History and stunts

Culture & Science
8 June 2019, 09:41

Students gathered in a large auditorium at the History Department of the Kharkiv National University for a four-hour screening of four episodes of Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword), the Polish historical drama about the Cossack period, in the early 2000s. It was followed by a discussion where professors revealed distortions of historical facts by cinematographers. The discussion, however, barely stayed in memory. What it triggered was the unstoppable desire to rush back home and dig into a history book to find out what happened to Colonel Bohun, the protagonist. 

This is how heroes and interest in historical events are shaped, even if triggered by someone else – the Poles in this case. 

I will not refer here to documentaries which are often more informative than academic research. Instead, we will reflect on the non-documentaries. This cinematography is entitled to imagination and artistic interpretation on the one hand, and is much better placed to influence the audience. It is for a reason that promotion through personal stories has been used as a key tool in advertising for a long time now. Likewise, films about the turns and twists of private life of prominent figures from any given epoch can bring them closer to the modern audience and spark interest in the developments of that epoch. 

Ask those who read Dumas, Druon or Walter Scott as kids whether they know the chronology of French or English kings. You are likely to get a yes for an answer – the novels about love immersed us all into the given historical epoch. Films can do this even more effectively because they visualize things.

Director Oles Sanin recalls how his audience at an American university initiated a discussion about the ways in which historical films bring events and characters back to relevance. “Indeed, people perceive historical films as accurate history,” he says. “Moreover, it’s not just the audience, but professionals who treat films by their colleagues as reference points, rather than museums. ‘We are going to shoot a film but here is another one about the same epoch, let’s watch it and do something else’, they say. This means that they view films as reconstruction of history. Yet, we know that the Americans, for example, made films about the ancient Rome in the mid-20th century, where they seriously changed details of costumes adjusting them to contemporary fashion.” 

So, what do we have in Ukrainian historical cinematography of the past 20 years and what should we expect to see in the near future? 


The Cossack cycle and the liberation struggle

Oles Sanin has directed two historic films and is now working on his third project. His film Mamaywas made in 2003 on the basis of old Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar folklore and is not a conventional historical film. It is in the genre of ballad or epic film, which requires an entirely different approach. 

Sanin categorizes historical cinematography into two major subtypes. One is biopics, i.e. the history that tells events and biographies of real people in an artistic manner. The other one is historical dramas. Apart from that, there are films that work with historic background. These are all different films with a similar structure. Mamaiis one example of the second subtype. “I used reconstructed costumes, studied that epoch deeply and researched the legends,” Sanin explains. “Tatar warriors portrayed in my film existed in three different centuries. They turned out to be very authentic. The different people who worked on the images did their academic research in Crimea.”  

In 2001, Yuriy Illenko’s Prayer for Hetman Mazepacame out. This was the first historical film in the years of Ukraine’s independence with a serious budget and costumes. Its purpose was to change the image of Mazepa as traitor, which Russian and soviet propaganda had spun for centuries. Pylyp Illenko, Yuriy’s son and currently head of the State Film Agency of Ukraine, recalls his father “consulting with historians, studying sources, reading literature on the topic, both history and fiction, and studying the image of Mazepa in European culture. He found many blank spots. Nobody really knows why one or another event actually happened.  

To begin with, even the date of Ivan Mazepa’s birth is unknown. Let alone semi-legendary things, like the story of his love for the daughter of Kochubei. But the director cannot leave an incomplete image of the protagonist on the screen. Therefore, he looks for ways to reveal the protagonist and saturates history with accurate facts and fiction where it fits. The result is mythology rather than a dry history textbook. By contrast to a textbook, you can’t say ‘We don’t know why the character acted the way he did’ in the film.”

Ukrainian directors chose the Cossack theme most frequently in the first two decades of independence. It was also the most obvious one in the search of a national hero as the State was establishing itself. Bohdan-Zynoviy Khmelnytskydirected by Mykola Mashchenko contributed to the Cossack cycle in 2006, gaining 61,000 views on YouTube over three years of free access. Proper mass screening in movie theaters was an impossible option in that period. 


RELATED ARTICLE: Behind the camera


Still, it was probably With Fire and Swordand Russian actor Aleksandr Domogarov who played Cossack colonel Ivan Bohun in that film that contributed the most to popularizing Ukrainian cossacks in the first decade of the 21st century. It was because the film was far more modern, its characters and their feelings much more relatable, and Domogarov much more handsome. It portrayed history from the Polish perspective where the Cossacks were not featured as the nicest people. But Domogarov’s charisma still triggered more sympathy and admiration for his character than for the key positive protagonist. This is probably part of the secret of historical films. 

The Cossacks were not the only theme which pre-Maidan directors chose to impress. That was also the period when the State Film Agency was not very helpful for cinematographers as it funded very few films. Oles Yanchuk’s Metropolitan Andrey (2007) was the only one that year funded by the state. It got UAH 8mn or US $1mn from the budget that year.  


The post-Maidan cinematography 

The Secret Diaries of Symon Petliurawas another historical film by Yanchuk in the new post-Maidan environment that triggered rapid evolution of cinematography. A long-time head of the National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Film Studio, Yanchuk believes that MPs must reserve an untouchable amount for the studio in the sum allocated by the government to film making. That would allow the studio to produce more such films. The Secret Diaries of Symon Petliurais a historical assumption and interpretation of history by the author. Shot in the old-school theater play manner, it did not attract too many people to the cinemas. Historians criticized the author’s interpretation of facts. But Yanchuk’s film echoes the past where all historical films were shot at the Dovzhenko Studio, sticking to a somewhat soviet style – most certainly in visual solutions. 

Every artist working on historical films has to seek a balance between responsibility for artistic quality of their work, which often depends on the ability to interpret events in a cautious manner, and the other responsibility before the audience that will see history through the artist’s eyes. 

Kruty. 1918, a 2019 film by Oleksiy Shapoval,provides a recent example. The authors released the trailer last year. It featured an episode where the character of Symon Petliura sent young students to imminent death at the Kruty station in cold blood. Historian Kyrylo Halushko recalls that himself and his colleagues insisted at a roundtable at the Ministry of Culture that this fragment should not be in the movie. “We saved the authors from potential lawsuits from Petliura’s descendants as this definitely tainted his figure and role in the tragic death of the Kruty heroes,” Halushko wrote on his Facebook page after the film premiered in 2019. Many were still unhappy with the quality of the film – mostly because the story was inconsistent, especially as the important role of such purely historical films is to explain the order of events in a manner that is easy to understand. 

In 2017, the film Red (Chervonyi) directed by Zaza Buadze based on the novel by Andriy Kokotiukha, was released. It focuses on the first rebellion in GULAG as a form of resistance of Ukrainians against the totalitarian soviet system. Lviv-based director Taras Khymych has released two history films – Alive (Zhyva) in 2016 and King Danylo (Korol Danylo) in 2018. He stands out from amongst his colleagues for never making films with state funding. He looked for funds independently for both films and found the money. Moreover, that funding was enough to pay for good-quality visuals with beautiful images, costumes and post-production. Clearly, historical films are always more expensive because costumes and props have to be made, and anything modern featured accidentally has to be removed in the post-production phase. Unfortunately, Khymych has not succeeded in constructing stories that attract the viewers. This was because of uneven quality of acting in some cases, confusing editing of the storyline in others, or because of bad sound. The ambition of success has failed.


Success stories 

Still, Ukraine has some fairly successful history films. The first Ukrainian-made history film that earned over UAH 14mn in box office earningswas Oles Sanin’s The Guide (Povodyr)in 2013It’s a story of a blind kobzarhelping to rescue a son of a foreigner from the grip of the soviet authorities. He ends up being killed in a trap the soviets arranged for Ukrainian kobzars near Kharkiv.

That relative financial success (the record-breaking revenues still failed to cover the budget of the film making) was followed by Cyborgs: Heroes Never Die, a contemporary historical film released in 2017-2018 that earned over UAH 20mn in revenues. 

Its director Akhtem Seitablayev has made three films about stories where eyewitnesses are still alive and can compare films and reality. These include Khaytarma(2013) and Her Heart (2017), in addition to Cyborgs. They feature the deportations of Crimean Tatars from Crimea by the soviets, the rescue of Jewish children from the Nazis in Crimea, and the defense of the Donetsk Airport by the Ukrainian military. 

“It was extremely important for me to stick to the documentary side in each case,” Seitablayev recalls. “There were several reasons for this. First of all, I realized that these films would be under much scrutiny, under the microscope for how close they are to facts and memories of eyewitnesses. In Khaytarma, we understood that we would be between Crimean Tatars that experienced deportations and people of opposite views. This is what happened in the end. Every shot in the film was analyzed. Those who did this are now happy collaborators in Crimea. With Cyborgs,we were super cautious given how relevant the topic is. We got incredible help from those involved in that event. All the moments in the film took place in reality. We may have altered the chronology to streamline the story, but the accuracy of facts is undeniable.” 

This proves that the closer history is to the present, the more the filmmaker is responsible for accuracy and less freedom of imagination they have. 


What’s new on the screens?

Which history films are coming up in 2019 and in the upcoming years? 

One is Banned (Zaboronenyi), a biopic by Roman Brovko about the life of Ukrainian dissident poet Vasyl Stus. An interesting precedent made this film unique long before its official release. The authors stated from the beginning that they did not aim to relate the biography, but to describe the burning taste of Stus’ epoch. The figure of Stus proved much more iconic, however, and the audience intervened in the filmmaking. It had been known from the beginning of the filmmaking process that it would not feature a real-life episode of the trial against Stus with Viktor Medvedchuk, the notorious pro-Russian politician, as the poet’s pseudo lawyer. The authors decided to drop it in order to tell more about Stus himself. Six months later, that information reached social media and voices trying to influence the filmmakers were joined by top officials. The director did not resist; he simply shot the extra fragment. As a result, this film could perfectly count as something commissioned by the public. 

Zakhar Berkut by Akhtem Zeitablayev is an international project shot in English with American and Ukrainian actors. Based on Ivan Franko’s book, it represents a case where the authors work with the historical context while not reflecting historic events as such. “We all realize that Zakhar Berkut is not a chronicle,” Seitablayev notes. “This book has little to do with real events. Yes, there was a Mongolian invasion but it did not pass through that land (the Carpathians where the action is based – Ed.). No proof was ever found for this. It is reasonable to expect that an army of ten thousand passing somewhere will inevitably leave traces. Even if it’s a fragment of an arrow. There is nothing like that there. Yet, nobody claims that it happened there, including our consultant, the grandson of Ivan Franko. It’s just an excuse to talk about a broad geography of issues.” Producer Yehor Olesov supports Seitablayev and does not claim historic accuracy: “For me personally, the drama and the emotional aspect of the story are the priorities, followed by historic accuracy. That was the scheme used in the legendary BraveheartGladiator and many other hit films. The most difficult thing in this genre is to find the right balance. We tend to focus on major events, dates and details as a carcass. Then the authors reinforce some storylines. But we should remember that the story we have inherited is not necessarily true. Moreover, different sources offer opposite evidence and thoughts on any given event.” 

Gareth Jones directed by Agnieszka Holland is another international project by a major Ukrainian film company. It is based on the real story of a British journalist who did his own investigation during the 1932-1933 Holodomor in Ukraine. This film offers another precedent. The name of the journalist appeared in the public discourse thanks to the script writers. This allowed the film authors to ask for a street in Kyiv to be named after Jones. 

Cherkasy by Tymur Yashchenko is a film about the most recent history. This is another case where the authors will be under much scrutiny. Not only because of the theme (the film will focus on the 2014 developments when Russia’s green men raided Ukrainian fleet in Crimea), but because the authors have had financial problems for three years now. As a result, the film has not reached the audience yet. The producers announced a crowdfunding campaign this winter to finally finish the film. President Poroshenko’s PR team included it in his list of favorites, which means that the film is much awaited, even if nobody has seen it yet. 

For now, these are all those willing to meet the audience in 2019. Still, this is not the end of historical filmmaking. Some projects are ongoing now. 

One is Oleksa Dovbush by Oles Sanin. There was a movie about the legendary Carpathian insurgency leader on big screens. But only someone with a good sense of humor could watch it. Singers Valeriy Kharchyshyn and Maria Yaremchuk played the protagonists in a simple story without much confidence. This time, the theme is taken up by a director with a record of making audience-oriented films that can earn money in box offices. Sanin says that The Legend of the Carpathiansthat came out several years before does not bother him. “Our audience rather overlaps with the audience of Zakhar Berkut, but we were aware of this. That’s why we timed the premieres for different periods.” 

The Third Son of the Stonemason directed by Ihor Vysnevsky is a biopic about Petro Franko, the son of Ukraine’s great poet. Petro co-founded Plast, the Ukrainian scout movement, and was the very man who read the act of unifying Western Ukraine with the Ukrainian SSR. “Petro took part in the so-called unification assembly,” producer Dmytro Kravchenko says. “We never saw allegations of Petro selling out to the soviets. Quite on the contrary, everyone tends to think that he was forced to do this. We involved Franko experts, including his grandson Petro, and are still consulting with the family. The family accepts the fact that it will be a non-documentary film, they are ready to face the share of imagination added to the real facts. But we want to show a hero the country didn’t know about first and foremost.”

Anna of Kyiv is a project suspended for now, but planned to continue. It was thanks to the journalists that Ukrainian society and the State Film Agency as the funder have paid attention to the book of the French writer Jacqueline Dauxois, which will be used as the basis of the script. The book is openly pro-Russian. Still, the authors say that the script has been rewritten and improved for two years now. “This will surely be a historical film,” producer Yehor Olesov says. “That’s why we invited Ms. Tetiana Liuta, scientific director of the Kyiv History Museum, to join the project. It is a massive and complex project, so it requires a lot of responsibility. That’s why we move slowly and cautiously. I can say for now that this is a story about a strong and outstanding woman in the epoch of outstanding men. It’s a story of a young courageous girl, the daughter of a prince of Kyiv Rus, then one of the most powerful states in Europe, goes to a far-away and unknown country of the Francs. Her marriage with Henry I brought thriving to the country. They defeat enemies with weapons and diplomacy, expand their land and accomplish peace and calm for that land.” 

Producer Dmytro Kravchenko is developing another feature film about the period of Kyiv Rus. This one is a generation before Anna of Kyiv. “We are now preparing for the film under the preliminary title Ingegerd. This is a story of a Swedish princess who was passionately in love with a Norwegian king but was forced to marry Kyiv prince Yaroslav. It is a story of a girl focused on feelings gradually evolved into a stateswoman. According to legends and stories from different sources, a great share of Yaroslav the Wise’s wisdom known through centuries owes to his wife, the Swedish princess Ingegerd.” 


RELATED ARTICLE: More alive than dead


There are more historical projects in the making. But we can get excited once they are released. Good quality is not guaranteed yet. 

The last nuance in historical cinematography is that the best historical films today are series. The Vikings, The Tudors, The Crown or Medici are all very expensive to produce. Ukrainian TV channels are not yet risking to produce something of that scale. 1+1 media is working on an ambitious international project. “We have long been planning several projects on Ukraine’s old history, mostly on the medieval period and the Kyiv Rus,” Director General Oleksandr Tkachenko shares. “This period was the one when international cooperation developed. The history of what are now separate European states was then common for all, including Kyiv Rus, Byzantium and Northern Europe. That’s why 1+1 media, jointly with our Norwegian colleagues, have come up with the idea of a project called Kingdoms. It is based on real developments that took place in the territory of modern Europe between the 11th and the 20th centuries. We believe that this work will be appreciated both by the Ukrainian audience, and by the international community as it deals with the history of many European states.” 


By Kateryna Horodnycha


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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