Oles' Ianchuk: Famine ’33 (Holod-33, 1991)
reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski© 2009
Famine ’33 (Holod-33) is the first feature film about the famine of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine. In the course of the famine, known as Holodomor and believed by some to be deliberately organised on the Kremlin’s orders to force the Ukrainian peasantry into collectivisation, millions of people lost their lives. It is hardly surprising that the public discourse on the matter was discouraged in the Soviet Union, and the film director Oles' Ianchuk had to adapt the 1963 book Zhovtyi kniaz' (The Yellow Prince) by the Ukrainian émigré author Vasyl' Barka (1908-2005), and to enlist the help of the American historian James E. Mace (1952-2004), the executive director of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine in the late 1980s, in an attempt to find a balance between the facts and the artistic license when making a screen version of the historical events.
These events are shown through the fate of the fictional Katrannyk family (a husband, a wife, a mother-in-law, and three children), of whom only one, a boy called Andrii, survives the famine. In the atmosphere of hunger-inflicted madness, suicides, and cannibalism afflicting the Katrannyks’ native village, other family members die, one by one, either of shock caused by their last food supplies being taken away, or as abduction victims (snatched to be eaten), or from a bullet when asking for flour at a heavily guarded mill, or from an alternative yet equally brutal cause. The local Communists have a particular reason to dislike the Katrannyks, in addition to the standard accusations of being kulak stooges (pidkurkul'nyky in Ukrainian), leveled at the poorer peasants who have refused to join a collective farm. The Communists believe, not without a reason, that the Katrannyks have hidden an expensive sacred chalice from a local church, ransacked by atheist activists, and first torture the husband, Myron (played by Heorhii Moroziuk), and afterwards try to coerce his wife Odarka (Halyna Sulyma) into confession by giving her a loaf of bread and promising to find those members of her family who have gone missing. The location of the chalice remains a secret to the Communists, though. The film does not seem to question the wisdom of holding on to the chalice at the cost of making the entire family perish (as opposed to, for instance, selling it to a Torgsin shop in a nearby town in exchange for much needed food), but at least the intrigue of whether Myron and Odarka are going to give in lends a certain momentum to the film, which otherwise consists of a “series of tableaux […] [with] no conventional character development” (Stephen Holden in The New York Times, 15 December 1993).
Ianchuk’s feature-length debut, Famine ’33 was shot in the appropriately stark black-and-white on location in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Poltava regions. Color was used only in the few contrasting scenes depicting either the apparitions of the deceased, or the pre-famine, happy and plentiful Ukraine. Many black-and-white sequences, scarce in dialogue, clearly strove to achieve a newsreel effect to compensate for the lack of real-life images associated with the famine. At the same time, the episodes of torture, as well as burning the dead and the heavily wounded in unmarked mass graves, could only invite emotionally loaded comparisons with the widely available visual evidence about the Nazi crimes against humanity, the cruel irony being that the unspeakable treatment of the famine victims by the Soviet authorities had almost predated the Nazi crimes.
At the end of the film, Andrii asks an emaciated elderly vagabond he meets by chance, where all the villagers have gone: “Has the plague taken them?” “It’s not the plague, it’s the state,” comes the reply. Two individuals are singled out in particular as bearing personal responsibility for the famine, Viacheslav Molotov (Head of the Extraordinary Commission for Grain Delivery in Ukraine at the time) and Lazar' Kaganovich (an emissary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, entrusted with expediting the collectivization). Ianchuk even intended to send a copy of Famine ’33 to Kaganovich but the latter died shortly before its completion. Admittedly, the film’s political message is neither subtle nor complex (the apocalyptic imagery of Barka’s book has not made it to the screen). It has to be said, however, that access to many famine-related archival documents was only granted to historians after the film’s release and the academic debate over the precise meaning and significance of these documents is still ongoing, while the film was shot from the point of view of ordinary Ukrainians who had no way of knowing whether the famine happened by design or by mismanagement, or a combination thereof, but tended to personalize issues and suffered nonetheless.
Fully aware of the explosive nature of the film’s content (some of Ianchuk’s colleagues at the Dovzhenko Studios even thought that he might be arrested when the August 1991 Putsch took place), the director sought independent funding from the project’s inception, to minimize the danger of the censors’ potential interference. Through a number of newspapers, Ianchuk appealed to the population for sponsorship (and thus ushered in the era of the Ukrainian independent film-making). The response was overwhelming. The film also had a major financial backer, a commercial Transcarpathian bank called Lisbank, which agreed to lend the funds to Ianchuk on the condition of recouping them later from the film’s proceeds. However, when the bank’s representatives saw the film in 1991 at the first All-Ukrainian Film Festival in Kyiv (where Famine ’33 received the main prize), they decided to write off the loan and urged the director to ensure that the film would reach the widest audience possible. On 30 November 1991 (the night before the Ukrainian independence referendum), Famine ’33 was broadcast by a leading Ukrainian television channel, after Ianchuk had waived the broadcasting fee.
Since then, the film has been shown regularly on Ukrainian television, has entered the Ukrainian school curriculum and might well have helped to form an influential public opinion that the famine of 1932-33 was an act of genocide (as declared by the Ukrainian Parliament in November 2006). The film’s exposure abroad has not been inconsiderable either. It was shown at various international festivals, for example, in Washington, Los Angeles and Moscow in 1992 and in Karlovy Vary and Brussels in 1998. As recently as February 2009, it received a Prix Henri Langlois Européen at the Vincennes Festival of heritage cinema and restored prints. Given that in May 2009 the Office of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General launched a criminal investigation against the perpetrators of the famine, the relevance of Famine ’33 is unlikely to diminish any time soon.
Andrei Rogatchevski, University of Glasgow
1] In Famine ’33, James E. Mace even played the part of the New York Times journalist Walter Duranty, who in 1933 had notoriously denied the existence of famine in Ukraine, but the Duranty scenes were left out of the film’s final version.
2] For a brief but informative analysis of The Yellow Prince, see Galina Bínová, “Khronika nechelovecheskogo perezhivaniia: Vasil' Barka i ego roman ‘Zheltyi kniaz'’,” Slavica Litteraria (Brno) 3 (2000): 55-62.
3] The domestic and international reputation Ianchuk acquired as the director of Famine ’33 has enabled him to secure funding in the tough post-Soviet economic conditions for his independent Oles film studios to make more films about the less well known episodes from modern Ukrainian history, such as Atentat—osinnie vbyvstvo u Miunkheni (An Autumnal Assassination in Munich, 1995; on the murder of Stepan Bandera), Neskorenyi (The Undefeated, 2000; a biopic about General Roman Shukhevich) and Vladyka Andrei (Metropolitan Andrei, 2008; on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church leader Andrei Sheptyts'kyi).
Famine ’33, Soviet Union (Ukraine), 1991
Black-and-white/color, 95 minutes
Director: Oles' Ianchuk
Script: Serhii Diachenko, Les' Taniuk
Cinematography: Vasyl' Borodin, Mykhailo Kretov
Art Direction: Valerii Bozhenko
Music: Viktor Patsukevych, Mykola Kolondionok
Cast: Heorhii Moroziuk, Halyna Sulyma, Petro Beniuk, Leonid Ianovs'kyi, Oleksii Horbunov, Neonila Svitlychna, Maksym Koval', Olenka Kovtun, Kostia Kazymyrenko
Executive Producer: Oleksii Chernyshov
Production: Dovzhenko Film Studios (Kyiv)
Oles' Ianchuk: Famine ’33 (Holod-33, 1991)
reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski© 2009