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10 April, 2019  ▪  Олеся Анастасьєва

Behind the camera

What is happening with documentaries during the revival of Ukrainian cinematography

Dozens of documentaries are shot in Ukraine every year, but many a film never finds its audience. Why? Which subject do documentary filmmakers choose most often and which ones are they reluctant to touch?

2018 saw the release of over 40 Ukrainian films. Just two were documentaries: The Heart of Gongadze’s Mother by Viacheslav Bihun and Myth by Leonid Kanter and Ivan Yasniy. Myth was widely screened in many theaters across Ukraine, earning over UAH 600,000, which was more than many Ukrainian feature films made. It’s based on the story of Vasyl Slipak, a world-renowned Ukrainian opera singer with a unique voice. Born in Lviv, he moved to France where he had everything. When the war started in Ukraine, he decided to go to the frontline as a volunteer. He chose Myth for his nom de guerre, short for Mephistopheles, a role he sang in an opera by Charles Gounod. And there he was shot by a sniper. The film about him was a major event in Ukrainian documentary filmmaking in 2018. It was viewed and discussed even by those who generally pay little attention to domestic non-feature films. 

It might be tempting to assume that few documentaries are shot in Ukraine, but that’s simply not the case. Documentary filmmaking is a category that has enjoyed the most stable development in Ukraine: life as it is continued to be filmed even in the years when the production of feature and animated films went on hold. These days, international festivals eagerly include Ukrainian documentaries in their programs, and the directors even win prizes, but few viewers seem to know about this.

This vacuum exists for several reasons. Firstly, non-feature films typically have lower box office sales in movie theaters than feature films for a mass audience. Secondly, Ukraine has hardly any distributors specializing in screening this category of films, so the directors often arrange screenings with movie theaters directly. While some documentaries are shown on TV, this is also a bit of a lottery. Some are lucky to make arrangements and fit the format, and some are not, while others do not even think about this. A central e-platform for Ukrainian documentaries could help solve the problem. But this requires people interested in such a project in the first place. For now, neither the state with its generous funding of films, nor the directors want to set it up. Some directors won’t even upload their films on YouTube to avoid piracy.

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The Ministry of Culture selected nearly 20 documentaries for funding in its first – and last – “patriotic pitch” in 2017. Over 30 non-feature films won the 2017 selection by the State Film Agency, which did not hold one in 2018. In addition to that, the Ministry of Information Policy and the Ukrainian Cultural Fund allocate funding for such films. TV channels and production studios also organize series of documentary projects. A lot of independent films are made by people with cameras shooting without any help. That’s how Uliana Osovska and Denys Strashniy shot their Almost 10,000 Voters, a project interesting for its choice of subject – modern politics. This is something most Ukrainian filmmakers avoid, perhaps due to personal disenchantment with the Revolution of Dignity, or worse, fear for their lives – or simply lack of interest in politics.

Ukrainian documentary filmmakers avoid other topics, too. “We lack resources for quality independent documentaries on geography, natural resources or ethnic topics,” says Yevhenia Kriegsheim, director of Kharkiv MeetDocs Eastern Ukrainian Film Festival. “There is little discussion of the farm sector, the environment, the production and consumption of food in Ukraine. We don’t have sci-fi. I’d like to see more high-profile, scandalous themes on corruption, the way resources are used, harmful technologies used by major corporations, wholesale logging, etcetera. Courageous and independent journalism needs to return to Ukraine. It will help independent non-feature films spread their wings.”

In addition to watching the finished Ukrainian documentaries sent to her, Kriegsheim knows about a slew of projects at different stages of production, from ideas to editing, thanks to the pitching of Ukrainian documentaries in Kharkiv in 2018. The jury included Serhiy Bukovskiy, a well-known Ukrainian documentary director, and playwright and screenwriter Natalia Vorozhbyt. At the presentations of these projects, it turned out that most were about the Donbas or the war in Eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Ukrainian documentary filmmakers have been shooting a lot on these two subjects. Competitions for public funding have specific sections covering these subjects, and many films qualify for the “patriotic” category.

Understandably, however, not every film about the Donbas or the war moves the experts on various juries. Many are reluctant to give the green light to projects aimed at showing random people rather than selected individuals. The Kyiv-War Train by Korniy Hrytsiuk has already been turned down by juries in two separate competitions for public funding. Originally from Eastern Ukraine, Hrytsiuk has not been to his native Donetsk for over five years. He now wants to film passengers on the Kyiv-Kostiantynivka train. “For me, it’s very important to shoot this story because my film has a wide range of genuine characters. They travel from the capital to frontline Kostiantynivka. The train is Ukraine today, travelling between Peace and War with its residents as passengers. They are the characters of our film, their voice has to be heard,” Hrytsiuk says. 

What if one of the passengers says something unpatriotic? Who can guarantee what these people think or say? This fear of “what may happen” forces experts to favor more propaganda-like material that is “patriotic” but too often one-sided and uninteresting. It seems obvious that fear drives these juries based on an analysis of The Hydra, the winner of State Film Agency funding in 2017. It is now finished and has been submitted to the SFA. But it was changed significantly. The authors initially presented it as an investigation of drug smuggling and wanted to tell the story of Andrew, Andriy Halushchenko. According to earlier reports by The Ukrainian Week, a mobile group investigating drug trafficking in the war zone was attacked near Shchastia, a town in Luhansk Oblast, on September 2, 2015. Two people, including Andriy Halushchenko, were killed. Shortly before his death, he spoke about threats from the smugglers, including the Ukrainian military, in an interview with The Ukrainian Week (#35/2015). When the pitching began, some experts and head of the State Film Agency said that they could not attack Ukrainian military or, God forbid, portray them from an unheroic perspective, especially when the taxpayers’ money was being used for funding. And so the filmmakers dropped the storyline about Andrew at the very beginning.

By contrast, Ghennadiy Kofman does not see the choice of themes in Ukrainian documentaries as problematic. “I don’t think our documentary makers are afraid of anything or anyone today,” he states. “At this year’s Docudays UA, we are presenting the first films from last year’s CIVIL PITCH competition that documentary directors, civic activists and human rights activists created together. They joined efforts to make films about important social issues that will appeal to the widest possible audience.”

Kofman himself is producing a number of documentaries. He is also a member of the State Film Agency expert commission and co-founder of Docudays UA, a festival of human rights documentaries and the most important event focused on non-feature films in Ukraine. The 2019 festival starts on March 22 for a week in Kyiv. The best films from the festival normally go on a tour across different regions in Ukraine where the organizers screen them for local audiences.

“I think that what matters for the director in choosing the subject for an upcoming film is to care enough about it so that they are willing to spend several years on it,” says Kofman. “The film will then be genuine and honest. The audience can feel it from the screen. Filming about the subject-du-jour is merely opportunism. Such films can have strong production values but are rarely really creative.”

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While documentary filmmakers still turn their backs on some subjects, they are not afraid of speaking about others. Sex and sexual minorities are no longer taboo. In 2018, a study of lesbians in the Soviet Union titled Happy Years by Halyna Yarmanova and Svitlana Shymko won a special award from the National Competition jury at the Molodist festival. Bound by Zhanna Ozirna was another non-feature film on non-heterosexual relations. In 2014, director Nadia Parfan shot Exarch, a film about an Orthodox priest preaching LGBTQ Christianity.

Ukrainian documentary filmmaking is alive and kicking, even if most Ukrainians do not watch documentaries. For those waiting to see a Ukrainian non-fiction film on big screens, Malevich is out, a film about the Ukrainian period in Kazimir Malevich’s work. According to its makers, this period in the artist’s life has been overlooked. Their main goal was to research his Ukrainian roots. They discovered the artist’s actual birthplace in Kyiv in the process of shooting. Volodymyr Lutskiy directed the film, assisted by Ihor Malakhov. Made with the support of the State Film Agency and Italy’s Ministry of Culture, the film came out February 28 and is showing in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernivtsi.

Don’t miss Man With a Stool, the last film by Leonid Kanter. The team finished the production after Kanter committed suicide last year. Kanter spent several years working on the film, which features video he shot before killing himself. Man with a Stool came out February 21.  

By Olesia Anastasyeva


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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