Ukrainian Shorts in Competition

in 5th Odessa International Film Festival

by Ingrid Beerbaum

They say short films are calling cards for “real” – meaning feature – filmmaking. But looking at the two programmes of this year’s national short film competition at the 6th Odessa International Film Festival, one might get another picture. They reflect the current situation in Ukraine much more than the films showing in the national feature film competition. Of course, that is partly due to the features’ long production lead-in that often began before the Maidan events. Nonetheless, the foreign visitor might expect to see more influence of those events upon current Ukrainian film production. Then there is the huge financial crisis in the country, which also afflicts the once flourishing Ukrainian film industry as well as the Odessa Film Festival itself. How grave the situation is, one has to see for onself in the now partly state-owned and sadly decaying Odessa Film Studio, where famous Soviet movies, for instance by Alexander Dovzhenko and Kira Muratova, were once produced.

Most of the young filmmakers participating in the short film competition – half of them women! – didn’t make use of the studios, preferring to tell stories of the current day and to shoot on location. While German film students, for instance, enjoy the ability to borrow all the necessary high standard equipment easily and or free from their universities or colleges, the Ukrainian directors have to organise everything for themselves, as the equipment at their universities is totally outdated and they have to endure a long bureaucratic process in order to get it.

Despite these odds – and that there is no funding in the first place – the young Ukrainian filmmakers have stories to tell, and tell them they do, with money from their parents or other relatives and with the support of friends, who act or edit for free, just because they want to make films and to tell their stories, which they do very professionally. Director Philip Sotnychenko went down exactly this route to produce his first short film Son (Syn), telling the story of a young father trying to keep his son. He is divorced from the mother, who is about to move abroad, which is out of the question for him as he has to take care of his father, an old and not very successful “bard” (Soviet singer/songwriter) who cannot cope with the capitalist system. That is nothing one might expect after the outrageous events at the Maidan. But some of the films of the competition only reflect those events in a very subtle way, like Son, where the main character has to go to a family party by “auto-stop” (hitch-hiking) because public transport was shut down during the Maidan period; we see the street blockades out the car window. In general, one of the major topics of the competition was leaving the country, as in the short relationship drama Away by Kateryna Gornostai, or life itself, as in Not Today by Khrystyna Syvolap, where an old, unmarried couple plan their suicide together.

The other strong red line is of course the dysfunctional, corrupt society that is destroying human feelings and relationships, as in For Rent by Serhiy Storozhev, where a young couple rents an apartment and a fake daughter in order to obtain a bank loan, or Weight by Yuriy Shilov, showing sentimental or suicidal neighbours of a high rise building reminiscing about the not-so-golden, old Soviet days. That is very cruel to the core but with an ironic twist. In the end, we are still in the country of Gogol and Zoshchenko and odd conditions will always produce lots of creativity and humour. More seriously, The Hospital (dir. Oksana Kazmina) shows the working day in a hospital and the futile attempt of some young biking kids to organise an ambulance to take their heavily injured friend there, while Man’s Work by Marina Stepanska is about two Russian thugs-for-hire who kick people out of their properties. In the end, everybody’s only caring for her- or himself, a very depressing sentiment, bearing in mind the strong human solidarity during the soviet system.

It seems like these young directors see more clearly the real state of society than their parents’ generation, and are not satisfied with it. Showing that through film cannot change the situation but, as everywhere, can make people think. It also demonstrates the huge amount of talent in Ukraine that will hopefully yet make its way into the world.

Edited by Cerisse Howard