Ukrainian Cinema: Renaissance or Décadence?
BY IARYNA GRUSHA POSSAMAI
The last five years have seen a significant uptick in Ukrainian cinema output and quality that has garnered international attention. Some film critics call it Ukraine’s film Renaissance; others say it is only the pre-Renaissance, expecting much more from the future. However, recent policies promulgated by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team, many of them graduates of the TV business, may slow down the sector’s development or even reverse it, producing the opposite of Renaissance, known as the “Décadence mode.”
Between 2014 and 2019, 173 films were made in Ukraine. This is a good number for a country like Ukraine, which is small in terms of distribution (in 2018, there were only 525 movie screens in a country of 40 million). Ukrainian films are regularly represented at key international film festivals, and some of them win significant awards. These have included Norman Aliev’s debut film Homeward, which was nominated at the 2019 Cannes Festival; Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis, which took the Grand Prize at Venice’s 2019 Orrizonti; and Iryna Tsilyk’s documentary The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, which won a directing award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Recent Ukrainian films have explored a broad range of topics, from a principal theme of Russian military aggression in eastern Ukraine (Cyborgs: Heroes Never Die, Lethal Kittens) to family relationships (Homeward, My Thoughts Are Silent), Ukrainian history (The Rising Hawk,1918: The Battle of Kruty), and film adaptations of Ukrainian bestsellers (Black Raven,Viddana,The Wild Fields).
Judging from the feature films, Ukrainian cinema is still in the period preceding its blossom, or—to continue with the art history metaphor—in the pre-Renaissance era. Ukrainian features are still searching for their own cinematic identity, shifting between art houses and mass distribution, or going for a mix to meet the demands of the cinema market. However, Ukrainian documentaries are definitely in a period of full blossom. After the Euromaidan in the winter of 2013–2014, the documentary genre exploded. That was a historic moment to capture and chronicle, often with such low-tech means as a photo camera or smart phone. In this way, for example, a YouTube project, "#Babylon’13—cinema of civil protest,” was born, which launched several new directors’ names—Yuliia Hontaruk, Roman Liubyi, Kostiantyn Kliatskin.
The Ukrainian film industry is also maturing professionally by developing platforms and places for professional discussion. An example here is the Odessa International Film Festival and all its side projects that take place throughout the year. In 2020, the Odessa Festival went online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but its work did not stop. Other examples are DocuDaysUA (one of the oldest and most beloved Ukrainian film festivals) and the Terrarium workshops for professionals, launched by film director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk, as well as the Ukrainian Institute, which offers support for international film production.
Such a leap in the development of Ukraine’s cinema was possible thanks to the government’s support of the sector. As mentioned above, Ukraine offers little in terms of film distribution, so producers could not count on earning big sums from box-office receipts to reinvest in future projects—even if a few box-office miracles occasionally did happen. That is why state support remains fundamental if Ukraine’s film industry is to survive and thrive. The same situation can be seen in some of Ukraine’s neighboring states, including Poland, Georgia, and the Slovak Republic.
Early in his term, President Zelensky promised to increase state funding in the Ukrainian film industry and underlined this promise by high-profile personal meetings, in Ukraine, with Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise, Robin Wright, Mila Kunis, and Ashton Kutcher. Yet today these promises remain unfulfilled, and recent developments have the film industry worried. In January 2020, Maryna Kuderchuk, an economist with close ties to the president’s circle, became the director of Ukraine’s State Film Agency. Among the changes that she introduced was to cancel the results of the eleventh round of selections of the candidates for state financing. She also, inexplicably, redirected funding from film projects that had earned the highest scores from the expert industry commission to those who received lower scores.
The lack of state funding for some of the country’s most promising film projects means that many Ukrainian producers will not be able to join in international coproductions—something the Ukrainian film industry needs both for financial reasons and for reasons of prestige. Furthermore, for reasons that are yet unclear, criminal investigations were launched against Ukraine’s most prominent film studios, including Arthouse Traffic, Limelite, Molodist’ Festival, and Dovzhenko Centre. In protest against the pressure on these studios, two of Ukraine’s best-known, award-winning directors Valentyn Vasyanovych and Iryna Tsilyk declined to accept prestigious awards that the president’s office awards last November.
The 2020 pandemic forced the film industry to shut some of Ukraine’s movie theatres and freeze new production. Because of budget problems, almost all state support for the film industry remains suspended. This includes support for distribution, new film production, and the operating costs of the biggest film archive, Dovzhenko Centre.
Ukrainian film market players are doing everything they can to survive, keeping movie theaters open during the week whenever possible, streaming content, and shooting new projects while observing all of the pandemic-related health measures. But Ukraine’s film industry is fragile. If the government does not change its policy, in two years there will be nothing left to support.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more