May 21, 2023
The power of film as a cultural archive.
It’s been over a year since the Russian Invasion of Ukraine escalated. As a Ukrainian immigrant studying film, I became interested in the history of Ukrainian cinema and how it reflects the sociopolitical context of the country at the time. I wanted to look into the past to better understand the present. I’ve always believed that there was more to film than just watching it for pure entertainment, but not certain just what it was. As I binge watched for this article however, I think I found it. Film holds a unique wisdom and knowledge that cannot be communicated in everyday conversation.
Ukraine has a long and complex history, deeply intertwined with the country’s political, social, and cultural evolution. From the early days of silent cinema to the modern digital era, Ukrainian filmmakers have produced diverse films that reflect the country’s unique identity and struggle for independence. The Soviet era (1922-91) saw the emergence of Ukrainian cinema. However, during this period, most films produced were used as a propaganda tool, enforcing the Communist Party’s ideology. With themes being limited, creativity was restricted to conform to the state’s interests.
Regardless, a few Ukrainian directors were able to circumvent a dictatorship and wind the concerns of their independent culture into stories to allow a reflection and meditation for a people not being represented or acknowledged by their government. For example, Earth (1930) is a silent film that tells the story of a Ukrainian village during a period of social and political change. The film focuses on the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet era, portraying the struggles and aspirations of the lower class, their deep connection to the land, and their resistance against oppression. Dovzhenko uses stunning visual imagery, poetic symbolism, and folkloric elements to convey a sense of Ukrainian cultural identity. The film depicts the harsh realities of collectivization and critiques the forced industrialization policies of the Soviet government, which were disrupting traditional rural life and values.
Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) tells the tragic love story of a young couple against the backdrop of the Hutsul culture, an ethnic group living in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine. Parajanov employs a bold and innovative visual style, including elaborate sets, costumes, and cinematography, to create a film that is rich in Ukrainian cultural traditions and rituals, while incorporating elements of Ukrainian folk mythology, spirituality and showcasing the Hutsul people’s unique worldview. The film challenges the status quo by defying conventional narrative structures and embracing a poetic, non-linear, and symbolic approach to storytelling.
After independence was gained in 1991 cinema in Ukraine witnessed a rebirth. With newfound freedom from Soviet censorship, Ukrainian filmmakers began to explore a wide range of themes and styles, often drawing on the country’s rich cultural heritage and history. A new generation of directors emerged, and Ukrainian cinema started to develop a unique style that set it apart from the rest of cinema at the time.
Emphasising on depicting everyday life, Ukrainian cinema is known for its distinct realism. Filmmakers often use real locations and settings that are deeply rooted in Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian films often explore topics such as war, poverty, corruption, and the struggle for human rights. Directors use their films as a platform to raise awareness of these issues, sparking a conversation around them. Perhaps Ukraine tends to lean towards these non-fictional stories to tell the world instead of pure entertainment because Ukrainians don’t just “watch movies”, they live them. This emphasis on everyday life and ordinary people creates a sense of authenticity and relatability in Ukrainian films, which helps to connect with audiences on a personal level.
The Revolution of Dignity (2014) profoundly impacted modern Ukrainian cinema. After the release of the film, many filmmakers began using their work to explore the themes of revolution, protest, and social change. Ukrainian cinema also began to develop a distinct yet restrained minimalist visual style, with many filmmakers using natural lighting, long takes, and handheld cameras to create a sense of realism and intimacy.
Moving into the present context, it comes as no surprise Ukrainian cinema has also been deeply affected by the ongoing conflict with Russia over the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. With the country’s economy and cultural institutions under strain, many filmmakers have struggled to secure funding for their projects as well as secure distribution. This has led to a rise in crowdfunding campaigns and other creative ways of financing films, as well as a growing reliance on international co-productions to bring their films to a wider audience. Despite the challenges posed by the conflict, Ukrainian cinema continues to thrive, with a growing number of films being produced each year. These films reflect not only the experiences of those affected by the conflict, but also the resilience and creativity of the Ukrainian people.
One of the most significant impacts of the war on Ukrainian cinema has been the emergence of films that directly address the conflict. These films range from documentaries, such as The War of the Worlds (2022), which chronicles the events of the conflict, to feature films like Patriot (2022), which depicts the experiences of Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines. These films provide a powerful commentary on the conflict, giving voice to those affected by the war and bringing attention to the conflict on the global stage.
As the country continues to navigate the complexities of the conflict, it is clear that Ukrainian cinema will continue to play an important role in documenting and interpreting this pivotal moment in the country’s history. With many Ukrainian filmmakers unable to work in the conflict zone, there has now been a growing trend of filmmakers from other regions of the country, such as Lviv and Kyiv creating films that reflect their own unique experiences. This has led to a diversification of styles and approaches within Ukrainian cinema, as well as a growing recognition of the contributions of female filmmakers and other underrepresented groups.
Ukrainian cinema has come a long way since its inception in the Soviet era. Reflecting on its history, I believe filmmakers are often underestimated in the power that we hold as storytellers. Movies are time capsules for us to reflect on sociopolitical climates, and what we had to say about it. Movies allow the audience to empathize with the protagonist’s experiences, almost as if we are experiencing them ourselves. Being able to witness what is happening in Ukraine without actually being there is an incredible force. These stories hold a greater power than any headline on the news ever could.