Odessa 2014: Rising Above the Trials of War

in 5th Odessa International Film Festival

by Bernard Besserglik

On May 2, just two months before the opening of the Odessa international film festival, 42 pro-Russian militants in the Black Sea port city perished in a fire after they barricaded themselves into a large building following clashes with pro-government supporters. The deaths aggravated tensions already heightened by a separatist insurgency in the east of the country which many Ukrainians regard as fomented by their Russian neighbour to the north and east following its annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The viability of Odessa 2014 remained in doubt for several weeks. However the festival duly opened on July 11. Then came the Malaysia Airlines disaster…

Coming barely four months after what some regard as a revolution, others as a coup d’état, the political context was always going to colour perceptions of the festival and raise important identity issues. Administered as an open city from the time of its founding in the late 18th century, Odessa has always prided itself on its multicultural heritage, hosting communities from all around the Black Sea basin. The predominant language in the region is Russian although, like the great majority of Ukrainians, the population is at ease with both Russian and Ukrainian. The “Russian” population of Odessa — that is to say, those residents of the city who use Russian as their first language — is largely pro-Kiev in the dispute that has pitted the authorities in the capital against the pro-Moscow separatists in the east. Whose festival would this fifth edition of the Odessa IFF prove to be? The neutral filmgoer’s, or the patriot’s? To what extent would the festival be “Russian”, to what extent Ukrainian?

The festival “is neither”, argues programme director Alik Shpilyuk. “It is Odessan.” This is all the more true in a year in which the state’s budget for culture has been all but wiped out in the cause of maximising the resources available to the military. Roughly one-fifth of the festival budget was provided by the Odessa municipality and regional authorities, with the rest coming from private sponsors, ticket sales and a crowd-funding campaign that raised an additional $25,000. It has been money well spent, Shpilyuk believes. Attendances at screenings have been high, with, at a rough estimate, between two-thirds and three-quarters of seats taken at most screenings and a good smattering of full or near-full houses. A striking feature has been the average age of the festival-goers, the great majority of them appearing to be in their early or middle twenties.

The festival’s significance as a political event was apparent from the start. British ambassador Simon Smith, presenting a recently restored copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 classic Blackmail for a special screening at Odessa’s celebrated Potemkin steps, noted that for a foreign visitor even to attend such a festival in the present circumstances was an act of solidarity with a beleaguered nation. Conversely, as Shpilyuk noted, the number of visitors to the festival from Russia was significantly — and understandably — down on last year.

A special screening was organised for the 2011 film Gaamer whose Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov has been arrested by Russian authorities and charged with terrorist activities following an attempt to smuggle food to the barricaded military personnel in his home province of Crimea. However the films presented in the “national competition”, all completed before the Maidan demonstrations that culminated in the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych in late February, were largely apolitical and displayed no particular animosity towards Russia or Russians, with one notable exception, Oles Sanin’s The Guide (Povodir).

Budgeted at $12 million according to one source, at less than half that amount according to another, Sanin’s blockbuster (by Ukrainian standards) is set in 1933-34, at the height of what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, the man-made famine engineered by the Kremlin in which as many as four million people starved to death. It charts the adventures of a young American boy who is caught up in the turmoil after his engineer father is murdered by the GPU, Stalin’s political police, and is taken in by a group of kobzars, or blind minstrels, who are themselves being hounded out of existence by the Soviet regime. Here the battlelines are clearly drawn: all the good guys speak Ukrainian, all the bad guys speak Russian, and shades of grey, such as the fact that Ukrainian political policemen acted just as cruelly towards their countrymen are not dwelt on.

A more subtle handling of political issues is found in Volodymyr Tychyy’s The Green Jacket (Zelena Kofta), the film upon which the FIPRESCI jury bestowed its award. Essentially a social drama, the movie tells the story of a young schoolgirl and the effect that the abduction of her six-year-old brother, who had been left in her charge, has on her. Tychyy allows the facts of daily life under Yanukovych’s rule, in particular the general corruption, to speak for themselves, but the single moment when politics is specifically mentioned brought laughs from the audience: the girl’s grandfather grumbles about the pro-NATO and pro-European leanings of Yanukovych’s predecessor Viktor Yushchenko and is promptly put in his place by the girl’s mother.

There were other occasions for good-natured laughter at the former president’s expense during the festival, such as the moment when, in one of the competition shorts, the elderly protagonist calls out to her cat: “Come here, Viktor Fyodorovych…” — the latter being Yanukovych’s first name and patronymic.

But on the sixth day of the festival, with the downing in the east of Ukraine of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing in which all 298 passengers and crew lost their lives, the mood changed dramatically. Screenings were now preceded by a moment’s silence in honour of the victims of the disaster, and the festival organisers announced that the daily late-night parties, usually part and parcel of a film festival’s programme, were being discontinued.

As chance had it, the next day’s schedule included two screenings of Sergei Loznitsa’s documentary Maidan, the director’s account of last winter’s demonstrations on Kiev’s central square, which was receiving its Ukraine première after its world première at Cannes. Both were hot ticket occasions. The film opens with a shot of the crowd in the Maidan singing Ukraine’s national anthem. The exercise was repeated later in the film. On both occasions, and at both screenings, the Odessa audience stood to attention for the anthem. The atmosphere at the evening screening, as festival jury president Peter Webber (the director of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Hannibal Rising) noted the following evening, was “electric”, during both the screening itself and the extended question-and-answer session that followed.

In his remarks at the closing ceremony, Webber stressed the importance of film festivals, particularly at “times of trouble” like the present moment. Cinema is “the heart and soul” of a nation’s cultural life, he said, and an international festival provides an opportunity for that nation to show the world how it sees itself. By way of illustration he highlighted the sobriety and restraint of Loznitsa’s film and saluted the director as a master of his art.

With part of Ukraine plunged into civil war — a war, moreover, in which the insurgents have been encouraged and abetted by its powerful neighbour — and another part of its territory recently amputated, it would have been understandble if a note of acrimony had set in during the festival. It did not. The festival — organisers, artists and audiences alike — was admirable in the way it rose above the present difficulties and continued to assert Ukraine’s cultural and historical affinities with Russia. All the important festival proceedings — official announcements, press conferences, presentations, subtitling — were conducted in Russian, and a Russian film, Anna Melikyan’s Star (Zvezda), was among the closing day’s winners, its young leading lady Tina Dalakishvili receiving a special mention in the acting category. Whatever the outcome to the drama unfolding further east, still entirely unpredictable, the Odessa festival 2014 will have played an important role in helping to forge a new, stronger sense of Ukrainian identity.

Edited by Neil Young