Among But Apart: A Selection of Ukrainian Films

In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding there, Tampa Theatre wishes to call attention to the long history of incredible film that the people of Ukraine have brought into the world.

The international community of art and artists plays a role both in creating a common ground of mutual understanding and acceptance beyond borders in which difficult questions can be explored without the pressures of censorship or political intervention, and in joining our voices in protest when injustice and oppression again rises up. Tampa Theatre’s own beloved architect and the inventor of atmospheric movie palaces, John Eberson, was a member of that community. He was born in the city of Chernivtsi — at the time located in Austria-Hungary, but now Ukrainian. And his work survives to inspire and entertain us right here in Tampa almost a century later.

However small a gesture it is, we have curated a selection of Ukrainian film recommendations for your consideration. Because of the history of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia and the USSR, designating a film as quintessentially Ukrainian can be complex. So having noted the delicate nature of the undertaking, we have tried to select movies made by Ukrainian filmmakers or Ukrainian film companies, but which also speak to some truth specific to the Ukrainian experience. Some of these, particularly the older titles, are difficult to find in the US. Some are available (in questionable quality) streaming on the internet; we unfortunately have no guidance on where you might be able to locate them. We’re just fans, like you. But we encourage you to use whatever means you have to watch some of these incredible movies, and as you watch, to keep the proud and tireless spirit of Ukraine in your heart.

Listed chronologically:

  • In Spring (1929) – an experimental, avant-garde silent film by Mikhail Kaufman. The camera takes a trip through Kyiv in 1929 as the city and its people emerge from winter.  Beautiful, moving and humane, In Spring touches on the early cinema theory of Kino-Eye (or Cine-Eye), which was an attempt to capture images that didn’t merely imitate how human beings see, but to move the art form beyond with the usage of novel montage and strong symbolic field of meaning. 
  • Earth (sometimes called Soil) (1930) – a narrative film but another silent, this one portrays the life of peasants in the early days of Soviet collectivization and its impact on farmers and the kulak class (before the reality of the First Five-Year Plan really sank in). Earth is an extremely important cultural film, on the order of classic silent films like Sunrise or Greed. The movie was severely cut by Soviet Union censors on release, and the original negative was destroyed by a Nazi German air raid on Kyiv during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Luckily, most copies of Earth distributed since the 1970s have include restored footage of the Soviet cuts. Part of a trilogy of films preceded by Zvenigora (1927) and Arsenal (1929).
  • Aerograd (sometimes called Frontier) (1935) – A lot of Ukrainian cinema made before the fall of the USSR never really made it to the West, so there’s kind of a dead zone between the big showy social-realist Soviet movies of the early cinema period (when they were trying to show off their cultural aesthetic) and the eventual collapse of the ’90s. Aerograd is a futuristic, “patriotic” adventure film by writer-director Aleksandr Dovzhenko about a future war between the USSR and the Japanese. It certainly has some images and ideas that are unpleasant now, but as a work for technical invention and imagination it’s unsurpassed.
  • Za dvoma zaytsiamy (1961) – one of the few “light” movies in this list, halfway between a Cary Grant-ish romantic comedy and The Music Man, about a con-man dandy trying to court one woman and steal her money to impress another woman who he’s courting by pretending to be rich. It’s a madcap class comedy that, once you look past the period dress, still feels relevant to navigating relationships in an era of style before substance.
  • Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) generally regarded as the most important Ukrainian film of all time (based on a Ukrainian novel though its director Sergei Parajanov was a Georgian-born Armenian — see what we mean about complexity?), and in many ways the movie that inspired us to put together this list. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a Romeo & Juliet story set in the Carpathian mountains, about a proud young man who falls in love with the daughter of his father’s killer. It was lauded on the international film circuit on release, making a splash at the New York Film Festival and others, but back in the Ukraine its premiere drew a significant political protest due to the growing imprisonment and oppression of Ukrainian intellectuals by the Soviet regime. In 1977, the Venice Film Festival was not held, instead being replaced by a special program of cultural display called Cultural Dissent, a show of support by Italian artists for repressed, dissident artists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors finally began its overdue (and ongoing) reappraisal.
  • The White Bird Marked with Black (1971) – written and directed by Yuri Ilyenko, this is the story of a family struggling to survive in a territory that was claimed as Rumanian, Polish and Ukrainian in a very short span of time, and how they deal with the onset of the Second Wolrd War. Five sons of the family make up the village band, but as the battles between the Nazi-supported Ukrainian nationalists and the Soviets go on, their band loses one player after another. It streches through generations and ties its characters together on a level above their day-to-day travails, feeling like a Soviet House of Spirits.
  • A slight tangent of a pick: Larisa Shepitko was one of the finest female film directors of all time, and her tragic death at the age of 41 (she was in a car crash while scouting filming locations) deprived the world of untold wonders. We would be remiss not to mention her earth-shattering, epic film The Ascent (1977) — although we can’t include it in this list without comment, as she was born in Ukraine but moved to Soviet Russia and never made a film in or about Ukraine.
  • The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) – The most important movie by probably the most important contemporary Ukrainian director (she passed away in 2018), Kira Murakova. The Asthenic Syndrome (it’s another name for hypochondria) has been called the last Soviet and first post-Soviet film, in fact; a half-black-and-white, half-color drama about a widow and her grief, it’s got a foot in both worlds. It’s a concussive, bizarre, intensely personal and intensely political film that should stands among the high points of world cinema in the glasnost era. It won the special jury prize at the Berlinale in 1990.
  • Feathered Dreams (2012) a Ukrainian/Nigerian co-production by Andrew Rozhen, Feathered Dreams is about a Nigerian medical student in Ukraine torn between her parents’ expectations of her and her dreams of becoming a singer. It looks compassionately at the alienation and isolation of being apart from your native culture, and the freedom it can sometimes bring. Features a heart-rending star performance by Omoni Oboli.
  • The Tribe (2014) – a Deaf boy in boarding school is overwhelmed by the violent nihilism of his fellow students, and struggles to belong. Written and directed by Kyiv native Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, The Tribe features an entirely Deaf cast and makes no use of any vocal language or subtitles. But believe us, whether or not you understand sign language, you’ll be able to understand perfect.
  • The Guide (2014) – directed by Oles Sanin, The Guide is historical drama about the repression of Ukrainian identity under the USSR in the ’30s, the story of an orphaned American boy who becomes the guide for a kobzar (a blind bard or minstrel). In many cases it took decades for Ukrainian artists (and people from all over the former Soviet Union) to find a voice to tell the story of the life under Soviet rule.  The Guide was selected as the Ukrainian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, but was (somewhat controversially) not nominated.
  • Ukrainian Sheriffs (2015) – A tragicomic portrait of a two-man team of sheriffs in a remote Ukrainian village disturbed by everyday incidents and political developments, Ukrainian Sheriffs is a lot funnier (and as such a lot less heavy) than most of these films. Even in hard times, there’s joy to be had. If you’re looking for Ukrainian cinema that’s more in the direction of “arthouse movie that happens to be Ukrainian”, the meat and potatoes of Tampa Theatre programming, other options along those lines that come highly recommended: The Earth is Blue as an Orange (2020)My Thoughts Are Silent (2019), Home Games (2018).
  • Atlantis (2019) – a genuinely fantastic dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi-proximate movie about a retired soldier with PTSD trying to make his way back into civilian life. Set in the year 2025 and gut-wrenchingly prophetic, Atlantis was shot by director Valentyn Vasyanovych entirely with real veterans, volunteers and soldiers — the cast includes no professional actors. It was also one of our Virtual Cinema selections during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. It also made waves on the film festival scene, but never quite got the attention it deserves — it’s a bleak but hopeful movie that will stay with you forever.

Given the circumstances, this last suggestion feels both impossible to do justice to, and impossible to ignore. After the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and the subsequent Russian military actions in Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian filmmakers made many, extremely worthy documentaries about an unpredictable and incredibly challenging time in their country’s history. You would be well served by watching almost any of them, but their sharp resonance with today’s tragedies and their frank and sometimes disturbing depictions of anguish and violence make them difficult to unreservedly recommend in this moment. (For the same reason, we have decided not to suggest any films on the topic of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.) If you feel you’re up for it, we suggest Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015), Maidan (2014) and the similar-but-different Donbass (2018), a fictionalized/dramatized depiction of the same period in thirteen short vignettes (and winner of the Un Certain Regard award for Best Director at Cannes in 2018).