Speaking of history: The Soviet-era film archive helping Ukrainians find hope, and a sense of identify in war time

There have been no film screenings in Ukraine for more than six weeks now, at least not above ground.

However, at the request of president Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, Ukraine’s biggest film archive has screened a series of Soviet-films in metro stations in cities from Kyiv to Kharkiv, where residents have sought refuge while Russian bombs rain down from above.

The showings are one element of the Ukrainian resistance against Vladimir Putin’s war, which has seen regular civilians stealing tanks, making Molotov cocktails, and confronting soldiers.

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

“Some people spend nearly their whole days there, and I am very worried about these people. How is it possible, how long can these people stay in these circumstances?”

The cinema screenings have been a source of hope for thousands of Kyiv residents who have hidden away from Russian bombardment for many weeks.

At metro stations in Kharkiv, miles away from Kyiv, similar screening events inspired children to paint murals on the walls, said Goncharuk.

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

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

Her team of curators and archivists have meanwhile been dispersed across Europe, and among the four million or more Ukrainians who have been forced from their homes amid Russia’s invasion.

The Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center in Kyiv

(Dovzhenko Center)

“A big part of the team, they work distantly so it’s okay. The lawyers, the finance department, researchers,” said Goncharuk, “[but] of course it’s easier when we are in the same location”.

She sees their displacement as an opportunity to promote Ukrainian film abroad, as well as to fight against Russian “manipulation”.

“That’s why it’s great that some of my colleagues are not in the epicenter of possible shootings,” she said, “and that they can speak of cinema, they can speak of history. They can explain the context in which the movies were made”.

While she has been left with a skeletal staff of around 10 people, Goncharuk said most “have moved away from Kyiv, because it’s really not safe to stay here” and that when it comes to preserving films: “My position is that first of all , we have to make people safe as they are carrying the knowledge.”

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

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

Inside the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center

(Dovzhenko Centre)

The Dovzhenko Center building is home to more than 7,000 films from the period, 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 last month.

As Richard Bossons, an Oxford University historian and expert in Soviet cinema, 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.”

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

Nine years after VUFKU was founded however, it “was effectively closed down by the Moscow authorities” said Bossons, with the 1930s seeing “Stalin’s suppression of the Ukrainian national revival [and] many of its leading figures were imprisoned or executed.”

“It was a real period for our film, of healing, and we worked together,” Goncharuk said of the 1920s, when film studios built in Odessa, Kharkiv and Kyiv, and the emergence of world-renowned Ukrainian films that were sent around the world.

A film screening before the war

(Dovzhenko Center)

“We have proof when they find Ukrainian films in Japan, in Germany, [and in] USA archives,” said Goncharuk. “It means that Ukraine was working with them. Independent? And it is”

More than a century on from the halcyon days of Soviet filmmaking in Kyiv, Goncharuk says the Dovzhenko Center has seen a surge in bookings and requests for Ukrainian films from similar institutions the world over since the war began in February.

At the weekend a small crowd watched a 1929 film, In Spring, amid the surroundings of the US’ oldest photographic and cinematic collection, the Eastman Museum in New York. It is one of many events being held in support of Ukraine and the Dovzhenko Centre.

“Yes, it’s a good choice,” Goncharuk said of Mikhail Kaufman’s silent film. “It’s a very good example of Avant-garde film. I would say it was free of any propaganda features and it was shot like an advertisement of Kyiv for that period”.

“Kaufman has shown himself as a person who loves people very much and he gave a great portrait of the epoch,” she said, noting how the film was shot in Kyiv and not Moscow.

A moment in ‘In Spring’

(Mikhail Kaufman / Dovzhenko Centre)

The Eastman Museum’s director, Peter Bagrov, agreed that Ukraine’s cinematic heritage was distinct from that of Russia and should be honored.

I have told 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”.

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

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

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

“Its an inhumane crime and a war crime,” said Goncharuk, who says she considered placing a blue shield on her building to warn Russian soldiers against attacking a site of cultural importance.

Inside the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center

(Dovzhenko Center)

“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, its placed on the buildings and the monuments just to show to the troops in war which positions shouldn’t be under attack… but in the situation with Russia it doesn’t work, they are not civilized.”

“Some compare them with animals but animals do not do this, it is totally inhumane. If they a bomb a building, a shelter, with a sign that there are children inside this building these rules of preserving heritage, it doesn’t work.”

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


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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