Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Ninth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, November 2016

Once again the film festival organised by Rory Finin, director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, has brought Ukraine to the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College in Cambridge for two evenings, 11-12 November.  The past couple of festivals unsurprisingly had a major focus on Maidan and the political turmoil which has racked Ukraine, with the emphasis on documentaries exploring filmmakers’ responses to the crisis.  The ninth festival returned to the more traditional format of mixing documentaries portraying broader perspectives on the lives of contemporary Ukrainians with classic fiction.  The festival was run in collaboration with the Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival and the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre.

The first film on Friday evening was a short, Has-Beens (Olena Moskalchuk and Dmytro Burko, 2015), about the Petrivka book market next to the railway line in Kyiv/Kiev.  Opening with the sounds of the trains as the camera tracks along a passageway lined with books, we are introduced to a world the twenty-first century seems to have forgotten: a market crammed with decaying books, piled high and scattered around, but few customers for them.  One seller sadly notes people don’t read these days, while a smartly dressed man hunts only for books not available as digital versions.

Many of the units are shuttered and it must be a long time since this forlorn space saw any kind of bustle.  One wonders how the market keeps going, with customers haggling over books that are relics from another era, as the one containing pictures of a young and old Lenin amply demonstrates.  Yet the sellers and their customers are in good humour, boasting and telling jokes.  There is even an effort to repair books that might have to wait a long time to find a loving owner.  It is heartening to see the occasional young person browsing, but on this showing the second-hand book trade is not in good health.  A rather sad film for bibliophiles, but more context to allow the viewer to gauge Petrivka’s position in the world of Ukrainian bookselling generally would have been useful.

The second documentary of the evening was feature-length, and also dealt with a vanishing world: Hollywood on the Dnipro: Dreams from Atlantis (Oleh Chornyi, 2014), Rory pointing out that the title is a nod to the Odessa Film Studio’s nickname of ‘Hollywood on the Black Sea’.  Hollywood on the Dnipro charts the rise and decline of the village of Buchak, about 150 km from Kiev, as a destination for filmmaking during the Soviet era.  Alexander Dovzhenko, who proclaimed the area ‘Ukraine’s Switzerland’, planned to shoot his final film, Poem of the Sea, here.  After his death in 1956 his widow Yuliya Solntseva undertook the project, and the association gave Buchak a boost that attracted other projects throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

Over the years a significant number of directors arrived, taking full advantage of the picturesque rural setting.  Andrei Tarkovsky, who used it to great effect in his debut feature Ivan’s Childhood, may have been the most notable, but there was a roll-call of directors in what seems to have been a renaissance in Ukrainian cinema paralleling New Wave movements elsewhere in Europe.  An enthusiasm hinting at boundless possibilities is on display in these films.  As dyed cows in one suggests, the area somehow lent itself to play, a poetic approach bordering on surrealism.  It could be that the feeling of remoteness from government strictures encouraged a sense of escape, though there could not be total freedom from state censorship.

The filmmakers talked to those who worked on the films, both sides of the camera, as well as locals who remembered the productions and often acted in them as extras.  Tarkovsky’s Ivan himself, Nikolai Burlyayev, discusses the film and its director while Larisa Kadochnikova, who spent a year filming Ivana Kupala Night here in the 1960s, is given a tour as she tries to pick out landmarks half a century later.

The second part of the film’s title comes from the fact that today the village has largely disappeared under water.  In the early 1970s, against fierce local opposition, the Soviet government authorised the Kaniv hydropower plant which entailed building a reservoir.  Some residents moved to abandoned dwellings above the water line but most were relocated to other villages where they had to build their own houses with no government assistance.  As a result Buchak has been left almost completely deserted, its famous windmill which appeared in many films fallen into decay, though it remains home to a handful of bohemians who value the solitude.  Towards the end there is a shift from celebrating Buchak’s cinematic heritage to highlight the fragile ecosystem and the environmental degradation, with activists fighting to prevent further flooding and preserve the natural beauty along with sites of archaeological significance.

The film’s writer Stanislav Tsalyk, who also appeared in the film, was present to introduce it, and do a Q&A afterwards, though the latter turned out to be a single question from Rory and an extremely lengthy answer that covered most of the questions the audience might have asked.  Tsalyk pointed out some of the problems making the film, notably that many of those who had been involved during the village’s golden age had died or moved away, reducing the number of people they could interview.  Memories were fallible because those who had acted in the films only actually saw them once DVDs became available because there were no cinemas close by, and no electricity.  He added that the films discussed are only a slice of those which used Buchak as a location.

This was an important oral history of the Dnieper’s very own dream factory, bringing to light a significant aspect of Ukrainian cinema.  There was undoubtedly an atmosphere of nostalgia and loss hanging over Hollywood on the Dnipro, but it was too an indicator that such excitement and experimentation can once again energise the country’s film making, and reinforce national identity in the process.

Saturday’s screenings, Two Days (Heorhii Stabovyi, 1927) and The Night Coachman (Heorhii Tasin, 1928), were a complete change of pace, two gripping hour-long dramas that were a fascinating alternative to the didacticism of Sergei Eisenstein’s films in the same period (though a shot of a sleeping stone lion in Two Days may have been intended to echo the first of the famous trio of lions in Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin).  Where Eisenstein’s primary concern was the movement of the masses, subordinating the individual and assuming a common motivation based on class, these two films examined the human cost, particularly intergenerational frictions, as a new world was born, leaving those who were stuck firmly in the old in confusion and despondency.  There were commonalities between the two: both show the brutal execution of a child who has joined the Communists – a son in Two Days, a daughter in The Night Coachman – at the hands of the Whites, and the revenge of the aged father, culminating in death or despair.  In each case the father (a widower) is out of sympathy with his offspring’s views, but aghast at the way the Whites, with whom he naturally feels an affinity, behave.  However, in neither case is the retributive act carried out from class consciousness, but from a more visceral hatred of cold-blooded murderers.

The evening began with Two Days.  A wealthy bourgeois family flees before the advancing Reds, leaving their elderly retainer to look after the house.  During the loading of the car a puppy is accidentally killed, a seemingly minor act in the scheme of things but the beginning of a chain of events which drives the tragedy.  The Reds arrive and the old servant is astonished to find his son with them, someone he had thought dead in the war but who is now a commissar.  The young man though makes it clear his loyalty is to the Revolution.  His father is hiding the young son of the family in his attic room, at considerable risk to himself, as the youngster had been left behind in the confusion.  Unfortunately the puppy’s body is dug up by its mother and this leads to the Reds finding a chest with the family’s valuables, buried for safekeeping.  They remove the chest but the boy in hiding mistakenly thinks the old man had told the revolutionaries of its whereabouts, and when the Reds retreat and the Whites come back, he denounces his erstwhile protector.  The commissar had been ordered to remain undercover but the boy betrays his hiding place, the Whites find him and promptly hang him from the tree under which chest and puppy had been buried.  The old man in his agony burns the house, killing everybody in it, including the boy, before himself expiring on the road.

In depicting the conflict Stabovyi does not create the simplistic dichotomy of noble Reds and dastardly Whites one might expect in the 1920s.  The former are a boorish lot with bad manners, whereas the Whites are cultivated and at least know how to play the piano (and don’t put lit cigarettes on it).  But the Whites are ruthless when it comes to dealing with the captured commissar.  The old man’s political sympathies are entirely with them but he still has personal loyalties, and cannot reconcile the two.  Not seeing where his true interest lies is his tragedy.  Thus he experiences false consciousness by allying himself to the bourgeoisie, sheltering an ungrateful youth who symbolically takes his bed while he has to sleep on the floor.  At one point the old man sits in his room and fondles his old Imperial Army cap.  He sighs that those days are long gone, and indeed they are.  Alone, with nothing left to live for, his time is over as a new society rises from the ashes of the old.

The Night Coachman is a story about an elderly coach driver who has worked nights for 30 years, living comfortably with his daughter who is employed, so he thinks, at a printing works.  In fact she is a Communist, secretly producing revolutionary literature.  Her father discovers that she is no longer at the works and is associating with, in his eyes, bad company, a fellow radical.  The pair have stashed printing equipment in the loft above the stable, and thinking to save her, the father brings in a ruthless counterintelligence officer when he believes the young man will be in the loft alone.  Unfortunately the daughter is there instead, with incriminating evidence.  In a chilling scene the officer forces the old man to drive them to the mortuary.  After telling the custodian there is a body for him while the camera shows the daughter sitting passively, the officer shoots her (in practice one would have expected him to interrogate her to find out as much as possible about her network, but the scene is superbly dramatic).

The following day the old man is in a daze, out in his carriage in daylight for the first time in decades. He sees at a street corner the officer interrogating the very person with whom his daughter had associated, and when the man is detained the officer orders the father to drive them to – the mortuary.  The father whips up the horse, tells the young man to jump, and crashes the carriage on some steps.  His impulsive act kills the officer and the horse, and leaves him dazed and injured as the film ends with him reaching for the scarf he had earlier given his daughter as a gift.

Technically the film is a marvel, with a great deal of night shooting done on location in Odessa.  Early on there is a sequence where the old man is driving the officer and the latter sees a pretty woman in another carriage.  He orders the old man to speed up and drive alongside, then he hops into the other vehicle to exercise his charms on the lady.  It is similar to a sequence in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) in which the camera in a car drives next to another car, filming its occupants; perhaps this is where Vertov got the idea.

As is the case in Two Days, an old man furthers the revolutionary cause, but not from radical motives: here it is to atone for causing the death of his daughter.  Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 film Mother has a mother and son pitted against each other initially; however, she comes to understand the system’s injustice after seeing the harsh way it treats him, and she adopts his revolutionary outlook.  Both Stabovyi and Tasin by contrast demonstrate that the way individuals respond to reality is not always so neat.  Ultimately, if one cannot change one’s views in accord with the forces of history, the forces of history will roll over you.  The old, as symbolised by the father, will give way to the new, albeit at the cost of great sacrifice on both sides.

Rory Finin is doing a fine job organising the festival and bringing us gems.  As well as familiar faces it consistently attracts those new to Ukrainian film, and the number of students willing to give up the more usual pleasures of weekend nights (or even Radio 4’s Any Questions?, which was being recorded at the Cambridge Union at the same time on Friday evening) is testament to its attractions.  Watching the clips in Hollywood on the Dnipro made me realise just how many films Rory could potentially programme for future festivals.  Next year (coincidentally the centenary of the Russian Revolution) will mark the tenth.  There is no shortage of potential material so there is scope, budgets willing, for an expanded festival, perhaps occupying all day on the Saturday.  The festival has always been free, but I am sure that a charge to help defray the extra costs would not deter attendants.  I hope Rory will consider pushing the човен out and making the tenth festival of Ukrainian film even more enjoyable than the preceding nine.