Culture as a Weapon: Spotlight on Ukrainian Film

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As Letterboxd members look to the cinema of Ukraine for insights into the country’s history, culture and people, we highlight important contemporary Ukrainian films, Letterboxd lists and links.

“Some people would do anything for a good shot.”

Iryna Tsilyk’s The Earth is Blue as an Orange won her a directing prize in the Sundance World Documentary Competition. The observational film—about mothers parenting alone, life under the constant stress of invasion, and transforming trauma into art—has just been made available to rent or buy on Vimeo On Demand by distributor Cats and Docs.

Tsilysk follows solo parent Anna and her four children as they exercise their passion for cinema by analyzing films and making their own (“Living by the Rules”) while living civilian life several years into a war. The film features lively family discussions about shots, perspectives and script notes, amidst the humdrum details of everyday life in a war zone.

“Those who are looking for a film that dives deeply into the history, politics, or large ramifications of the Invasion of Ukraine will find no such insight in The Earth is Blue as an Orange,” writes Bergman Tarkovsk. “However, as a reminder of how war affects the lives of millions of typical families across the world, this film is a sometimes gorgeous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always intimate documentary.”

For an angrier look at the Donbas crisis, seek out Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, his 2018 feature film made up of fictional vignettes that show “without concessions the vivid image of a society completely devastated by war, corruption, misery, media manipulation and propaganda,” according to a review by Enfant du Siècle.

As for Tsilysk herself, Sky News reports that the poet and filmmaker is on the move with her eleven-year-old son, while her husband, the noted writer Artem Chekh, has joined the fight.

Zola Jesus on the cinema of her ancestral homeland.

Singer Zola Jesus, whose parents are first-gen Americans, paid tribute to their roots with a Letterboxd list of her favorite movies filmed in Ukraine, made by Ukrainians, or about Ukraine. “These films have helped me to connect with my ancestral homeland and get to know the country better,” she writes. “Ukraine is so close to my heart.”

The singer is also raising funds for Ukrainian humanitarian relief via Bandcamp by donating all sales of her 2020 song SVOBODA, which she wrote in solidarity with the Belarusian protests against totalitarian oppression by Alexander Lukashenko.

“Culture is also our weapon”—100 Best Films in the History of Ukrainian Cinema.

Letterboxd member and Ukrainian film critic Denis Budanov has listified the top 100 Ukrainian films according to a survey of Ukrainian film critics and independent experts, which was published last year by the Dovzhenko Centre. (Another Letterboxd member, Les Yakovyshyn, celebrates independent Ukraine specifically with this list of “all the best movies from 1991 onwards”—one movie per year.)

Writing on Twitter, Budanov noted: “Of course now is not the time for movies and entertainment for Ukrainian people! But! Culture is also our weapon. I pray that the time will come when we can watch a movie, and not repel enemy military aggression.”

The Crimea-based critic, who rarely tweets, has generously chosen to begin sharing his knowledge of Ukrainian film culture, including cinemas, filmmakers and the industry itself. Follow his feed for links to films such as Mykyta Lyskov’s short Deep Love (“a surreal and ironic portrait of modern Ukraine”), and Sashko Danylenko’s animated short The History of Ukraine in 5 Minutes, which won Best Animated Short at the 2021 Ukrainian Film Academy Awards.

Budanov has also shared a letter from the Ukrainian FIPRESCI branch and the Union of Ukrainian Film Critics, calling on the global film industry to actively isolate Russia “until its troops leave the territory of Ukraine.”

It’s official: Paddington is also Ukrainian.

“Until today I had no idea who provided the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukraine,” wrote Paddington star Hugh Bonneville, after The Black List founder Franklin Leonard took to Twitter seeking confirmation that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is also an actor and comedian, provided his country’s dub for the Peruvian refugee bear.

“Speaking for myself, thank you, President Zelenskiy,” Bonneville tweeted. YouTube has the behind-the-scenes of the President’s voice recording, and Bonneville also shared a link to Unicef’s work with Paddington on behalf of children in need around the world.

93 days on the ground.

Before Zelensky, there was Yanukovich, who was deposed in the 2014 revolution, which was kicked off by student demonstrations in support of Europe at a time when the Ukrainian government was seeking closer ties with Russia.

Evgeny Afineevsky’s highly rated documentary Winter on Fire, which is screening right now on Netflix, gets right into the thick of those protests—and that’s where its focus stays. If you are looking for wider context, look for other films (Hohohoho’s list of post-communist films; Dmytro’s list of films about the Russian invasion of Ukraine).

But if you want to come close to the experience of being on Ukraine’s streets, writes Scott, “a camera crew is right there during this revolution, documenting the chaos and carnage happening literally feet away from them and the claustrophobic nature of this type of filmmaking is jarring and unforgettable. I felt like I could feel the heat of the fire.”

The near future.

Writer and director Valentyn Vasyanoych has already considered what Ukraine’s near future might look like in his dystopian drama Atlantis, which won the Horizons section best film award at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, and was Ukraine’s official selection for the 93rd Academy Awards.

Set in 2025, it is a slow, minimalist walk through a post-war Ukraine. “Warmth, fire, light and red are elements that are found in many frames; the fire in the factory, the red lightswitch, the thermographic camera shots,” writes Jacoline. “The first scene is one of the most memorable first scenes I’ve seen in a while and directly shows the viewer what we’re up to: a highly unpleasant and distanced film about the horrors of the war.”

And yet, even in such a bleak portrait of a future that is getting closer every day, there is hope, writes Darren. “Civilisation here is burnt and ruined. Yet Atlantis has a form of optimism, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, a human connection can be found again. It's not much, but it matters.”

Atlantis is currently available on Fandor and iTunes in the US.