The first night of the 2019 Cambridge Ukrainian Film Festival was moved from its usual home in Trinity to the Old Divinity School, St John’s College. The reason for the bigger venue was the extremely large audience for the Friday night film which we were seeing in advance of its UK national release: Mr. Jones (2019). This was a break with the tradition of selecting low-budget Ukrainian output, in favour of a British/Polish/Ukrainian co-production directed by the Polish Agnieszka Holland and with a multi-national cast. The event was held in conjunction with Cambridge Polish Studies, the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, and the Holodomor Research and Educational Consortium.
Before we saw the main feature we had an introduction from Dr Olenka Pevny, director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, and a prize-giving for the winning entry in the annual competition, now in its second year, run by the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain for the best essay by a school student on the Holodomor. We also watched a fifteen-minute video, Holodomor: Stalin’s Secret Genocide (directed by Andrea Chalupa, 2016). Mr. Jones was followed by a reception, and a display of publications on the Holodomor drawn from the Ukrainian collection at Cambridge University Library.
As for Mr. Jones itself, James Norton does a tremendous job bringing together the professional determination, the far-sighted understanding of European politics, but the personal vulnerability too, of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who highlighted the genocide the Soviet government was inflicting on the Ukrainian people in 1932-3. Fresh from interviewing the new German Chancellor, Hitler, and out of a job working as Lloyd George’s foreign affairs advisor because of budget cuts, Jones goes to Moscow hoping to interview Stalin.
He wonders how the country is managing to undertake a spending spree when it is apparently broke; as he notes when asking questions but finding himself stonewalled, ‘the numbers don’t add up.’ On arrival he learns that fellow journalist Paul Kleb has been murdered in a ‘robbery’ after uncovering evidence of famine in Ukraine. Despite foreign correspondents being largely confined to Moscow and kept under tight surveillance, Jones manages to wangle a trip to Ukraine, where his mother had once taught in what is now Donetsk.
He slips his handler and, trudging through the snowy landscape, sees for himself the desperate conditions the people are having to endure. Grain – Stalin’s gold – is being shipped to Moscow while people are literally dying in the streets. This is no natural disaster but an engineered holocaust of enormous proportions. In a terrible scene, himself starving and reduced to eating bark, he finds himself with a group of siblings who give him soup with pieces of meat. When he asks how they have meat, the eldest answers ‘Kolya’. Jones naively asks if Kolya is a hunter, and they stare at him. He finds what is left of Kolya in the snow outside. Walking along a road he sees a dead woman and her crying infant. Corpse collectors callously throw both onto the sleigh carrying a pile of bodies.
Captured at a railhead, he is returned to Moscow and offered a choice. A group of British engineers had been arrested on spying and sabotage charges (the Metropolitan-Vickers affair) and he is told their safety depends on his silence (though why the NKVD do not just assassinate him as they apparently had Kleb is unclear). Back in Britain he agonises over whether to risk their deaths to possibly save millions. Once the engineers have been freed, however, he is able to tell his story (adding to testimony by Malcolm Muggeridge, who is shown meeting Jones in Moscow), only to find a tide of misinformation drowns out his account.
The worst comes from the odious Walter Duranty of the New York Times (curiously, Jones and Duranty were both Cambridge graduates, Duranty of Emmanuel, Jones of Trinity). Contrasting with Jones’s principled approach to journalism, Duranty is a cynical shill parroting the line of the Soviet authorities, denying the magnitude of what is happening in Ukraine. To demonstrate his ghastliness, Duranty invites Jones to a party shortly after Jones’s arrival in Moscow, and the scene lingers on a decadent debauch in his comfortable apartment, more Weimar Berlin than revolutionary Russia. Jones realises Duranty is not going to rock a very comfy boat. The British are less bothered about Ukraine than their own parlous economic position and maintaining good relations with the Soviets, so sit on their hands. But an encounter with William Randolph Hearst on a visit to Wales allows his account to be published internationally, finally bringing the situation in Ukraine to a wider public.
George Orwell, himself an icon of integrity, and someone else who mistrusted Duranty, makes intermittent appearances. The film opens with shots of corn fields and feeding pigs, but this is not Ukraine, as we see Orwell composing Animal Farm, clearly linking Jones with the novel’s farmer (which one might not think much of a tribute). Later in the film, Orwell and Jones are introduced to each other by literary agent Leonard Moore, and Orwell attends a public lecture Jones gives on Ukraine. In a telling exchange, Orwell tries to defend Soviet methods, but Jones firmly disabuses him of the idea they are building a better life. Orwell was later to have his own negative encounter with Stalinism, in Spain. Yet while he is quite forthright about the Soviet regime in his 1947 introduction to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, it is significant that he does not refer to the 1932-3 genocide.
The film is certainly not an accurate biopic: Jones had visited Ukraine twice before, and the chronology of the period after he leaves Russia has been manipulated. However, it highlights how the Ukrainians were treated then, and by implication the colonialist aspirations of Russia towards its neighbour today. In so doing it will perform a useful function in promoting the memory of the Holodomor to a wide audience. But it has a bland title, and the one given to it in Ukraine is more informative – 'Цiна правди' (Price of Truth). Characters wrestle with the idea of what would become known as ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, firmly deciding there is only one truth and it needs to be told, whatever the cost.
(I have a brief anecdote about the Metro-Vickers affair. At some point in the mid-1980s, when I was employed by British Telecom, I picked up a hefty volume of translated transcripts from the trial, Wrecking Activities at Power Stations in the Soviet Union. Later, we had some consultants working with us on a project, one of whom was named Allan Monkhouse. I casually mentioned one day I had a book about a Moscow show trial featuring someone with the same name, to which he replied that that was his grandfather. He did not have a copy of the book so I was happy to donate mine to him.)
The film on the second night was a contrast to Mr. Jones, and more typical of the sorts of film we tend to see at the Cambridge Ukrainian Film Festival. Ukraïner: The Movie (2019) is a documentary charting half a dozen interwoven stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things across the country (apart from the war zone), together forming a tapestry of life as it is lived by typical Ukrainians outside the big cities. The audience may have been smaller than the previous night, but the film had its pleasures.
Supported financially by the Ukrainian Cultural Fund, it is part of a much larger project that began in 2016, drawing large numbers of volunteers internationally to document Ukrainian life and provide translations in order to show the country both to Ukrainians and to the rest of the world. The emphasis is firmly on traditional provincial life, and the overall atmosphere one of contentment, lingering on small gestures and conversations (do all Ukrainian children have classes in ‘Christian ethics’?), the rhythms of which pull the viewer in.
There are segments about a farmer who practises traditional tree beekeeping, once considered a lost art but making a comeback, with the bees living in slots in trees rather than artificial hives; a lighthouse keeper who has to wade salt flats to get to work; an elderly bus driver who is an enthusiast of the declining sport of motorcycle football, which he has played for half a century; a couple who keep goats and weave the most wonderful traditional blankets from their wool; an old hippy couple who are turning their village into a museum with their sculptures; and an ex-resident of Pripyat who has returned to the Chernobyl exclusion zone to document the crumbling structures and burgeoning wildlife.
Following the screening the film’s producer Bogdan Logvynenko took questions from an appreciative audience. He was asked about the approach to choosing subjects, as the film dealt with small-scale activities rather than industry or city life, hinting at a retreat from modernity. Bogdan answered that the focus was on what was distinctive about Ukraine, not what could be seen anywhere, showing aspects of life there which are under pressure from the modern world.
I saw the questioner’s point. While it is understandable the filmmakers wish to show positive aspects of Ukraine, and they are fascinating, there is a sense it is an idealised image, with no attempt to provide the broader context within which the subjects live their lives; one would not know from the film that the country is engaged in a protracted hybrid war with Russia, or that there are concerns with political corruption. The Chernobyl section is the closest one gets to controversy, and even there the stress is on regeneration.
Perhaps the producers’ answer is that for most people, going about their everyday lives, such wider considerations are irrelevant. The pressing need is to project a positive image, and preserve traditions that are a key part of the national identity but which are under threat from modern life. That is fair enough, but if one wishes to obtain an accurate image of what it means to be Ukrainian as a whole, those wider considerations surely need to be included. Further documentaries exploring the urban experience might help to give some balance if the project truly wishes to live up to its name.