Gluxogo Groxota or, the Potential Influence of Three "Forgotten Masterpieces" Shown at the 5th Odessa Film Festival

in 5th Odessa International Film Festival

by Neil Young

What remarkable days to be Ukrainian! After long centuries of intimately intertwined history and culture, this land of 45 million — sprawling from the Carpathians to the Black Sea over territory just a smidgin smaller than Alaska — has, in a matter of months, decisively broken with Russia.

It was in 1991 that the former ‘bread-basket of Europe’ emerged from the collapsing USSR and declared independence. But it’s only now Ukraine that truly feels — despite deep economic problems and the bloody, ongoing conflicts in the eastern provinces — like a country truly reborn. Emphatically spurning its gigantic northern neighbour, the state now sees and presents itself as avowedly European, with NATO and perhaps EU membership on the cards.

The circumstances of the Russia-rupture are well-chronicled. And at the time of writing their tragic aftershocks continue to dominate daily headlines worldwide. But the short, medium and long-term effects on Ukraine — its geopolitical standing, people, commerce, arts, cinema — are hazardous to predict with any confidence. On the latter front, the cash-strapped film-industry is a microcosm of the whole, teetering in a promising/precarious position.

The Cannes double-whammy of Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s Semaine de la Critique winner The Tribe and Sergei Loznitsa’s critically-adored documentary Maidan could be plausibly marketed as post-preliminary ripples of a Ukrainian New Wave. At the 5th Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) the two domestic competitions — one for ‘features’ (60m+), one for shorts (30m-) — provided further grounds for optimism. Three names to note: Tribe editor/cinematographer/producer Valentyn Vasyanovych (Crepuscule); Lesia Kordonets (Balazher: The Corrections of Reality); Mariia Kondakova (Fallen Leaves).

That said, it’s hardly encouraging that the most promoted, most talked-about and, among locals at least, the most popular local production at OIFF should be Oles Sanin’s tearjerkingly patriotic period-picture The Guide . It’s to be hoped that Ukraine — the birthplace of Alexander Dovzhenko and Larisa Shepitko, adopted home of Kira Muratova and Sergei Paradjanov — will avoid repeating the errors of other recently-emerging states in this part of the world. Frittering millions on two-dimensionally flag-waving enterprises of minuscule cross-border appeal: not advisable. Nakedly chasing the glitzy, nutritionless bait of the Foreign Language Oscar: a temptation to be resisted.

But if Ukraine’s cinema may — from certain optimistic angles — appear like an excitingly blank page, bold outlines from previous epochs remain visible through the parchment, at least for those who care to look. OIFF asked some of the nation’s film-critics to name the Ukrainian productions most deserving of rediscovery, and gathered the top five under the grandiose, hostage-to-fortune banner Forgotten Masterpieces. The hype, for once, proved justified — especially in terms of three black-and-white USSR-era features which amply warrant further exposure and, which offer specific lessons for the current generation: not least in their hungry eagerness to confront difficult social issues head-on.

1. Start With A Bang!

There’s much to be said for gently guiding one’s audience into the fictional realm of one’s film. But there’s even more to be said for grabbing them by the hand and yanking them irresistibly across the threshold. Few pictures from any era can kick off as rousingly as Georgiy Stabovy’s Two Days (Dva dni) from 1927, a silent classic made at the Odessa Film Factory. Plunging us into the tumult of Ukraine’s 1917-21 civil war, this is the tragic story of an elderly servant abandoned by his aristocratic employers — the latter’s breakneck flight from the galloping Bolshevik menace initiating proceedings at a near-comically frantic pitch. Audaciously brisk editing leaves us stunned and exhilarated — and although the picture does settle down to a more sedate pace once the perfidious capitalists have fled the scene, the whole thing clocks in at an admirably economic 63 minutes. (The benefits of concision are already familiar to the aforementioned Vasyanovych, whose rural documentary Crepuscule runs two minutes shorter than Two Days.)

2. Take Risks! Hang The Consequences!

Though the subject of international critical re-appraisal over the last few years, Abram Room still only enjoys coterie renown. But the quietly outrageous A Severe Young Man (Strogiy yunosha) from 1934 suggests that Room would, in a fair world, be ranked alongside the likes of Lubitsch. An inter-generational love triangle involving a wealthy surgeon, his young wife and a headstrong Komsomol (Communist Youth) athlete, the picture takes a jaunty, even puckish attitude towards thorny issues of class conflict and the future development of the USSR under Stalin’s “guidance”.

While the romantic shenanigans are nominally the focus of the plot, Room and his Ukraine-born scriptwriter Yurii Olesha are palpably more interested in two secondary characters: corpulent freeloader Fyodor (“I emphasize inequality!”) and Adonis-like athlete Kolya (who finds the chubby Chaplin-lookalike an affront to “our strength, intellect and culture”).

The picture’s cockeyed humour, visual ingenuity and muscularly-confident ideology culminate in a surreal dream-sequence that has discus-champ Kolya hurling custard pies across a vast expanse of air, each one landing straight in Fyodor’s decadent, moustachioed mug. The censors, quite understandably, weren’t sure what to make of it all and banned the picture outright. Room’s career eventually recovered, and A Strict Young Man, despite occasional longueurs, remains paint-fresh nearly eight decades on.

3. Transport Is Delightful!

It doesn’t say much for world cinema that a work of such obviously outstanding merit as Arthur Voytetsky’s From Sheer Boredom (Skuki Radi, 1968) can fall into such obscurity. But then again, one of the joys of film-festivals like OIFF is stumbling across a world-class work which for some reason hardly anyone has heard about. Based on a story by Maxim Gorky and set in pre-revolutionary days, the film takes place in a single location: a tiny railway station marooned on the endless, mercilessly flat steppes.

One train passes each day (with a noise onomatopoeically rendered by Gorky as gluxogo groxota in the original Russian) — and even that might not even stop. But for a few minutes, the station-master, his staff and his wife are provided with a glimpse of the wider world — courtesy of the train’s socially-stratified compartments. At the station itself, class distinctions are no less sharp — with middle-aged, love-starved servant-woman Yaryna (Maya Bulgakova) very much on the bottom rung.

The disastrous consequences of such divisions — which are prone to recur in only nominally different forms if, as seems likely at this juncture, Ukraine under business-minded President Poroshenko embraces crude neo-liberal economic “solutions” — won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Gorky’s spectacularly dyspeptic world-view. And they’re rendered here in a stripped-down, austere style that makes particularly astonishing use, via Valerii Bashkatov’s widescreen cinematography, of the impossibly vast skies weighing down on these immense plains. Scenes at and after dusk are particularly spellbinding, leading up to the unbearably painful melancholy of the final reel. Seldom has the “magic hour” been so aptly named.

The parallels between the development of cinema and the development of the railways are well-established; and as illustrated by Lesia Kordonets’ OIFF Fipresci prize-winner Balazher, dealing with a borderland bus-route and the people who use it, public transport is a reliably productive entry-point for the exploration of much wider social/political issues. For example, the unsung trams of Odessa — most of them indestructible, socialist-era Tatra workhorses from the 1960s — obviously deserve a documentary of their own. Day and night they trundle tirelessly through the city’s dusty streets: gluxogo groxota, gluxogo groxota, gluxogo groxota, gluxogo groxota…

Neil Young