Speaking of history: Soviet-era film archives help Ukrainians find hope and a sense of identity in times of war

Jthere have been no film screenings in Ukraine for over six weeks now, at least not above ground.

However, at the request of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, Ukraine’s largest film archive screened a series of Soviet films at metro stations in cities from kyiv to Kharkiv, where residents sought refuge while Russian bombs were raining from above.

The projections are an element of Ukraine’s resistance to Vladimir Putin’s war, which saw ordinary civilians steal tanks, make Molotov cocktails and clash with soldiers.

Director of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Center, Olena Goncharuk, said The Independent in an interview: “We know that people were happy when they had the opportunity to see these films.”

“Some people spend most of their day there and I am very worried about these people. How is this possible, how long can these people stay in these circumstances?

Cinema screenings have been a source of hope for thousands of Kyiv residents who have been hiding from Russian bombardment for many weeks.

At metro stations in Kharkiv, miles from kyiv, similar projections inspired children to paint murals on the walls, Goncharuk said.

“Of course it’s awful that the children live in a shelter but it’s amazing that this passion for life and the passion to create something [exists],” she says. “It helps them survive.”

Surviving is what she, her Soviet film archive and Ukraine as a whole have been doing for at least six weeks now, with Goncharuk showing up for work almost daily since the war began on February 24.

Its team of curators and archivists has meanwhile been scattered across Europe and among the four million or more Ukrainians who were driven from their homes during the Russian invasion.

“A lot of the team, they’re working remotely so that’s fine. The lawyers, the finance department, the researchers,” Goncharuk said, “[but] of course it’s easier when you’re in the same place”.

Inside the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center

(Dovzhenko Center / Natalka Diachenko)

She sees in their trip an opportunity to promote Ukrainian cinema abroad, as well as to fight against Russian “manipulation”.

“That’s why it’s great that some of my colleagues aren’t at the epicenter of possible shoots,” she said, “and they can talk about cinema, they can talk about history They can explain the context in which the films were shot.”

While she ended up with a skeletal crew of around 10, Goncharuk said most “left Kyiv because it’s really not safe to stay here” and when it comes to preserve the films: “My position is that first of all, we must ensure the safety of people because they are carriers of knowledge.

Goncharuk sees today’s war as the latest example of more than 300 years of Russian oppression towards Ukraine and its struggle for independence.

“Ukrainian cinematography didn’t start in 1924 when the Soviet Union started,” Goncharuk said. “Ukrainian cinema began with the Lumière brothers [in France]. It was at the end of the 19th century, and we had our own inventors, who also worked on different devices, which can show the moving image.

The Dovzhenko Center building houses more than 7,000 films from the era, most of which were produced by VUFKU, or the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, which was a state-run film production company founded 100 years ago the month latest.

As Oxford-based historian and Soviet film expert Richard Bossons explained in an email to The Independent: “Lenin realized that a more accommodating approach to Ukrainian nationalism would better serve Russia’s long-term interests.”

A film screening before the war

(Dovzhenko Center / Silent Nights Festival)

“The separate development of the independent Ukrainian film industry of Goskino (Госкино), the State Committee for Cinematography of the RSFSR, was an example of this…[and] VUFKU quickly gained a reputation for much more adventurous commissioning than Goskino and its successor”.

However, nine years after its establishment, the VUFKU “was effectively shut down by the Moscow authorities”, Bossons said, with the 1930s seeing “Stalin’s suppression of Ukrainian national revival”. [and] many of its prominent figures were imprisoned or executed.

“It was a real time for our film, of healing, and we worked together,” Goncharuk said of the 1920s, when film studios were built in Odessa, Kharkiv and kyiv, and the emergence of films world-renowned Ukrainians who have been sent around the world. world.

“We have proof of this when they find Ukrainian films in Japan, Germany, [and in] American Archives,” Goncharuk said. “It means Ukraine was working with them. Independent? Yes”

More than a century after the heyday of Soviet cinema in Kyiv, Goncharuk says the Dovzhenko Center has seen an increase in bookings and requests for Ukrainian films from similar institutions around the world since the war began in February.

On the weekend, a small crowd watched a 1929 film, In spring, as part of the oldest photographic and film collection in the United States, the Eastman Museum in New York. This is one of many events organized to support Ukraine and the Dovzhenko Center.

A moment in ‘In the Spring’

(Mikhail Kaufman / Dovzhenko Center)

“Yeah, it’s a good choice,” Goncharuk said of Mikhail Kaufman’s silent film. “It’s a very good example of avant-garde cinema. I would say that it was free of any propaganda elements and was shot as a Kyiv advertisement for that period”.

“Kaufman showed himself as a very people-loving person and he gave a great portrayal of the times,” she said, noting that the film was shot in Kyiv, not Moscow.

The Eastman Museum’s senior curator for moving images, Peter Bagrov, agreed that Ukraine’s film heritage was distinct from Russia’s and should be honored.

He said The Independent: “[In Spring] is considered one of the masterpieces of Ukrainian cinema in general and, you know, we didn’t want any Soviet overtones for this screening”.

“That’s what makes In spring unique for Soviet cinema in general, that there is no political message,” Bagrov said. “It is indeed the passage from winter to spring and the birth of life”.

The screening was an act of solidarity with the country overrun by Vladimir Putin’s regime, as well as with its culture – which Goncharuk considers a battleground today. Particularly amid the alleged destruction of 53 cultural sites, according to the UN.

“We don’t have the exact number now because it’s ongoing. [of being worked out] in the regions, where they have great destruction, and some information is not very public, but there were several destroyed museums in Mariupol and we lost them,” she said.

Inside the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center

(Dovzhenko Center / Natalka Diachenko)

“It’s an inhumane crime and a war crime,” said Goncharuk, who says he considered placing a blue shield on his building to warn Russian soldiers not to attack a culturally significant site.

“Even war can have civilized rules and according to different conventions, art and cultural objects should not be destroyed and they are under protection and the blue shield is a sign, it is placed on buildings and monuments just to show the warring troops which positions should not be attacked … but in the situation with Russia it does not work, they are not civilized.

“Some compare them to animals but animals don’t do that, it’s totally inhumane. If they bomb a building, a shelter, with a sign saying there are children inside that building those Heritage preservation rules don’t work.

For the foreseeable future, Goncharuk and his team will continue to promote their film archives at home and abroad, with film screenings planned at institutions around the world, including London’s BFI in the coming weeks.

About Debra D. Johnson

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