5th Odessa International Film Festival

Ukrain, July 11 - July 19 2014

The jury

Oksana Voloshenyuk (Ukraine), Bernard Besserglik (France), Neil Young (UK)

Awarded films

Shadows of mourning hovered over all nine days of the fifth Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF), held from 11 to 19 July in Ukraine’s “Pearl of the Black Sea”. The opening ceremony started with a formal silence in honour of 23 military personnel killed in a missile attack in the country’s west earlier that day; the closing ceremony likewise began with silence to mark the death of the 298 who perished when their Malaysia-bound aeroplane crashed near the Russian border two days before.

A city long renowned across the region — and beyond — for its tranquil seaside charms and historic tree-lined boulevards, Odessa itself has not been spared from tragedy in this pivotal year for the ex-USSR state of 45 million people. Last winter a popular movement against Moscow-friendly President Yanukovych, centred on Kiev’s Maidan square, eventually led to the government’s overthrow. The turbulent aftermath of this revolution has often taken violent turns.

Less than a mile from the Festival Palace, the 1970s-era theatre where the opening and closing ceremonies took place, stands the fire-damaged Trade Union House. On May 2, 42 people lost their lives here in horrific circumstances during clashes between ‘pro-Russian’ and ‘pro-Ukrainian’ activists.

Holding a film-festival in the wake of such a massacre, in a country wracked by civil war, was always going to be somewhat controversial — even if Odessa is more than 400 miles from the current “front lines” of the conflicts in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. And the festival’s financial difficulties, in a territory where the prevailing emphasis is very much on military spending rather than cultural activities, came to wider attention when the organisers sought and quite quickly received $25,000 (€18,495) through crowdfunding website IndieGogo after the withdrawal of all government cash.

Festival president Victoria Tigipko and her team — headed by executive producer Julia Sinkevych and programme director Alik Shpilyuk — adopted and stoically maintained an upbeat “show must go on” attitude. And they were able, under very difficult conditions, to stage a successful event — with a certain measure of red-carpet glamour and generous, Odessa-style hospitality — that suggests OIFF is on its way to becoming an important gathering in the world of central and eastern European cinema.

The total audience for the 98 film-screenings amounted to 105,00 — a figure that includes an official estimate of 15,000 for the free, open-air screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) on the Potemkin Steps. This is the colossal granite-and-asphalt stairway, connecting the city centre with its booming port, as immortalised on celluloid by Sergei Eisenstein in The Battleship Potemkin (1925).

The version of Blackmail shown was silent — rather than the better-known talkie — in a digital restoration courtesy of the BFI, with composer Neil Brand’s score performed live by the Odessa Symphonic Orchestra. There were also around 2,000 spectators each night at the nearby, lesser-known Langeron steps where eight films were shown free of charge including the first episode of Georges Feuillade’s silent serial Fantômas (1913).

Removing these 31,000 “open air” admissions from the 105,000 total still leaves an impressive 74,000 at the festival’s three indoor screens. This indicates significant local support for a festival aiming to boost Odessa’s international profile as well as helping to counterbalance a slump in tourism following this year’s terminal rupture between Ukraine and Russia — not to mention global coverage of ongoing conflicts. Audiences in this famously cultured, cosmopolitan university city were conspicuously youthful and engaged, with lively debates following many of the screenings. The Ukrainian premiere of Sergei Loznitsa’s reportage-documentary Maidan proved particularly stimulating, with a sometimes-fiery post-screening Q+A extending into the small hours.

Maidan was shown in the sidebar ‘Ways To Freedom’, a topical selection of seven new films exploring concepts of public revolt. Even more urgently topical: a special screening of Oleg Sentsov’s Gaamer (Gámer, 2009), held as a benefit for the Ukrainian director arrested by Russian security forces two months ago in Crimea on terrorism charges and who remains behind bars pending an October trial-date.

Other sections included international and national competitions (the FIPRESCI jury concentrated on the latter, viewing seven feature/mid-length works and 13 shorts); a ‘Festival of Festivals’ panorama; a four-film tribute to British director Stephen Frears (who remarked during his press conference that Odessa was “the most beautiful city” he had ever visited), and ‘Ukrainian Retrospective: Forgotten Masterpieces’ which showcased five unjustly-neglected features ranging from 1927’s Two Days (Dva dni; Georgiy Stabovy) to 1993’s Wild Love (Dikaia Lyubov; Villen Novak).

Complementing this look back at Ukraine’s past glories, 21 in-development projects were selected for the ‘Film Industry Office’, bringing together film-makers, funders and programmers from across Europe. This four-day gathering for industry-delegates was held at the Odessa Film Studio on Frantzusky Boulevard, a pebble’s throw from the Black Sea. Opened in 1919, the Studio’s illustrious alumni include the most revered of Ukrainian directors Aleksandr Dovzhenko, the city’s literary laureate Isaac Babel, and Kira Muratova — septuagenarian doyenne of the national industry, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the sombre closing ceremony.

Golden Duke’ prizes — miniature versions of the statue of the city’s founding father the Duc de Richelieu, who stands in bronze atop of the Potemkin Steps — were awarded in the International Competition. Best Film went to Levan Koguashvili’s wry comedy-drama Blind Dates (Brma paemnebi), a Georgia-Ukraine co-production. Big-screen debutante Angélique Litzenburger, star of Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis’s French character-study Party Girl won the newly-instituted award for Best Performance, while British filmmaker Peter Webber’s jury also recognised Berlinale Golden Bear laureate Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo), naming China’s Yi’nan Diao as Best Director.

The FIPRESCI jury, as previously mentioned, concentrated on the National Competition. Winner of the ‘Features’ section, which included mid-length contenders, was Volodymyr Tykhyy’s low-key tale of child-abduction, family dysfunction and violent revenge, The Green Jacket (Zelena Kofta) with a Special Mention for Valentyn Vasyanovych’s 62-minute documentary on an elderly farmer and her blind middle-aged son, Crepuscule (Prismerk). In the Shorts sidebar, which yielded several small gems, FIPRESCI’s certificate went to Lesia Kordonets for her 29-minute study of a borderland bus-route, Balazher: The Corrections of Reality (Balazher: Korrekturen der Wirklichkeit) a Swiss-Ukrainian co-production. The jury gave a Special Mention in this category to Fallen Leaves (Listopad), a darkly comic romantic miniature with a jarring sting in the tail. (Neil Young)

Odessa International Film Festival: oiff.com.ua/en/index.htm