Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Eleventh Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film

The 2018 Ukrainian film festival, held at Trinity College, Cambridge, on the evenings of 9 and 10 November, was unusual in not having Dr Rory Finin at the helm as he had begun a two-year sabbatical shortly before.  The festival programme, however, was up to the usual standard and mixed fiction and non-fiction, humour and the very serious.  It was introduced on the Friday night by Dr Olenka Pevny, Rory’s replacement as director of the Cambridge Ukrainian Studies department.

The first film, shown on Friday evening, was Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War (2017), directed by Iryna Tsilyk, Alina Gorlova and Svitlana Lischynska.  There have been shorts focusing on women in the conflict in the east of the country, but this documentary is being promoted as ‘the first full-length film about the Ukrainian women’s participation in the war with Russia.’  It focuses on six women who had, or still were at the time of filming, participated in the war in Donbass, showing how they are playing an active and vital role.

At the start of the conflict in 2014 the Ukrainian government was woefully underprepared, and the armed forces had been run down on the assumption that the country would not have to confront external aggression.  Volunteers filled the gap until the Kiev government could gear itself up to make a response, and many of these were women who considered they had as much right to defend their country from external aggression as the men, and should be treated on equal terms.  Unfortunately they found themselves discriminated against and fighting two wars: one against the Russian-backed separatists, and the Ukrainian authorities for recognition of their sacrifices.  That struggle is part of a broader effort to achieve gender equality.

There was no conscription and severely limited opportunities for women within the regular army when the war began, so they had to join the volunteer forces instead.  In that capacity they were not listed as combatants because they were not regulars. Consequently they have largely had to rely on ad-hoc help from the population rather than official sources.  As they receive little support from the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and UN Women devised the Invisible Battalion project.  This is designed to highlight, among legislators and the public, the roles being played by women both in the front line and in support, study the effects of war on women combatants, and improve conditions during and after their period of service.  The film is part of that campaign.

The six interviewees fulfill, or fulfilled, a variety of functions in the war effort.  Each segment is fairly brief, but gives a feeling for their day-to-day lives.  There is no commentary and the stories are left to speak for themselves.  Text information is provided on the participants’ civilian lives, and they come from all walks of life; what they did or do in the war, undertaking jobs as varied as medic, sniper, administrative support and trainer; the places they served; and their awards (which are often numerous).  Some have been directly involved since 2014 and tiredness is etched on their faces.

Participation takes its toll.  Emotions have to be repressed; as one interviewee says, she cannot cry despite the terrible things she has witnessed.  PTSD is a significant theme of the film.  A woman recounts how since she came back she has become alienated from her family.  There have been a number of suicides among female veterans and difficulties reintegrating into civil society after having been changed by the war.  Unfortunately there is little assistance for those in that situation, and such intervention programmes as there are usually not state-sponsored.  There are other effects of the war: one woman says she and her husband are desperate to start a family, but how can they at the present time?  Not all sacrifices are obvious to the outsider.

An element of the campaign was the presence after the screening of some of those women involved in the conflict, and they conducted a Q&A session.  In a wide-ranging discussion they said that part of the fight they are waging is to have all positions in the military open to women, and to ensure that promotion opportunities are equal.  At present women suffer discrimination as promotion for them tends to occur mainly in non-combat roles and the only female general is in the intelligence service.  The situation is improving though, with more front-line roles opening up for women, but progress is slow.  They also noted the asymmetry between the support Russia gives the separatists and the outside aid Ukraine has received to deal with a threat which affects a large number of countries in the west, and in 2014 the Russians had had much more experience of conflict in a variety of countries than had the Ukrainians.

Naturally the speakers were optimistic about the eventual outcome of the war, but only that morning I had listened to a report on the BBC World Service about elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the reporter pessimistically considered that the longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it would be for Ukraine to regain its lost territories.  Even if Ukraine does succeed, it looks like being an arduous slog.  Whatever the result, the impact will be long-lasting on the country’s civil society.  It was telling that one speaker noted her belief that Ukrainian citizens now trust central government less, and tend to rely on each other.  She said that the war has shown the people to each other.

After watching the film and listening to the speakers it seems remarkable that the government has not given more recognition to these women, who are fighting just as hard as the men, and not integrated them into the regular armed services.  One clue is perhaps in the response from one of the women at the Q&A when asked if the women were paid the same as the men.  She replied that while in the regular army pay rates for men and women doing the same job are the same as far as she could tell, the women volunteers are not paid at all.  Considering how many volunteers there are fighting alongside the regular troops, the government is being subsidised by all those women who give their time – and sometimes their blood – on behalf of the state.  They deserve better.  The obvious conclusion is that the Kiev government needs to develop a covenant that sets out its obligations to its armed forces, men and women, regular and volunteer.

Saturday’s films were a documentary and a fiction film, Slovo House (2017) and Between Two Hares (1961) respectively.  Slovo means ‘word’, and Slovo House (Budynok 'Slovo'), directed by Taras Tomenko, examines a remarkable period in Ukrainian literature when an entire apartment block was occupied by writers of the finest calibre in what was then the Ukrainian capital Kharkiv (before its relocation to Kiev in 1934).  Construction of the block commenced in 1927 and the film suggests it was a response to inflammatory remarks made by Maxim Gorky, who refused to allow his novel Mother to be translated into Ukrainian on the grounds that it was not a language but merely a dialect of Russian.  This naturally offended Ukrainian sensibilities, and as living conditions in the city were generally poor, the Slovo House was built to house its writers with Stalin’s blessing as recompense; Stalin had stated that Ukrainian was indeed a separate language as part of the policy of Ukrainianisation.  The block was constructed in the shape of an elongated letter C, which is the first letter of cлово (slovo), and residents began moving into the relatively luxurious apartments in 1929.

Having all your intellectuals in one basket made it a cauldron for a creative ferment, assisted by communal dining, and much of the film is a flat-by-flat profile of the residents, showing what remarkable personalities they were.  It also allowed easy surveillance by the authorities of these potential subversives.  After a creative flowering in the 1920s the Ukrainianisation policy was reversed in the 1930s as repression increased and dissenting voices were silenced in the purges.  The Holodomor signalled further efforts to subjugate Ukrainians, and the writers were accused of nationalism and even terrorism.  Gradually they were arrested by the NKVD and executed in a ‘cleansing campaign’, an effort that accelerated after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934.  By their end, the purges had touched almost two-thirds of the flats in the Slovo House.

The building is still standing, though looking rather dishevelled these days, and its story was told through a mixture of archive film to evoke the period of the Slovo House’s heyday (including some well-known – perhaps too well known – shots from Man with a Movie Camera) and contemporary footage, mostly drone shots which lovingly caress the building and its location.  A final section lists the inhabitants, a roll call of Ukraine’s intelligentsia, crushed by Stalinism.  Slovo House won the Golden Dziga for best documentary at the 2018 Ukrainian Film Academy Awards, and it is a worthy winner for bringing to wider attention an assault on Ukrainian identity that went hand-in-hand with the starvation being inflicted on the country by the regime in Moscow.

There was a technical hitch which delayed the start of the final film so sadly the audience for Between Two Hares (Za dvoma zaytsiamy), directed by Viktor Ivanov, was quite small, though the wine provided was adequate compensation for the wait.  Made during the Khrushchev period, ‘Ukrainian screwball comedy’ is probably not a phrase which is used very often, but this was a very funny film when non-Soviet audiences might have expected output at that time to be on the dour side.  The title comes from a Ukrainian saying that if you try to chase two hares you won’t get either, which was something of a spoiler.

The film concerns the misadventures of Svirid Golokhvasty, a dapper young barber in early twentieth-century Kiev who is on the brink of bankruptcy because of his profligate ways.  His solution is to marry for money.  One likely prospect is Pronya, the spoilt and exceedingly plain daughter of a pair of wealthy but peasant shopkeepers, whom he courts in the guise of being well-off.  Meanwhile he falls in love with Galina, the beautiful daughter of a poor woman who sells apples, but who wisely does not reciprocate his affection.

Caught by her harridan mother paying attention to Galina, he finds himself betrothed even though there will be no dowry.  What he does not realise is that the two mothers are sisters, so it can only be a matter of time before his duplicitous behaviour is exposed.  Galina as it happens is in love with the blacksmith and cannot abide Golokhvasty’s dandyish ways; Pronya on the contrary finds him attractive thanks to his sharp dressing and elevated (if often nonsensical) speech, and feels that he is of the right social status.  So, not aware of the true state of affairs, Pronya agrees to marry him.

Matters come to a head when he and Pronya are about to plight their troth at the cathedral.  He is recognised by some of the participants from the ‘engagement’ party at the poor relatives’ shack and they rush off to alert Galina’s mother.  As the happy couple process up the steps the poor sister denounces the groom for the cad he is, and Pronya berates him for humiliating her.  He vainly denies he had entered into an engagement with someone else but naturally the wedding is off and he and his cronies are thrown unceremoniously down the steps by the crowd.  Picking himself up he musters his dignity, and he and his friends retreat from the scene.

The film holds up very well and is an entertaining well-integrated mix of madcap comedy and social satire (complete with sexy nun).  Watching this version is a fairly new experience because we were told that the original Ukrainian soundtrack was only rediscovered five years ago.  On completion the film was dubbed into Russian and received wide distribution in the Soviet Union in that state.  In 2013 the Ukrainian soundtrack was found in a regional archive and the film restored to its original condition.  While there is great affection for the film in both Ukraine and Russia, there is something symbolic in recovering a Ukrainian film that had had its identity usurped by Russia.  After the serious films preceding it, it was a pleasantly escapist conclusion to the festival.