Of Truths Stronger than Fiction

in 5th Odessa International Film Festival

by Cerise Howard

At the 6th Odessa International Film Festival, the National Competition Program for feature films was a program of two distinct halves, with one half a far more accomplished trio of offerings than the other.

The lesser half comprised the narrative fiction films. Diverse in subject matter and in settings in space and time, they nonetheless had in common an eschewal of naturalistic performance in favour of affectation. This was easily at its most successful in Eva Neymann’s ravishingly shot Song of Songs (Pesn pesney), an early 20th century, Jewish shtetl-set adaptation of stories by Sholem Aleichem, which only really felt hampered by its mannerism in its latter sequences, when its whimsical boy and girl sweethearts have become disillusioned young adults whose affected aloofness, rendered in monotonous line readings and presented almost as if in tableaux vivants, smothers all emotion.

The mannerism was at its most histrionic in veteran director Anatoliy Mateshko’s altogether unpleasant Captum (Lat. Captivity). The first time the subject has been tackled by Ukrainian filmmakers, Captum grapples with the recent invasionary horrors to have affected the east of the nation. However, the whole film is pitched in a relentlessly brutalising tenor, and nuance be as damned as its wretched and repulsive characters. Well might that be the point, but it doesn’t make for a palatable viewing experience, not least as it’s surely destined to be preaching to an already traumatised converted anyway. A couple of scenes of cruelty seem especially hard to justify, even if presented in the putative interests of allegory – a ghastly rape scene which I saw coming a mile away and wished I hadn’t, as well as a scene of wanton cruelty to a cat: ditto.

Any hint of subtlety or understatement was nowhere to be found either in the extremely broad village comedy The Flight of the Golden Fly (Polit zolotoyi mushky), which raised a few chuckles, almost in spite of itself, but which in no way made comprehensible the care (read: money) that had been lavished upon its production, impossible to reconcile with the film’s utter inconsequentiality and gormlessness. (Nice cloud creatures, though.)

Staying with the rural setting, it’s over to the more successful half of the competition’s offerings: the documentaries. Ostap Kostyuk’s Living Fire (Zhyva Vatra) warmly and diligently observes the hardscrabble, anachronistic lives of shepherds in the Ukrainian Carpathians. Running at a leisurely clip, it’d make for an excellent companion piece to Andrey Konchalovskiy’s recent docu-fictional feature, The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Tryapitsyna), similarly interested in lonely lives lived remotely by people whom the 21st century is leaving in its wake, and no matter the beauty and simple pleasures afforded by their environment.

The Kickstarter-funded Vagrich and the Black Square is an intriguing profile from director Andrei Zagdansky of Vagrich Bakhchanyan, a dissident mixed- and multi-media artist born in Soviet-era Ukraine of Armenian extraction, who successfully transplanted himself to New York City in 1974 and whom I’d never heard of before. Full of true-to-genre testimonies to the artist’s genius and unique worldview, it’s most fun when showing off his artworks. A recombinatory audio cut-up of a soundbite from Leonid Brezhnev is especially delicious.

The standout film in competition, however, was The Dybbuk. A Tale of Wandering Souls (Dybuk. Rzecz o wedrówce dusz), directed by prolific Polish documentarian Krzysztof Kopczynski. Or, to be more precise, its Director’s Cut, for elsewhere it is apparently to be screened or broadcast at only two-thirds of its full length, so inflammatory has its content been deemed by certain powers that be.

The Dybbuk concerns conflict in Uman in central Ukraine between Hasidic Jews, making an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to a hallowed gravesite, and Ukrainian far-right nationalists, who have erected a memorial nearby to the key figures responsible for a nearly 250-year-old Cossack massacre of Jews and Poles. No-one, but no-one, comes out of this film smelling of roses. The Hasidim and nationalists both are beholden to age-old grievances and hidebound prejudices, and both seem inexorably determined to further propagate them. Nobody is interested in dialogue, only in shouting over one another. Equally unhelpful is a third party integral to the conflict, that of the Ukrainian authorities. From the police working the beat on up through to the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and judiciary, there is only inertia, indifference and, sometimes, even amusement in response to the mushrooming conflict.

The Dybbuk’s scenes of masses of bodies in motion, whether mobilised into a frenzy through religious ecstasy or political agitation, are familiar from any number of documentary accounts of cross-cultural or sectarian conflicts on film or in nightly news reports on TV. Here, as elsewhere, these scenes have the effect of making everyone look absurd – buffoonish, dehumanised, and arrhythmic, en masse – oh for a good choreographer! To the outsider, everyone looks as silly, and is as frustratingly blinkered in their views, as each other. But as is clear from the decision to excise so much material from this film for screenings outside of the festival, there are overriding concerns that audiences who identify directly with either side of the conflict will interpret it simply as a grave slight upon their own side, never mind the directorial evenhandedness which I believe to have been bestowed upon the film overall.

The fear of the stench of accusations of anti-semitism, in particular, is one that will always scare off many a prospective distributor or exhibitor. But, in the wake of the Russian invasion to the east, now is evidently not the time to be open to allegations of appearing anti-Ukrainian either – what a terrible bind!

For mine though, it is in the very particularity of The Dybbuk’s scenario that can also be found its universalism. One could easily substitute the sparring parties in this film for any other two tribes, anywhere else on the planet, long to have held grudges against one another and bearing no interest in forgiving and forgetting, and reconciling their differences – therein lies the lesson and the strength of The Dybbuk.

Cerisse Howard