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Festival Report: Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival 2022

UKRAINE / From Kyiv, Modern Times Review reports from the 2022 Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival.

The queue of a couple of hundred people inches slowly forward in the dank darkness of a freezing winter night in Przemsyl, eastern Poland, in an ill-lit corner of the last railway station before the border.

The straggling line of people is primarily women and children, with a few men over 60 among them. The majority are Ukrainian.

Time hangs like clouds of cold breath in the air as we shuffle towards a shed where makeshift Polish passport control booths mark the border between one world and another. The sense of approaching a war zone is palpable.

The overnight train journey to Kyiv takes around eight hours, and passport control for the Ukrainian side takes place on board. Aside from a few questions concerning the number of expired Russian visas I had in my passport, crossing into a country at war was a smooth experience.

a war memorial in central kyiv featuring many Ukrainian flags in the snow
Ukrainian flags with the names of civilians killed during the war, placed on Maidan Square in Kyiv by their friends and family

There was a time – not so long ago – when an invitation to a film festival in Kyiv was a simple proposition: jump on a plane, and in a couple of hours, one could be drinking coffee or kvass with your Ukrainian friends and colleagues.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch an unprovoked attack on Ukraine last February has changed all that: A European country is fighting for its survival against a ruthless enemy, and the Russians respect neither civilian life nor the Geneva Conventions. Over the past couple of months, the recent wave of missile and drone attacks on energy infrastructure has plunged Ukraine into nocturnal darkness, leaving as many as six million people without reliable electricity or water supplies. Blackouts are frequent, air raid alarms an everyday occurrence, and a strict 11 pm – 5 am curfew is enforced.

an image of kyiv at night without electricity
Kyiv at night: no street lighting due to Russian missile attacks on energy infrastructure

It sounds grim, and it is, but Ukraine’s fight for survival against Russia’s war machine is not only taking place in the frozen trenches of its Eastern Front.

Far from the frontlines around Kharkiv and Kherson, there is a cultural front at work in the capital.

Last Thursday [December 1st] – officially the first day of winter – in a snow-covered city under clear blue skies, the Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival opened its 51st edition.

Founded as a student film showcase in the Soviet 1970s, the festival expanded to include features, shorts and international fare.

Far from the frontlines around Kharkiv and Kherson, there is a cultural front at work in the capital.

Despite fears earlier this year that it would have to be cancelled, with the backing of Ukraine’s Presidential Administration, organisers put on a shortened festival programme over three days in Kyiv, a month after some sections ran under the aegis of the Hamburg Film Festival in Germany.

Andriy Khalpakhchi, long-time art director of the festival, said the festival – which usually runs in early summer – had wanted to air in Kyiv in October, but a series of Russian missile attacks on the city that left scores of civilians dead and injured had forced them to scrap plans.

«Originally, we were not sure that we would make it in Kyiv all – but it was a good sign that we were able to organise sections of it in Hamburg, which sent out a positive message to the international film community», Khalpakhchi said.

a dance troupe in central kyiv
A dance troupe perform for a pop video on Maidan Square, Kyiv

«We really want to show that the cultural front is open, that culture still exist in Ukraine. It is a message to our international partners that we continue our cultural life.»

Putting on a film festival with an absent international jury (headed by Berlinale executive director Mariette Rissenbeek) in a country where Russian rocket attacks have destroyed 40% of electricity generating capacity, and at a time when frequent blackouts plunge night-time Kyiv into darkness has been a challenge.

«We had wanted to do our opening in a Metro station, but changed plans as it was not practical», Khalpakhchi said, adding that when US TV host David Letterman produced a show with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a Kyiv subway station earlier this year, it was impossible to hear anything without headphones.

Inviting international guests was also a challenge.

«We really want to show that the cultural front is open, that culture still exist in Ukraine. It is a message to our international partners that we continue our cultural life.»

«We wanted Sean Penn – to whom we are giving an honorary award – to come, but he could not come at this time; he has proved himself a great friend of Ukraine and has finished the film he was making here and lent his Oscar to the president’s office for the duration of the war.»

The festival had been able to make arrangements for several foreign filmmakers and guests, but in the end, only four were willing and able to make the arduous overnight train journey from neighbouring Poland.

an image of an anti tank obstacle in front of street art in central kyiv
A distinctive artwork by British street artist Banksy on concrete blocks, Maidan Square, Kyiv

In a country at war where people are dying daily on the frontlines or under the bombardment of homes and infrastructure – it remains a challenging festival. At Thursday’s opening at Kyiv’s Zhovten Cinema, where Polish-Ukrainian co-production Tata (dir: Anna Maliszewska, starring Erik Lubos) had its Ukrainian premiere, the audience was advised to head for the basement shelter or nearby subway station if an air raid alarm sounded. If the lights went out – but there was no air raid siren – the audience should wait five or ten minutes for the generators to kick in.

But this did not deter those foreign guests who turned up to show their films – and solidarity.

Aldona Harwintska, a publicist for the Warsaw Film School, who was one of four foreign guests, said she had «jumped at the chance» to come to Kyiv – her first visit to Ukraine.

«I did not hesitate for a second», she said. «Of course, I had some concerns about security, but you cannot let terrorism dictate how you live your life. I have friends in Poland who are supporting Ukrainians on the frontlines – they are taking humanitarian aid to Bakhmut soon – and I knew this was an opportunity I could not turn down.»

Like the other guests, she soon found that the experience of visiting the Ukrainian capital at a time of war was both exhilarating and normal at the same time: during a long walking tour of the city put on by the festival for the foreign contingent, the stoicism of Ukrainians was on abundant display: families mingled with soldiers on leave examining snow-covered rusting Russian tanks and other military hardware at an open-air exhibition of war materiel in the city centre; on Maidan Square – where the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in the winter of 2013/2014 took place – a group of young women in dance costumes far too skimpy for a freezing winter’s day went through their paces for a music video being filmed on location.

an image of a bombed our Russian tank on display in kyiv
Russian tanks destroyed by Ukrainian forces on display in the centre of Kyiv

Back at the film festival, audiences were offered a program that included films from the national competition (Kateryna Gornostai’s Stop-Zemlia was already announced in Hamburg as the festival’s Grand Prix winner), the festival’s traditional Scandinavian Panorama, an international Festival of Festivals, and – for those willing to stay in the cinema during the overnight curfew – a Midnight Screenings program.

The festival also included a screening of the Ukrainian film Pamfir which premiered at Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight program this year. A debut directed by Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, the film is set in Ukraine’s western Carpathian Hills region and revolves around the story of a tough, macho family man and smuggler, Pamfir. After a local church burns down – with the loss of historical family records – Pamfir is blamed, leading him to resolve to rebuild it. Featuring dialogue in the local dialect, Bukovinian, Pamfir offers a glimpse into the lives and traditions of this most Ukrainian of regions.

Igor Savychenko, who produced Volodomy Tikhyy’s documentary on the early days of the war, One Day in Ukraine – which was screened by the BBC – said that cinema and the arts had continued virtually uninterrupted not only in Kyiv but other cities such as heavily-shelled Kharkiv, despite the war.

«It’s normal life for us. We should not stop going to the cinema, or drinking champagne, or celebrating anything», he remarked.

All Image Credits: Nick Holdsworth

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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