Monday, 9 November 2015

The Eighth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, 6-7 November 2015

It is always a pleasure to attend the annual film festival mounted by Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge.  Usually at least part of the festival is held in the Arts Picturehouse, but this year both nights were in the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College, serviceable but not quite as plush.   Cambridge Ukrainian Studies director Dr Rory Finin in his introduction explained that while the organisers had managed to fend off the demands for space by the James Bond vehicle Skyfall three years ago, the might of Spectre was too powerful, leaving no space for Carpathian shepherds at the arts cinema; ‘Bond is no lover of Ukrainian documentary film’, he wryly commented.

The eighth annual festival had a different format as well.  Previously there had been a mix of fiction and documentaries, but this time no fiction was included because of a collaboration with ‘Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival’, which had supplied six documentaries of varying kinds as the entire programme.  And six interesting documentaries they were.  Friday night began with two shorts on a theme that is at the heart of recent Ukrainian history, and from which the repercussions are still being felt: EuroMaidan, or the Revolution of Dignity as it is also called.  Last year we saw Maidan, a magisterial portrait of a society in upheaval, showing how idealistic people who yearn for a better life can come together in an effort to effect change.  Maidan is Everywhere (Kateryna Hornostai, 2015, 36 mins) and The Medic Leaves Last (Svitlana Shynko, 2014, 26 mins) are intimate portraits that complement the larger-scale film.

Maidan is Everywhere intersperses the Madian protests with people going about their everyday lives, as life continues even in the face of violent political change.  We follow them at home, at a wedding, even army cadets giving an oath of loyalty, though to what may have been unclear to the young men.  We also see that not everybody supported the protesters wholeheartedly: a group of students gather in a street to the annoyance of a local resident who complains that they are blocking the road.  Surprisingly, the film opens with a couple of young women in an open space, one about to interview the other.  The interviewee is nervous, and they are distracted by a small funfair in the background.  Only at the end, when we return to them, do we realise that actually they are not in Ukraine at all but in Red Square, Moscow.  They unfurl the Ukrainian flag, whereupon a police car smartly rolls up and an officer politely but firmly tells them that they cannot exhibit the flag in the square.  They put it away, but as the Ukrainian interviewee whispers to the camera, ‘Maidan is everywhere’.  A bit of an exaggeration perhaps; Pussy Riot notwithstanding, Putin is rather more popular at home than Viktor Yanukovych was in Ukraine before he was ousted in 2014.

The Medic Leaves Last also has Maidan as its backdrop, but brings the emphasis down to a personal level, that of a volunteer doctor, Tanya, who treats minor injuries sustained in the Maidan protests with very basic equipment.  But this is not just about the protests either because we follow her back for a visit to her home where her ancient widowed mother keeps ducks and worries about her daughter’s safety.  Tanya ironically comments on her ‘beautiful village’ while standing in a bus shelter piled high with rubbish, and expresses her concern at how close it is to the conflict zone in the east of the country.  The film in fact ends with her leaving for the east with other volunteers to help those fighting the pro-Russian rebels.

The final film on Friday night was Living Fire (Ostap Kostiuk, 2013, 80 mins).  It is much more polished than the two shorts which preceded it, following a group of Carpathian shepherds as they take their flocks up the mountains for the summer months, looking after the animals and making cheese.  The film is beautifully shot, gloomy interiors contrasting with the broad open spaces.  It is a masculine way of life, no women participating, and one of the wives left behind complains that it is like being widowed for four months of the year.  An old man, who had been a shepherd, tots up with regret how little time he spent with his late wife in over half a century of marriage.  Somewhat chillingly, he joshes an embarrassed young boy, saying how much alike they are after noting how little education he himself had received.  The boys who help do a rigorous job which must leave little opportunity for studying, a way of life in a remote place that can only hamper their wider life chances.  Some scenes are shot in a school and the teacher asks the pupils to list their talents.  One lad rubs his writing away, and when the teacher picks up the blank sheet the boy says that he has no talent.  It is a stark reminder how hard lives can stunt expectations.  The men say how difficult the job is, and the economics look precarious.  With such conditions it is easy to see why it is a dying way of life, with only one pasture in the mountains still being operated in this way.  It is an open question whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Saturday’s session began with a counterbalance to the Maidan films, examining what happened when the party was over.  Post Maidan (Serhii Andrushko, 2014, 42 mins) follows four individuals from different parts of Ukraine – Kiev, Donetsk, Crimea, Irpin (to the north of the capital) – as they reflect on what had happened and what might be to come, both on a personal and national level.  The period prior to the 2014 presidential elections seem to have brought deflation after the excitement of the Maidan protests and the feeling that anything was possible.  As well as Russia’s interference there was continuing cynicism about the ineffectual process of lustration to reform the old regime, the role the Berkut police force had played during the Maidan occupation, and the domestic political system generally.  The shanty camp was only slowly cleared, the eyesore creating a backlash among sections of the public.  One commentator claimed the reason for the delay was because it would be needed again, the implication being that the root causes of the protests, economic and political corruption, would continue.  One of the four individuals being followed is standing for election, and a passer-by to whom he speaks tells him to his face that he will be like the rest,  once he has their votes he won’t bother with their needs.  On the other hand another becomes an election officer, and is proud of the efficient and fair way in which her polling station operated.  The film displays optimism as well as soul searching and anxiety.  I’m sure there were subtleties that passed over the heads of non-Ukrainians, but it was a superb portrait of a country in flux.

The Place We Call Home (Thora Lorentzen and Sybilla Marie Tuxen, 2014, 30 mins) also turns from a focus on the  broader mass movement to individual lives, and how people are coping with the new reality.  Most of these are vignettes, including a soldier smoking before returning to the conflict in the east, and hunting for a grenade under a mattress, assuring the occupant that the grenade doesn’t have a detonator – thankfully he manages to find it; a mother praying with an Orthodox priest for the country’s sons; an old woman singing a folk song inside a station entrance.  The majority of it is about tattooed young men relaxing and playing music, joking about drugs, their absorption insulating them from the difficulties of life outside.  Noteworthy is singing in English, a nod to western-leaning aspirations and desire to integrate into wider international culture.  The overwhelming feeling of these snapshots is one of anticipation, something round the corner about to happen that can only be faced with apprehension.

The final film was the festival’s highlight for me, Crepuscule (Valentyn Vasianovych, 2014, 61 mins).  On paper it is unpromising: ‘82 year-old Mariia and her son Sashko live in the remote Ukrainian countryside.  Sashko has gone blind, and his mother clings to life to care for him.’  On the screen it was amazing.  It fits with Living Fire as a depiction of a gruelling way of life in a remote rural location, where there is no social support system other than the kindness of neighbours.  Sashko has gone almost completely blind as a result of untreated diabetes, and it is frustrating for him.  He does what he can with his limited sight, and watching him use an extremely large power drill largely by touch is excruciating.  The bulk of the work falls to his mother, a small but tough woman who manages to keep a sense of humour in terrible adversity, whether gathering hay, feeding the cow, dealing with a new-born calf or decapitating a chicken.  The work is arduous and the two bicker but rub along together.  The main enemy is probably boredom.  In one scene Mariia waits in the snow for the milk tanker, staring down a long straight road.  A small dot appears, and slowly gets bigger, to reveal itself as a man and child on a bicycle accompanied by a dog.  We wait further, another dot appears, and gets bigger, and at last the tanker arrives.  Time stretches, and the wait becomes a metaphor for the slowness of progress to make a significant difference here.  Apart from the electricity and motorised transport it seems to be a life that they and their ancestors have lived from time immemorial, so it is a surprise when a local comes to do some hand-ploughing for them and his wife receives a call on her mobile phone.  It is looks like a clash of cultures, until husband and wife climb on board their traditional horse-drawn wagon, at which point it is obvious that having network coverage makes only a small difference when the weight of history is pushing you down.  The film ends with a caption, and it is not the outcome one is expecting from the synopsis, evoking compassion and the realisation that it is too easy to take one’s own comforts for granted.

Once again Rory Finnin and his team have provided a fascinating range of films from Ukraine and they are to be thanked for organising the festival, which is not only free but comes with hospitality.  The event offered ample evidence that there is a thriving documentary movement in the country.  If there is a criticism it is that the films about Maidan share a particular agenda.  It may be justified bearing in mind the conflict with Russia, but as the disgruntled local in Maidan is Everywhere indicates, there are other voices that are not being given weight (it seems unlikely that he was only irritated at people blocking cars, his complaint was more likely a proxy for a wider unhappiness at the situation, of which the students were a convenient target).  As far as I could tell there were no interviews in any of the documentaries with anybody who was avowedly a supporter of Yanukovych or held pro-Russian views.  Perhaps also it is time to examine more deeply systemic problems in Ukrainian society (it is alarming to read Leonid Bershidsky’s 6 November 2015 Bloomberg article ‘Ukraine Is in Danger of Becoming a Failed State’).

While it would have been nice to see more of Ukraine’s feature film production to add variety to the programme, it is always worth being reminded of the difficulties its citizens face politically, socially and economically.  Ukraine may be going through a difficult phase, but at least its documentary movement is thriving, compiling a resource that will be invaluable to future historians.  The Ninth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film will doubtless provide a further instalment in this unfolding story of a country experiencing tremendous stresses.