The «fragile memory» of the man behind the camera

    MEMORY / A Ukrainian filmmaker turns to a forgotten photo archive as his grandfather’s memory starts fading away.

    Notable Ukrainian cinematographer Leonid Burlaka worked for decades with the Odesa Film Studio. Having lensed over 30 films, Burlaka’s best-known work is perhaps the 1979 Soviet criminal drama The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed, helmed by Stanislav Govorukhin. The film starred legendary Soviet actor, poet, and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky in one of his final screen appearances. A massive hit with Soviet audiences, The Meeting Place enjoyed the status of a cult film through several generations. The once active cinematographer and vibrant mind Leonid Burlaka, or as his family and friends endearingly call him Lyonya, is now in his early 80s and finds comfort in quieter moments of life as Alzheimer’s slowly erodes his ability to remember. Struggling to come to terms with his withering memory, his grandson Ukrainian filmmaker Igor Ivanko sets out on a quest to learn about his grandfather in an intimate author-driven documentary’ Fragile Memory, screened in the international competition of this year’s Krakow Film Festival and DocAviv.

    Fragile Memory, a film by Igor Ivanko
    Fragile Memory, a film by Igor Ivanko

    The childhood superhero

    At a summer house (‘dacha’) near Odessa, «amidst piles of junk that nobody needed but was sorry to throw away,» Ivanko discovers a plastic bag full of crumbling photo films with emulsion worn off, belonging to his grandfather (it is later explained that such distortions to the images occurred due to nitrate in film, which was in use «up to the mid-60s»). This wealth of photographs presented the filmmaker with an opportunity to gain rare insight into the interior life of his grandfather in his youth, the man he considered «a superhero of [his] childhood» who taught him how to row a boat or «make a firecracker out of a bullet cartridge» and showed him «how to stop time.»

    Ivanko brings to the screen some of the stunning photographs from his grandfather’s immense archive, encompassing «450 film rolls and more than 15,000 shots.» Each photograph is an unforgettable picture of life, imbued with incredible intimacy and anchored in a historical time capsule. The black-and-white images then are not only a record of the cinematographer’s private life but are a token of the bygone era that feels both distant and familiar. «For me, grandpa’s archive is the only way to see everyday life 50 years ago,» the filmmaker notes. «All I’ve seen before were the newsreels […], featuring the big political events from the 60s. The Space Race. The Virgin Lands campaign or Fidel Castro playing with snowballs when the world was on the brink of nuclear war. At that time, my grandad was a student.»

    Each photograph is an unforgettable picture of life, imbued with incredible intimacy and anchored in a historical time capsule.

    Weaving through Burlaka’s oeuvre and that of his colleagues, the documentary also chronicles Soviet-era Ukrainian cinema: from the rather prolific years of the Odesa Film Studio in the 1970s and 1980s that saw «up to 16 movies» produced per year to the late 80s when VHS arrived in the Soviet Union and started entering households, to the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet film production, and eventually to the Studio’s ensuing stagnation. Burlaka’s last film, a low-budget production titled How a Blacksmith Sought Happiness, was released in 1999, the year when audiences worldwide were in for a treat with such lavish productions as the epic space opera film Star Wars, Episode 1 or sci-fi action The Matrix.

    Fragile Memory, a film by Igor Ivanko
    Fragile Memory, a film by Igor Ivanko

    A transhistorical journey

    Throughout this transhistorical journey, the film returns to the heartbeat of Burlaka’s house in the present day – their kitchen table – the place where the family comes together to nourish themselves and share a meal or a conversation. The humble wooden structure thus becomes not only a surface upon which the family dines but a space where its members pore over the photographs from the forgotten archive as if they were relics of an earlier time. Dividing the screen in two, the filmmaker purposely turns focus to his grandparents’ reactions to the images and their feelings of confusion, tenderness, and nostalgia. In day-to-day goings-on, the house, the garden, and the garage transform into new cinematic realms that reflect his grandfather’s memory fading. As the filmmaker and his grandfather rummage through the garage, cluttered with wooden pallets, assorted boxes, jars, and other household items, their search for a lawnmower becomes punctuated by grandfather’s repetitive questions about what the machine looks like and what it does. «I can’t remember anything,» he says in anguish. «Like a nightmare.»

    When memory draws a blank, to keep recording is to remember and preserve the brevity of human life in perpetuity. «Someone should always film,» Ivanko says to his grandfather in an earlier conversation. «You used to film us when we were kids. Now we grew up, and I am filming you.» The documentary closes with a view of Ivanko’s grandfather against the backdrop of the garden. «Now the rain has stopped…» his grandfather says quietly, almost unintelligibly. The melancholic scene is followed by silent, black-and-white footage of his grandfather, decades younger.

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    Sevara Pan
    Sevara Pan
    Journalist and film critic.

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