and interesting for very different viewers. Apolonia and Arcadia are perfect for a wide audience but the desktop documentary Private Footage, it seems to me, may be difficult for an unprepared audience.

A still from the film Arcadia

Why? I believe this film works like an investigation, it's interesting to watch. You just have to be prepared from the very beginning for the fact that the first 16 or so minutes are actually private footage that the director found at a flea market. And all the action, let’s say so, will come later.

But still, this is an unconventional investigative film, and Nagata herself is not a documentary filmmaker, but an artist. 

That's what makes it interesting, it seems to me that this film is interdisciplinary, from outside the film industry bubble. 

In general, you can call the Editing Transition programme multidisciplinary. While Apolonia is an observation film based on traditional techniques for non-fiction cinema, the artist Janaína Nagata's method relies on working with new media and shows us what the relatively young genre of desktop film is capable of. Paul Wright's Arcadia is almost a musical, and the director and screenwriter Mark Cousins can easily be called a film historian because his non-fiction films usually explore and analyse this medium. 

Speaking of Cousins, I’ve got the impression that his criticism does not go all the way to the end. At some stage, Cousins stops critiquing cinema, reminding us that the year 1922, which is the subject of The March on Rome, is not only the year of the release of propaganda films that reinforced fascism and changed the course of history, as he says, but also the year of Ava Gardner's birth, the year of Charlie Chaplin's Pay Day, and so on. With this, he is converting us back to the church of cinema, so that we don't get too disappointed. But it seemed to me that in addition to the devastating analysis of fascist cinema, it could also include the analysis of Soviet propaganda cinema (it was mentioned only once) and the influence of the film industry on propaganda machines in general. There is also a completely unnecessary Oliver Stone and footage from Mariupol (even if this is a spoiler, the audience will be prepared).

It also triggered me, but not enough to not include this film in the programme. To me, it is a priori difficult for Cousins to go all the way in film criticism. He is a well-known cinephile who has created many books and films about his love of cinema. By the way, he also has one about Eisenstein. But I was more impressed by something else. 

Firstly, the fact that Cousins pulled the film A Noi! from the archives at all. We know very little about Italian fascist film propaganda: the focus is mainly on Nazi products. And secondly, this is a powerful research work that keeps you on your toes with its thoughtful and balanced dramaturgy. On the one hand, The March on Rome has an emotional and subjective line with a witness of historical events, and on the other hand, it has a purely analytical optics of a film critic who can objectively analyse that era. In fact, the director doesn’t do anything new. He deconstructs the editing of the film, as Jacques Derrida did with the text. But Cousins obviously dissects the film to reveal the pathology that is still destroying the body of our reality. That is why I thought it was important to include the film in the programme and to remind of some of the details of the formation of fascism, which began the march of totalitarian regimes across Europe and which eventually transformed into its Russian version. I also thought that we lack such films. Nowadays, documentary journalism is gaining popularity in Ukraine, and it also works with archives, such as the State Archive named after H. Pshenychnyi and Dovzhenko Centre Archive. The March on Rome is an example of how one can analyse and promote film heritage.

Who among the Ukrainian classics would you direct your gaze like Cousins did to A Noi!?

Dzyga Vertov, of course. I think we could open a separate department and study his films. Vertov's legacy is interesting to look at from an ideological and cinematic perspective, and you can make video essays and analyse how he uses musical literacy. Vertov is a unique character. He was a flash, a grandiose figure who revolutionised cinema but caught propaganda fever. Dzyga’s life is a true inspiration for a Netflix series. If it wasn't for the French New Wave, Vertov would have faded into history. Or we would know him only as a Soviet propagandist. And here again, I can't help but think of Cousins' film, which shows how you can work with film archives, deconstruct films, and expose the dishonesty of the editing glue.

Here, it's important to emphasise that it's not just editing that is a defective glue. In general, when we talk about archival footage, we have to remember that it is not innocent. The result depends on the people who cut the film tape. But what is important about these archival studies is the reminder that film is, among other things, a physical medium. We often forget this.

I agree with you. That is why the fight for Dovzhenko Centre is symbolic for Ukrainians. This place actually keeps the film tapes, that is, the body of our cinema. And this is the body part of our entire history. By saving the institution from the shameful 'reorganisation', we are protesting against collective amnesia. 

Is a film like Cousins' possible in Ukraine, about something from the national cinematic canon, the film avant-garde, for example, and do we need it now?

We desperately need it. And we actually have enough interesting topics for such films. But it's strange to think about it now. To begin with, we need to save Dovzhenko Centre, its building and the team of professionals who created this institution and are familiar with the archive's collection. In a sustainable and stable environment, Dovzhenko Centre would have opened a kind of international laboratory for critical analysis of archival films long ago. But instead of creating such ambitious projects, we spend all our resources on the internal struggle with the incompetent authorities, who frivolously destroy everything that cultural managers have been creating for years. 

It’s painful for me as a mother. My daughter is growing up, and I can't help but think about the educational potential of cinema. It is advisable to start watching films critically as early as possible. In fact, I am currently writing a book about this. I believe that cinema should be integrated into the educational process in high school. It is a casual practice in Europe. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. 

A still from the film Arcadia

Let's talk about Arcadia. It's very insidious because it's emotional at the same time, it hits you with its refrains, its montage repetitions until you're lulled to sleep, and then it turns into a horror. I remembered another British film, Stone Island by Mark Jenkin, which we screened at Critics Week last year, which is also a horror about the earth’s certain properties, which are not always magical and can easily turn into horror.

The ancient Greeks believed that Arcadia was a utopia, a lost paradise on Earth. Wright immediately gives us a hint that the events will be disappointing. His film turns into horror because we still think that we are on top of the world, kings of the universe, but we are not. Nature is stronger than us. Our power is in thought, words and music. And the means used to create Arcadia reminds us of this. 

It is very poetic in every sense. Perhaps that's why I literally dedicate this film to Vitia, to his love of music and his ability to rhyme his montage phrases. In some ways, I'm jealous, in a good way, of people who are poetic. When you experience a loss, it is difficult to express yourself logically and directly. You drown in flashbacks, fragile memories and visual images. It's as if you're constantly having a dream about a happy past, which is difficult to recount in the morning. I'm very sorry that poetic cinema has been pushed to the periphery by modernity, that it is now a festival art house, exoticism and content for cinephiles. I would like Arcadia to remind the audience how aesthetically pleasing editing transitions can be. And the central image of the earth is still an archetype. I also thought about Dovzhenko's Earth when I was choosing this film.

I was thinking about it when I was watching it, too. I think there are direct quotes from it.

Yes, this film is very close to us. Although, as far as I know, Paul Wright found all the footage in the archives of the British Film Institute, and the soundtrack was created by British electronic music stars Adrian Utley and Will Gregory. However, the main thing is that Arcadia also appeals to folklore, which is fundamental to Ukrainian culture. 

There are no Ukrainian films in the programme, but all the films have allusions and hints to Ukraine. Cousins explains the nature of Russia's war against Ukraine, it is a cinematic story about the history lessons that mankind has not learned. Wright rhymes common archetypes and poetises the earth, as our classics did. One of the main characters in Apolonia is Oksana Shachko, a Femen activist and Ukrainian artist. The film Private Footage is relevant for us because of its investigative method. It's basically a crash course for Bellingcat fans. 

A still from the film Private Footage

Private Footage can also teach us to look at cinema from unusual perspectives, from the point of view of contemporary art, for example. And another lesson is how to make a film at home, under restrictions (in the director’s case restrictions were related to the pandemic and lockdown).

You see, how interesting: we were all worried that something bad would happen to the cinema during the pandemic, and cinema, like a transformer, simply learned to change its shape according to external circumstances. In fact, it has reflected reality as it usually does. When the desktop film genre emerged, of which Private Footage is a prime example, it was instantly supported by thriller and horror filmmakers. Now our reality is a total horror, in which Russians selflessly play the role of the worst monsters. Ukrainians can now make dozens of documentary desktop films in the real horror genre.

It's also about the modus of questioning: you get something, you buy someone's film on a flea market, watch it, and ask what it really is, what's behind it?


Absolutely. A critical view of cinema should be a basic skill. If film propaganda still can turn the largest country in the world into a dumb and ruthless horde, what more proof is needed? I would like Ukrainians who are now destroying Russian imperialism to set a trend in film ethics. Obviously, we have not yet fully understood its history, which preserves not only human pride but also shame. There is already news about the launch of dubious films about the tragedy in Bucha, festival line-ups include films by Russian directors of Belarusian origin about Ukrainian refugee children, Western liberals organise discussions with Russian "peace doves" which is traumatic for Ukrainian filmmakers... This is all a kind of crisis of critical thinking and just common empathy.

So your programme is both about training the viewer's experience and about trusting what is about to be shown on the screen. In terms of the viewer's experience, cinema is a bit authoritarian, because you sit in front of the screen with the understanding that you are going to be taken somewhere, and it may be a very good journey, or it may be something not very pleasant.

Yes, cinema is one of the most authoritarian media. You have to build the right relationship with this manipulator. And this applies to both film curators and viewers. The former are responsible for what is offered to the audience and in what context. And the audience, for their part, should not forget that a complex and high-quality film is a useful training ground for critical thinking and empathy. 

When I was creating this programme, I also thought that we have a lot of films about the most terrible period of our lives ahead of us. The war deprived many of us of the opportunity to watch films in a detached way. Through films, we will re-experience our traumas and try to reflect on them. For example, today I understand Coppola's Apocalypse Now or Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing in a completely different way. It physically hurts me to watch these films. So I tried to tell about painful things indirectly and in a non-traumatizing way, offering films that have an additional intellectual and emotional dimension.

Viktor Onysko and Olga Birzul. Photo from the family's personal archive.

What do you mean when you say that this is a programme about Vitia?

I just realised at a certain point that my memory also edits memories, feelings and thoughts. I'm constantly investigating something in my head: why things happened in the past this way and not that way, why my husband went to war and others didn't; why it was important for him to keep the safety of the country, while it's not so important for others; why someone chose a career and Vitia didn't. "If I don't go to the front, then who will?" he said. But at the same time, in his messages from the front, Vitya always ironically said that he would never become a person who only talked about the war. Whenever we had the opportunity, we would discuss books, music, and films. He asked me to send him quotes, new tracks, and photos from museums. I still send them. It's all a painful process that I can't control. But as a film curator, I know how to rhyme films. And I would also like this programme to support all those who are losing loved ones, relatives, friends, and colleagues now.

The 20th anniversary of Docudays UA is held with support from the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine, the Embassy of Switzerland in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, US Embassy in Ukraine, the Embassy of Ireland in Ukraine, the Embassy of Denmark in Ukraine, the Embassy of Brazil in Ukraine, the Polish Institute in Kyiv and the Czech centre Kyiv. The opinions, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily reflect the views of the governments or organisations of these countries. Responsibility for the content of the publication lies exclusively on the authors and editors of the publication.

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