Focus: Ukraine

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On November 18th last year, it was clear that the Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov's film »Rhino« was the big winner at the Stockholm International Film Festival. Since then, history has swept by with a violent speed.


Few of us who saw »Rhino« last fall could have guessed that just over three months later the film's director would be one of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers defending his homeland against a full-scale Russian invasion. Even though the warning signs were there and the war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine had been going on since 2014, the invasion that Russia launched on February 24th this year took the world by storm and great shock.

This year's focus country at the Stockholm Film Festival is, for fairly obvious reasons, Ukraine. Among the Ukrainian films highlighted by the festival, there is a spectrum of themes, but perhaps most striking are this year's brutally honest documentary films.

Image from the documentary film »Mariupolis 2«.

»A Rising Fury« provides a personal overview of the years since the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013. »Freedom On Fire« gathers a wide range of video material in perhaps the most comprehensive visual representation of the invasion to date, while at the same time highlighting glimpses of human light. Something that unites these documentary testimonies is the short distance between the camera and the war they depict. A terrible proof of that is Mantas Kvedaravičius, the director of »Mariupolis 2«, who was killed in April during the shooting of the film. Among the fiction films screened during this year's festival, it is Ukraine's Oscar entry »Klondike« that shines most intensely. A mildly explosive and slightly absurd depiction of the lives of local people next to the untouched rubble of the downed passenger plane MH17.

Ukraine is a country with a rich film history. During the Soviet era, the film industry in Odesa was a creative hub. Dziga Vertov's »The Man with the Movie Camera« broke completely new ground in 1929, and one of the silent film era's most famous scenes was shot in the same city in 1925 – "the Odesa steps scene" in Sergei Eisenstein's »Battleship Potemkin«. Among later Ukrainian productions there are works by directors such as Larisa Shepitko, Kira Muratova and Armenian Sergei Parajanov, who in »Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors« painted an outstanding portrait of Ukrainian folk culture. After the fall of the Soviet Union, filmmakers such as Sergei Loznitsa (Whose film »The Kyiv Trial« will screen at this year's festival) have distinguished themselves among the most creative in the documentary film genre.

Image from last year's big winner at the Stockholm Film Festival, the film »Rhino« by the formerly imprisoned Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov.

What remains of a film industry when a country is brutally invaded? Unfortunately, we cannot say for sure what the future holds for Ukrainian cinema. What is clear, however, is that the creativity that lives in Ukraine has not been suppressed even by the war that we have not yet seen the end of – countless Ukrainian filmmakers have already shown that.

Text: Jacob Hallerström 
Image: »Klondike« by Maryna Er Gorbach

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