Once «The Pearl of the Black Sea», the political power struggles that have been characterising the East-West relationship since 2014 have left the major tourist centre in an inconvenient position. Needless to say, this year’s Odessa International Film Festival couldn’t avoid politics.
Oleksandr Techynskyi/Alisa Kovalenko
Ukraine, Germany/Ukraine, UK
A writer once warned: Don’t go to Odessa! The sweet smell of the blooming acacia trees will seduce you into leaving your heart there forever. The port city on the sunny shore of the Black Sea, where I was invited for the Odessa International Film Festival, has always been a city of arts, and it inspired many of Russia’s greatest writers. Alexander Pushkin completed the second chapter of his masterpiece Eugene Onegin here, whilst Nikolai Gogol wrote most of the parts of Dead Souls in Odessa. Anton Chekhov is also said to have spent half his paycheck on Odessan ice cream. It’s difficult not to be fascinated by Odessa’s rich history, reaching back to the times of an ancient Greek colony, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, all of which are still reflected in the luxury of the city’s architectural details – as eclectic as the populace has always been.
«It seems that Ukrainian filmmakers are now in a position where it is more important than ever to make strong, political films that resist the politics of aggression and violence.»
Today, the picture is different. «The Pearl of the Black Sea» had been glamorised into a touristy, semi-globalised post-Soviet city of extravagant hotels and big-brand name boutiques, and yet many of the buildings haven’t been renovated at all since their long-gone days of glory. Despite their enigmatic rundown charms, I quickly realised that most of the time it’s best to keep your eyes on the ground – the holes in the streets are so huge that you can stumble and fall in no time. The tourist guides warn you of them, and also of the tap water and the commonplace street crime.
Ukraine – torn between the East and the West – has experienced Russia compromising its political autonomy and territorial sovereignty. Nationalism is on the rise and has escalated into many Neo-Nazi movements. Today’s situation is impossible to discuss in simplistic terms. I found myself thinking of the short docufiction Krisis by Dimitri Venkov: If Lenin’s statue (a symbol of a totalitarian regime) is torn down during Maidan, it might be considered a good thing on the surface, but knowing it has been torn down by Ukrainian Neo-Nazis – supporters of another totalitarian regime – makes it much more complicated. Odessa isn’t far from Crimea and only a bit further from Donbass, where there is still an on-going armed conflict between the pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government. It hasn’t escaped its share of violence: four years ago, 46 pro-Russian protesters were killed, outnumbered by pro-Ukrainian attackers.
Political filmmaking as a way of resistance
Needless to say, this year’s festival couldn’t avoid politics: the main event of the festival was Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass – so close to where the horrors of the war are actually taking place. Then, there is the looming tragedy of the Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, a pro-Ukrainian activist who resisted the Russian annexation and was subsequently arrested in 2014 by Russian authorities. Sentenced to twenty years in prison and transferred to a penal colony in Siberia, Sentsov declared a hunger strike three months ago – with the demand that Russian authorities free all Ukrainian political prisoners. The Odessa International Film Festival is just one in a long line of film organisations that have issued demands for his release, while Sentsov – bedridden and unaware of his support around the world – has recently been reported as in «catastrophic health» and «near the end».