Ukranian Films as Mirrors of Social Reality

in 5th Odessa International Film Festival

by Oksana Voloshenyuk

My main criterion in evaluating the programme of the 5th Odessa International Film Festival (OIFF) was assessing the way in which Ukrainian films — be they short, mid-length or feature-length — dealt with the experiences that our society is currently enduring. However, in my opinion the mission of Ukrainian cinema today is to address the issues of a society on the brink of rupture.

Director/cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych has so far made three films: two fictional features (Business As Usual [Zvychayna sprava, 2012] and Credenza [Kredens, 2012]) and a mid-length documentary, Crepuscule (Prismerk). For the program of the Odessa IFF — were the genre of social realism generally predominates — Crepuscule was selected, having premiered earlier in the year at Ukraine’s Docudays festival. The jury there gave it a Special Mention for its “visual and emotional depiction of human resilience, sensuality and independence.”

The film was a result of one year in which Vasyanovich filmed members of his own family: 82-year-old Mariya and her 62-year-old son Sashko, a former college-teacher who lost his sight due to diabetes. They live in a remote woodland village. We see how they live through all four seasons of the year: the eternal peasant cycle, same as for their ancestors 200 years ago.By the time of the film’s premiere, Sashko had passed away.

For most of the day the old lady goes about her routine tasks, such as trying to chop a log of wood — and her blind son helps her the best he can. The labour is seemingly endless: Mariya takes care of the cow, carries items around, piles things up, does her daily work — all of this slowly, monotonously. Sashko sorts old metal scraps: he is able to make a car out of a tractor, and then he builds a bike; fixes a motorcycle engine, then a transformer. It seems that all of these things that are getting done have no end, no result, perhaps even no sense. But, we realise, there is sense and purpose to all these activities. The cow which Mariya is taking care of is about to give birth; the motorcycle-engine which Sashko fixes will be sold to pay for the veterinarian’s bills.

We plunge into the everyday lives of these aged people. The faded, shabby clothing of the subjects merges with the autumn mist and winter snow. They are flesh and blood only until twilight; then night comes and there’s nothingness, blackness. As Valentyn Vasyanovych has said, these are people whose lives are drawing to a close, but they do not lose any dignity when facing death. The film-maker, from time to time, lets other subjects appear in the film, but it becomes clear that Mariya and Sashko are in some way already excluded from their society: they have fallen beyond any social limits and live their own life. The world has let them go.

From time to time viewers may ask themselves why the director — who is filming his own aunt and cousin — did not lay aside his camera to intervene and help; for example when he saw how the blind man was groping for some item or other, or when the old lady was carrying hay-bales on her back. Vasyanovych’s response is that he wanted to make a film that could immerse the viewer fully into the story. At times, directorial input was minimal: he left the camera fixed in one position, recording genuine moments such as arguments between his subjects.

Volodymyr Tyhyy’s The Green Jacket (Zelena Kofta) — which the FIPRESCI jury at OIFF awarded its prize (with a special mention to Crepuscule) — was made in 2013, half a year before the start of Ukraine’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’. Film critic Ihor Grabovych included it alongside Vasyanovych’s Credenza and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe (Plemya) in what he termed a “trilogy of anger”. All of these films, like Crepuscule, were created with the support of Ukraine’s national film agency.

The plot begins with seven-year-old Mihas, younger brother of Kyiv high-school student Olya, disappearing while playing in a park under his sister’s (supposed) supervision. A police investigation begins under the charge of a young officer; the boy’s divorced parents (the father already has a new family) simply accept the fact of his disappearance. By chance, Olya meets a man who she thinks was in the park when her brother disappeared. She undertakes her own investigations, and it becomes apparent that all state-related institutions encountered by Olga operate according to their own logic, namely, maintaining the wellbeing of their own employees. Police are willing to close any case if they are bribed sufficiently, even if the case relates to a serial killer; corrupt school-teachers are willing to give students with limited knowledge high marks.

Olya begins her own struggle; a struggle that is not hers alone, but symbolises that of many others living under an unbearably corrupt state which seems to exist only for the benefit of a tiny few. The girl tails the man she regards as the culprit in her brother’s disappearance, pestering his family, turning her tragic loss into revenge — even though she has no evidence that the man in question is guilty. Her final act is one of desperate violence, with grim consequences for herself.

Tyhyy, during a Q+A following one of the OIFF screenings, said that if he had finished the film now rather than in 2013, the story would have occurred quite differently: the drama, which in The Green Jacket unfolds over six months, would now be able to develop in a matter of a single day, because in the past Ukrainians could live in a difficult situation for an infinitely long time by distancing ourselves from it; but now, people are trying to resolve conflicts immediately, even to the point of using violence to do so. Tyhhy pointed out that when you make a film, it automatically enters into dialogue with social context, and your success depends on the degree to which you are honest with the public.

Edited by Neil Young