Ukrainian Culture and History Through Cinematography


Annually the Ukrainian Cinema Day is celebrated on the second Saturday of September. This year the holiday takes place on September 12th. In honor of this date, we discuss Ukrainian films that show the national identity of the Ukrainians.

by Victoria Ilenko and Anastasia Odintsova

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
Soviet film director Parajanov created "the best Ukranian film" – these words are a part of a legend. Maybe that is true, but Parajanov for sure created a legend from real life and turned life into a legend. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) is an adaptation of Mikhailo Kotsiubynsky's novel. Parajanov made the first ethnic film in Soviet Union. However, Soviets considered this film to be an inappropriate decadent work. In the west Shadows became very popular by the name of "Wild horses of fire" (when Ivanko's father is murdered, three animated red horses appear on screen).

The story is set in a hutsul village. Parajanov thoroughly portrayed the culture of this ethnic group. We can see a marriage ritual where the bride and groom are blindfolded, Christmas costumes, folk songs, hutsuls' houses. Director even involved real inhabitants of Carpathians. Shadows are a very metaphorical film. One of the most reconizible images in the movie are the three men with trembitas (long woodwind instruments). They sound very loudly and make a horrendous effect – it is as if destiny is calling your name. The three men appear when the most fateful events take place: when Marichka and Ivanko meet and when Marichka dies. The soundscape of Shadows is very peculiar. All the way though the film someone sings or plays a musical instrument. We hear many folk songs – by children and Ivanko. At the end of the film, when Ivanko is about to pass away, he speaks with Marichka. But their dialogue is very song-like. It is like an echo in the forest.
Soviet period
Shadows are considered to be a "poetic Ukraninan film". Some people think that such a definition is an insult. Personally, I believe that the film can be called "poetic" if its creators tend to not only develop a story, but also understand the beauty of things they create. Parajanov didn't show anything extraordinary; his most poetic scenes are plain. Two children playing in a meadow – is it exceptional? But they look like pure poetry. The very choice of scenes is important. For instance, when Marichka asks Ivanko to look at the star in the sky so that they could be together even in different places and sees the same star before she dies.
In Shadows Parajanov created many colorful images. Even his usage of color deserves attention. The most remarkable case can be found in the middle of the film, when Ivanko is overwhelmed with grief after Marichka's death. This chapter is all black and white. The scene where everyone is searching for Marichka is set in twilight and has a sinister deep blue color. Only bright orange torches of searchers illuminate in the spreading night. Parajanov's images look like still lives and paintings; sometimes he shows people not adding any action, people just stand, but at the same time they all take part in a long row of images collected in a unique gallery.
The Forest song
There are many adaptations of Lesya Ukrainka's play «Forest song». Lesya was a Ukranian writer, she lived at the turn of the 19th century, wrote poems, plays and actively collected folklore. Her legacy is very honored in Ukraine. In Lesya's play she considers Ukranian and slavic folklore motives and uses folk heroes as characters. For better understanding of this work of art and, eventually, its adaptations, let's look at a specific folk material. Mavka, the main female character, is a supernatural creature, a kind of mermaid or rusalka. The name "mavka" goes back to a slavic concept of "nav" – people who died an unnatural death. A girl can become a mavka if her mother killed her or forgot to christen. In the play Mavka says that she is immortal. There are some other creatures in «Forest song»: leshy, other rusalkas. "Prelestnik" is a fiery serpent; Mare, who wanted to take Mavka's life, is a ghost.

The 1976's animated film The Forest song is directed by Alla Gracheva. The film begins with a scene where Leshy dances with forest's inhabitants. Then Lukash – a man who is going to fall in love with Mavka – plays a little flute called svirel. His play fascinates Mavka. The plot is centered around Mavka's drama. She is an immortal creature that falls in love with a mortal peasant Lukash. Gracheva decided to remove a plot line with Lukash's mother; in the original play it reveals an important motive of human moral's fatal restrictions. In this version Lukash cheated on Mavka and fell in love with another woman – Kilina. Because of such a tremendous deception he was turned into a werewolf. But Mavka wanted to revive her beloved Lukash with the strength of her love. Eventually, she was turned into a tree, then burnt by Prelestnik. But this fire made her free.
In the 1980's adaptation the director depicts a conflict between the gentle and tender Mavka and the matter-of-fact Kilina. When Lukash sees Mavka again, he says that she is ugly and holds a killed deer, the one Mavka previously played with. He killed purity and beauty. Leshy says to Mavka that she cheated on herself, because she betrayed her own nature.
A Ukranian film director Yuri Ilyenko adapted the play differently. He was a cameraman of The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and in his own film, The Forest song. Mavka (1980), we can see many miraculous landscape scenes and some peculiar shots. For instance, when Mavka and Lukash first met among birks – Lukash wanted to drink their juice – Mavka cried, "Don't draw the blood from out my sister's veins". And then she says that love for mermaids is different from what it is for humans; it stays with them forever, it is like "whirling in a vortex". The camera is spinning during the whole scene. When Lukash's mother asks Mavka to reap the ears, she does not manage to . From the field runs a girl with a wreath on her head cries: "Sister, sister!" and begs Mavka not to kill her. She is the spirit of these ears. 1980's
Zvenigora (1927) is a part of a so called "Ukranian Trilogy" directed by Alexander Dovzhenko. He is considered to be one of three main figures of Soviet avant-garde cinematography (alongside with Eisenstein and Pudovkin). In Zvenigora the director wanted to depict a millenium of Ukrainian history, and, simultaneously, to show that people always searched for a "treasure" of the mountain Zvenigora, but all the effort was in vain. And now, with the flame of international socialism, everything, of course, will be achieved.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine experienced a financial crisis. This led to a decline in Ukrainian art. Therefore, cinema started to commercialize. Business structures often became customers and sponsors of the films. This circumstance inevitably affected the content of the films. Crime dramas, adventure and erotic films were gaining popularity. Despite the difficult times, Ukrainian cinema was gradually reviving. In the 1990s, directors already showed interest in the history and culture of Ukraine. And that's not surprising. The country that had recently become independent needed a return to its roots and individuality.
Zvenigora doesn't seem to be a monolithic work, it consists of many stories and images. They are connected with an old man's character. Dovzhenko wanted to depict him as a naive man who should not be treated seriously. However, Dovzhenko only wanted things to be so. He actually created a film with a folklore atmosphere. He even used mystical elements in his work. Dovzhenko showed different sides of Ukranian history and culture: Ivan Kupala's night, evil spirits in the house, drama between two brothers (one of them joined the Red Army and second joined Petliura's one).
Doroga na Sech
Doroga na Sech ("Дорога на сечь", 1994) is one of the brightest examples of independent Ukrainian cinema. The plot seems to be simple, but in fact it is impregnated with freedom, which is in the Ukrainians' blood and has long become part of their culture. At the beginning of the film the father of the main character Pavlo Pokhilenko refused to work on a pan's field. This bold act forced him to leave his family and home and flee pan's wrath. In a few years Pavlo himself freed his bride from the hands of villains, Cossack horunzhy Denis Kryga and Polish Count Potocki, who wanted to possess the girl. Social injustice pushed the character to go to the Zaporozhian Sech and fight for the freedom of his nation and for the Orthodox faith. The described events preceded the liberation movement of Bohdan Khmelnytsky.
A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa
In the 2000s, directors made more and more historical films and series. For example, in 2002, the premiere of A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa ("Молитва о гетмане Мазепе") took place at the Berlin Film Festival. The film tells about the life of the Ukrainian hetman Mazepa who is believed to have betrayed the Russian emperor Peter 1 during the war with Sweden. But, according to experts and the director Yuri Ilyenko himself, here you shouldn't wait for historical reliability. The image of Mazepa is creatively rethought by the director. Here hetman doesn't appear as a traitor, but as a man who decided to remain neutral and to bow neither to the side of the Swedish king Charles, nor to the side of Peter. Despite the fact that the film has repeatedly been criticized for nationalist sentiments and anti-Russian orientation, it is interesting for an alternative point of view on historical events regarding both Ukrainians and Russians.
Kruty 1918
After the famous events of 2014, the attention of Ukrainian directors was again turned to the topic of independence and sovereignty of the country. In 2019, Kruty 1918 ("Круты. 1918"), dedicated to the battle near the village of Kruty, was released. In Ukrainian historiography, this battle is of particular importance. It is an example of the heroic struggle of Ukrainian youth for the independence of their homeland. 400 desperate guys enter the battle with the four thousandth Soviet army. The main characters of the film, Andrei and Alexei Savitsky, are among them. They are young and crave a life full of freedom and, of course, love. But the threat to their homeland ruins their plans. The hearts of Andrei and Alyosha are hurting for their native country. The two brothers take a portrait of a girl Sophia, whom both are in love with, and leave to fearlessly fulfill their patriotic duty.
Several Ukrainian films of recent years are devoted to the topic of the war in Donbass, which has become almost the main pain of Ukrainians. One of the most notable films on this topic is Donbass ("Донбасс", 2018), awarded of the Cannes Film Festival. The film consistently presents 13 stories.

  1. Made-up extras giving fake interviews.
  2. A Ukrainian woman lynching over the mayor during a deputy session.
  3. The hoax of medical personnel of the city maternity hospital.
  4. The stealing chief physician transported through the Ukrainian checkpoint.
  5. Bribes taken from passengers of the intercity bus. Search and mockery are carried out.
  6. A German journalist appearing among Donetsk militias and military.
  7. The conversation between the girl and her refugee mother during the tour of the bomb shelter compartments.
  8. Envoys of a peacekeeping action with the relics of the epic hero Churila Plenkovich.
  9. Looting among the militias being suppressed. They are being punished in front of the formation.
  10. The new government's marauding and taking the jeep from the businessman.
  11. People communicating with a captive volunteer, which leads to reprisal of the crowd.
  12. A marriage ceremony celebrated according to the laws of Novorossiya. Military clashes at night.
  13. Extras again. The scenario changes dramatically and the tragedy happens in real life.
The film is based on amateur videos of people who have witnessed events in Eastern Ukraine. According to the director, this was the only way to convey the true atmosphere of what had been happening and to draw the attention of the West to the problems of Ukraine.
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