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».
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, but some of them might be risking their lives doing it. Still, Stephane Siohan, a French producer that has been living in Ukraine for some years, told me that a change has been felt in Ukranian cinema lately: Ukrainian film was pioneering in the beginning of the 20th century and subsequently relegated to the role of the province of Russian film throughout the following decades, but the «events of the last few years have made history knock on the door. The people have started making films again. They feel they must.»
Everyday realities in Ukraine
I found proof of an emerging new wave of cinema in Delta by Oleksandr Techynskyi – the winner of the National Competition at this year’s festival. Techynskyi, who has previously co-directed the documentary All Things Ablaze, one of the finest portraits of the 2014 Maidan protests which turned to violence, has now made a completely different film: a naturalistic documentary about life at the Danube delta. The main protagonist is the river itself, from late autumn to early spring, while the stories of the individual people living on its shores are no more than fleeting vignettes in the bigger picture.
It’s a bleak life. Delta shows farmers harvesting wheat squabbling over cigarettes, fishermen paddling in the cold in a race against time to catch as much fish as possible before the river freezes, woodsmen struggling to bring in wood with tools unfit for the job. As the temperature drops, life gets increasingly difficult: it’s hard to get fresh food, and even fresh water, while the people are freezing. There is a funeral on the river and a Christmas celebration, both more reminiscent of a pagan ritual than an Orthodox Christian practice. I found Techynskyi’s film shared some of its preoccupations with Loznitsa’s documentaries, even if it is vastly different in terms of its style, with gorgeous images, radiant colours reflecting the change of seasons, and a haptic approach that made me feel the winter frost, the texture of the snow, and the smell of garbage burning.
Alisa Kovalenko, a Ukrainian film director I meet in Odessa, told me that the state funding system has grown problematic in recent years – undoubtedly as a reaction to the political reality. More and more attention is given to patriotic films, the state favouring these productions over films without such elements. Techynskyi’s Delta is definitely not one of those. In fact, it would have been difficult to deliver a harsher and more effective critique of a country that hasn’t the energy (or the means) to establish a basic social structure that would ensure a decent life even for the people on its fringes.
In the final shots of Techynskyi’s documentary a fox’s foot is mercilessly caught in a trap in the forest, the animal desperately, but futilely, trying to pull itself out and get away. It sums up perfectly the life of the people living there: While the young generation has mostly managed to flee to big cities or abroad, the ones that remain are subject to nature’s whims – unable to rely on anything but themselves, their beliefs and their rituals.
Kovalenko herself has directed the documentary film Home Games, produced by Siohan, which was screened in the European Documentary Competition of the Odessa film festival. Previously, only a few years after finishing her studies, the filmmaker found herself on the barricades of Maidan and in the war-torn Eastern Ukraine shooting her debut film. Home Games, which won the prize for best European Documentary, approaches the everyday reality of life in Ukraine from a diametrically opposite angle. Instead of a state in crisis, the film focuses on everyday life in Ukraine. Instead of social movements, it focuses on an intimate story of an individual – a 20-year-old lesbian. Alina’s dream is to play for the national football team, but she struggles to make the time for training while also taking care of her dysfunctional family.
«Events of the last few years have made history knock on the door. The people have started making films again. They feel they must.» – Stephane Siohan
Kovalenko expanded her interest in women’s football in Ukraine through a documentary TV series, finding young working class women from all over the country for whom sport is a means of escaping poverty. Home Games is a portrait of an exceptional young woman from the working class of an already impoverished society, but it is also one of the first LGBT films in Ukraine, even if Alina and her partner don’t really feel like a part of the LGBT community or act as if they are conscious they have anything to do with it. The documentary feels refreshing in a country where women were barred from playing football until only a few decades ago due to so called «health reasons». In Soviet Union, «men’s sports have been supported by strong propaganda», Kovalenko noted, «while the same ideology required women to give birth and to cook borscht [a common beetroot soup].»
Even if LGBT rights are still a sensitive topic in Ukraine, things are changing Siohan notes. «A good Ukrainian used to be Orthodox, hetero, and spoke Ukrainian. Today the society is starting to accept diversity – for the third year in a row, the Pride Parade has been held in Kiev without any incidents. Ukraine is not Russia.» It seems quite meaningful that for the two women the way out of misery and to setting their life in order is leaving their tradition behind and starting their own family – regardless of the conservative environment and the ineffective social system they live in. It seems that even in the stories of the harsh Ukrainian everyday reality, there is a way to a better future.