Ukraine in the Shadows: Lessons of the 4th Odessa International Film Festival

in 4th Odessa International Film Festival

by Mila Novikova

After nearly two decades of decline, Ukrainian cinema has a chance to revive thanks to the recovery of its support budget in 2011. The new generation of Ukrainian filmmakers is finally able to create its own reflections on modernity. At the Odessa International Film Festival, the creative potential of these young directors expressed itself primarily in films dealing with urgent and critical subjects. The best works of this type were the basis of the festival’s national competition program.

The most obvious problem with “angry” Ukrainian films is the unmitigated evil of the characters, in their actions and behavioral patterns. It seems that the directors consistently choose the most heinous aspects of life for their films, deliberately ignoring any antithesis. Creating an artistic image of evil is always easy, because evil is a dramatic, active force which grabs the attention of the audience. However, creating nuanced positive imagery requires more attention and patience from both artist and audience. A powerful structure of images is required to reveal the deeper meaning of the director’s intention. Such a structure is found in Ruslan Batytsky’s Ukrainian Lessons (Uroky Ukrainskoi).

Batytsky references the classic story of a young worker who develops feelings for his teacher. A similar plot was used by Marlen Hutsiev in his film Spring on Zarechnoj Street (Vesna na Zarechnoj Ulitse, 1956), made at the Odessa Film Studio. A comparison between these two films, nearly six decades apart, reveals certain patterns. In both cases, the action takes place against the backdrop of an industrial city: Hutsiev’s film was shot in factories and the Zaporozhstal DSS, while Batytsky filmed in active and abandoned mines in Donetsky. In both pictures, the heroine is a teacher of language and literature (Russian for Hutsiev and Ukrainian for Batytsky). This teacher falls in love with a young male laborer. Thus we have two variations of the same binary oppositions: woman/man, culture/ignorance, good/evil. Hutsiev’s heroine aspires to bring high moral values into the workplace and her plan gains the support and understanding of the public. In Batytsky’s film, the Ukrainian teacher finds herself in opposition to a working community devoid of spirituality.

Differences between the two films reflect the gap between the age of high social expectations during Khrushchev’s “thaw” versus the current decade, in which issues include the global economic crisis, disappointment in the achievements of the independent Ukrainian state, the moral and ethical decline of society, and the trend towards consumer-oriented values. In a sense, both films resemble Westerns, except for the fact that the figure of the heroic cowboy who leads and rescues the community has been replaced by the teacher of language and literature, since the main enemy of society is now a lack of education and culture. While the heroine of Spring on Zarechnoj Street triumphs thanks to the support of society, Ukrainian Lessons proposes a more complex version of events.

Batytsky deliberately exaggerates the confrontation of Russian and Ukrainian cultures in the region to achieve maximum dramatic conflict. After all, we know that Ukrainian artists often perform to full houses, and that some of the key figures of the national culture came from this region: Stus, Dziuba and Solovyanenko, to name a few. But in this film, there is an absolute confrontation between the two cultures, which can only be resolved by the destruction of one party. The soulless workers rape the teacher, throw her into an abandoned mine, and kill her boyfriend.

In order to guide our reading of this episode, the director cuts between the humiliation of the teacher and the parallel destruction of a piano. The piano is a symbol of culture. The problem is not that the miners (who are viewed in this context as ignorant people) cannot appreciate Ukrainian culture, but that they cannot appreciate culture in general. The teacher works tirelessly to restore cultural values to the people. Batytsky gradually changes the index of his chosen theme, moving from realism to symbolic generalization.

Interestingly, the tone of this generalization is not straightforward, even for the author himself, because the film now exists in two versions with different endings. In the first version, released in Ukraine in early 2013, after the massacre of the lovers which ends with the victory of the antiheroes, the teacher and the young man suddenly arise safe and sound within the wilderness of the post-industrial province, continuing the long Ukrainian lesson they started, with the immortal spirit of the culture giving them hope in the darkest abyss. In this version, the teacher symbolizes even more than the native language, representing a kind of Ukrainian spiritual essence.

In the second version, presented in July this year at the festival, the lovers are killed and their bodies thrown into a deep dungeon. One of the miners then reaches the surface, and around him stretches the magnificent landscape of Donetsk, covered with shadows. Does this image predict the spiritual vision of modern Ukraine? That is the question. In any case, Batytsky evokes an image of post-revolutionary Russia, as depicted in H. G. Wells’ Russia in the Shadows.

Edited by Lesley Chow