Confined by a lack of finances and shortage of ideas, the at one time glorious potential of Ukrainian cinema, as with many other areas, has never fully been realised.
They’ve Lost the Plot
What directors are lacking these days are ideas, plots, stories; anything that doesn’t include sickening soap opera dialogue or already unoriginal historical backgrounds. Finances are another problem as studios in Ukraine, which don’t have the pocket money to be shooting movies themselves, often find it easier to cooperate with neighboring countries rather than go it alone here. This in fact is how the Polish film ‘Vohnem ta Mechem’ was completed: Ezi Hoffman, one of Europe’s best directors got together with some of Ukraine’s most notable faces in film, Bohdan Stupka and Ruslana Pysanka, to create ‘Vohnem ta Mechem’ (With Fire and Sword) in 1999. While working with international personalities is almost always an interesting and worthwhile endeavor, often creating huge revenues for the box-office, the production of this film caused numerous problems as each individual’s understanding of historical events can differ widely.
As well, last year’s release of Bohdan Zynoviy Khmelnitskiy didn’t differ a whole lot historically from the movie mentioned above. The events that unfolded varied as did the characters, and even though Bohdan was an infamous face in the history of Ukraine, it seemed to most that the film was still just another depiction of victory by some Ukrainian leader long passed.
The latest installation in the cooperation between Ukrainian and Russian masterminds has been the making of Taras Bulba. Released in 2009, Russian director Volodymyr Bortko decided that yet another historical war movie was in order and so taking the goriest excerpts from Gogol’s version of events, a bloodbath was created on screen. Almost no scene that involved any sort of peaceful interaction was included – that apparently doesn’t sell movies – and 25 million dollars was spent in its realisation. Lacking in any real story line, violence seemed to be the plot, and even at that, the cast appeared disoriented, wanting their faces shown on screen more than anything else.
What Deserves Attention
It would seem that these three examples of Ukraine’s filmmaking offer little hope for the entertainment industry, especially here in the post-Soviet states. And so the question begs: is it that Ukraine has lost all of its talented producers? Have they gone across the pond into bigger and better waters? Baltic film producer Volodymyr Lert knows the situation well here in Ukraine and says: “the problem of finding an idea is not a problem for Ukraine only. The whole world is struggling. Right now I’m working with one Moscow screenwriting agency that sends me hundreds of plots that are really not worth reading.”
Soundtrack composer Roman Zagorodnyuk, whose name is famous all over the world, supports this opinion, saying: “young directors scream that their ideas are worth using and that there just aren’t any sponsors. But the fact is, it’s the opposite; there are numerous investors who are ready to devote their finances to filmmaking, it’s just that there are no stories as of yet that deserve the money.”
Any young or ambitious director should pay heed to these wise words of guidance as Zagorodnyuk has not only worked with Slavic directors but has spent some time in Hollywood as well. There is one movie out today in particular in which he feels particularly defensive, ‘Sapho’. “I’ve heard a lot of resentful comments in the address of this new movie, such as ‘the worst expression of Western Freedom’ and all that. But I want to know what’s wrong with it? Director Robert Crombie invited both Ukrainian as well as international stars, reinvented mythological scenes into typical modern-day life, found the right music and made a really good picture.” It takes a lot to make a decent film; every bit as important as the next to ensure its success.
On the other hand, Anton Boiko, a young and fresh new graduate in film direction from the Kyiv National University of Culture and Art refuses to admit that all ideas in Ukraine are lost: “It is true that I am ‘fresh’ but as any young director will tell you, there are good stories out there from which to make movies. The unfortunate part is that many of the sponsors out there are not from the age group that my screenplays are aimed at. I write and want to make movies for people my own age, those which are young and energetic and who are more interested in doing something other than switching their brains off and watching soap operas. The audience that many young directors shoot for these days include people who want to think while they are watching; even if that includes adverse situations. I too want to write and shoot about the world around me, regardless of the fact that it can be a dirty place.”
The Dark Side
Even if you have the best of ideas, finances are always going to play a part and as the economic situation here in Ukraine has in the past facilitated some of the financial burden that is often a problem in other countries, distribution here is poor. Producer Lert sums it up: “Ukraine has to do something about the pirating situation as soon as possible. Even though it can be cheaper to produce in Ukraine, directors and producers don’t really want to do business here because they are going to loose a lot of money as the income that is budgeted to the producer ends up being several times less after the movie is launched because of pirated copies. And top it all off, the fines here are ludicrously low which is one incentive to keep selling these unlicensed copies.”
According to Ukrainian law, anyone who sells unlicensed CDs or DVDs can be fined up to 17.8 thousand hryvnas or faced with a jail sentence of 3 years. Considering the number of illegal outlets in Kyiv alone, the felon is able to pay off these fines each month and still be making a decent income to continue his illegal business. “Ukrainians have simply become used to watching movies for free,” Lert says.
Returning to the problem of ideas, many think that it’s not the actual lack of ideas that is the problem it’s the genre that directors want to work with these days. Both Roman Zagorodnyuk and Volodymyr Lert agree that the most popular genre today is comedy, but for some reason, directors in Ukraine only want to show the dark side of just about everything in their movies. Roman tries to explain that Ukrainian directors and screenwriters need to find some middle ground in the things they are creating and says: “when I come home I don’t want to watch another movie that makes me think about the problems I have. On the contrary, I want to escape from my everyday routine and comedies help me, as well as numerous people around the world, in doing that.” But while positive depictions on screen can assist people in their everyday lives, that doesn’t mean that deeply philosophical movies should be excluded from film distribution either. Lert says, “in fact there are very few ‘movies that make you think’. All of these series’ and soap operas have nothing to them; you don’t think when you watch them.” So maybe it’s okay to do a little thinking while keeping your eye on the screen but we also need to feel like we’ve enjoyed the time that we’ve devoted to that which has been shown in front to us.
So let’s keep our fingers crossed that those involved in Ukraine’s own version of Hollywood will listen to what is being said around the rest of the world. “Kyiv is such a beautiful city, full of stories. Why not make a romantic comedy about the lifelines of people who live here?” suggests Zagorodnyuk. And he’s right. Kyiv is full of ideas; all anyone needs to do is catch one.
And that’s a wrap!