One of the most satisfying aspects of my teaching is when I get to introduce students to unknown cultures and/or current events through the cinema. I have taught films from all over the world, and they always illuminate something special about the world we are observing. That same beauty is available to all of us, and I wish to share some of it with you this month. I give short reviews of two very different films that tell us a bit about Ukraine. Please enjoy, and perhaps, learn.
Winter of Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015—Ukraine)
This award-winning documentary tells the story of the 2014 Ukrainian uprising that removed then-Russian-puppet-President Viktor Yanukovych. The fight was brutal, ugly, deadly, and fierce, and the documentary pulls no punches; be warned: it is not easy viewing. Director Evgeny Afineevsky was on the ground with a large camera crew following several different stories and individuals over the four-month standoff between the diverse group of students, intellectual, babushkas, and ex-military men and women fighting against the well-organized and brutal state police force.
The film uses actual footage of those demonstrations that started in November 2013 when Yanukovych reneged on his promises to join the EU and instead signaled that Ukraine would align itself with Russia. In response to the Kyiv uprising, Russia invaded and then annexed Crimea in 2014 and invaded the eastern, Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014 as well. All of these events, of course, were precursors to the current Russian invasion of all Ukraine.
Organized around the stories of actual participants, the film gives a clear, chronological overview of what is now known as the Revolution of Dignity, or the Maidan Revolution (named for the “Independence Square” in Kyiv). The participants look back upon the events and serve as narrators while events unfold on screen. We see the success, but we also see the price of that success in stark and vivid display. Also on display is the steely nerve and the courage of regular Ukrainians. The current situation in Ukraine should be slightly clearer, and certainly more heartbreaking, after screening this illuminating documentary.
You will like this movie if you appreciated Burma VJ, The Square, and/or No Stone Unturned.
Available on Netflix.
This dystopian film is set in 2025 Ukraine after the “war with Russia” is over. Whether director Valentyn Vasayanovych meant it to depict the aftermath of the continuing conflicts in Eastern Ukraine or was simply prescient about the current war is an open question. What is not up for debate is how the film shows the horrid after-effects of a devastating war: on the landscapes, on the buildings, on the people, and on the entire ecosystem. Vasayanovych masterfully gives us an episodic view of this brutal landscape and how the resilient people continue to wade through it. Knowing what we know now, it is particularly painful. Life is now imitating art.
Vasayanovych uses a very expressive filming technique: a static medium-shot in long take that allows us to sit with an image or a scene. The lack of editing can be disturbing and/or illuminating but it is always contemplative, and it makes us focus our attention on all of the details. It might be something dark, such as a smelting plant where we see a tragic event; or extremely visceral, as when we see mass graves uncovered; or just plain comical, as when we see the main character take a warm bath in in the most curious location possible.
The story is simple: a man tries to find meaning and purpose in this difficult world. He befriends a woman who works as a volunteer locating bodies; she then brings them “home” for a proper goodbye/burial. He joins the cause. The acting is as superb as the cinematography and staging are remarkable. This is a difficult watch, but it pays off with a poignant burst of humanity. We can only hope for that in our own reality.
You will enjoy this film if you liked The Road, The Book of Eli, and/or Children of Men.
Available on demand.
Finally, I want to make you aware of a wonderful annual event: the Women + Film Festival from April 5–10 at the Sie Film Center. About the Festival, the Film Society notes “The April 5 Opening Night presentation of the documentary Fire of Love, a riveting retrospective following the love story of scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft and their unwavering passion for deciphering the mysteries of volcanoes. The Closing Night presentation is the animated biopic Charlotte, a soulful retelling of the life of a prolific German-Jewish painter, Charlotte Salomon, coming of age during the Second World War.” For the schedule and more information, go to www.denverfilm.org.
Vincent Piturro, PhD., is a Professor of Film and Media Studies at MSU Denver. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter. For more reviews, search The Indie Prof at FrontPorchNE.com.