Defining and Exploring Ukrainian Cinema

By Vitaly Chernetsky (Miami University, Ohio)

© Vitaly Chernetsky, 2009

The problems inherent in defining the contours and exploring the dimensions of Ukrainian cinema are similar to those of other nations that did not have a nation-state of their own for most of their history. The dilemma is exemplified by approaches taken by historians in writing a comprehensive history of Ukraine. The author of the most recent English-language volume of this kind, Serhy Yekelchyk, remarks in the introduction to his Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation:

This [study] does not follow in the footsteps of either the historians of the Ukrainian nationality (ethnic group) or those who trace the past of the lands that are now Ukraine. Instead, I argue that the present-day multinational Ukrainian state owes its existence to the Ukrainian national project—an endeavor to build a modern Ukrainian nation and provide it with a national homeland […]. It is important, however, not to see these processes as a preexisting Ukrainian nationality acquiring the state structures to which it had long been entitled. Rather, a modern Ukrainian national identity itself was being shaped by the state structures, political events, and social processes unfolding in eastern Europe during the last three centuries. Ukraine as a modern nation-state did not come of age on its own but was made by politicians, writers, and civic activists—as well as by warlords and bureaucrats in the faraway imperial capitals (Yekelchyk 2007: 6).

The three strategies mentioned by Yekelchyk (the focus on ethnicity, the focus on all activity on the territory now claimed by the nation-state, and the focus on national identity and the nation-state as a gradually unfolding conscious project) to varying degrees can also be found in approaches to histories of different artforms associated with the nation. The author of these lines and most of the contributors to this special issue of KinoKultura by and large follow the choice articulated by Yekelchyk, although we believe that during the past century not only writers, but also filmmakers—as well as representatives of other artforms—have played a major role in shaping the Ukrainian national project. A narrow focus on ethnicity without a critical problematization, all its other pitfalls aside, would not be productive in a discussion of a technology-dependent modern artform like cinema, with its inescapable linkage to institutional and financial support. The descriptive all-inclusive approach focusing on any and all cinema-related activity on the territory that is now Ukraine has its merits, but shifts the focus to “cinema in Ukraine” rather than “Ukrainian cinema.” In fact, this is the approach most often taken in the study of the first twenty-five years of cinema on Ukrainian territory, prior to the formation, in 1920-22, of the unified nationalized Ukrainian film industry; the crucial dates here are 23 June 1920, the publication of the Decree of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Enlightenment of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic on the nationalization of all films and the film industry in Ukraine, and 13 March 1922, the founding of VUFKU (Vseukrains'ke fotokinoupravlinnia, the All-Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration). An excellent example of a productive use of this approach is Vladimir Mislavskii’s ambitious Russian-language study Kino v Ukraine 1896-1921: Fakty, fil'my, imena (2005), consisting of a narrative history, a filmography, a biographical dictionary, and a detailed chronology.

For the period after the founding of VUFKU, however, an approach that takes into account national cinema’s place as a project and an institution linked to Ukraine’s status as one of Soviet republics and then, after 1991, as an independent state, seems particularly productive. Not all the participants in this history were proponents of “Ukrainian national cinema” as a conscious project; some were emphatically resistant to the idea, while others appeared indifferent to it and channeled their creative and intellectual energies elsewhere. Still, inasmuch as they worked within the institutional framework of Soviet-era and post-Soviet film industry in Ukraine, they and the products of their labor respond to the existence of this project in direct or indirect ways.

The degree of autonomy enjoyed by the Ukrainian film industry over this ninety-year-long period varied considerably. The VUFKU years, 1922-1930, are often seen by specialists as a golden age of full creative and institutional autonomy from structures in Soviet Russia. It is still relatively little-known by film scholars outside Ukrainian studies, but VUFKU, the Soviet Union’s largest film company, was indeed fully independent and had much closer ties with the film industries of Europe, especially Germany, than that of the fellow Soviet republics. The savvy policies of its management resulted in a vibrant creative environment and made VUFKU an attractive destination for professionals who had been working in other artforms (such as literature, theater, painting, and sculpture) or in other nations (a particularly notable case in Dziga Vertov, who was “poached” by VUFKU in 1928 and produced there three major films, The Eleventh Year (Odynadtsiatyi/Odinnadtsatyi), Man with a Movie Camera (Liudyna z kinoaparatom/Chelovek s kinoapparatom) and Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas (Entuziiazm: Symfoniia Donbasu/Entuziazm: Simfoniia Donbassa).[1] Having explored the role of VUFKU as a major competitor within the Soviet film industry in another recent article (see Nebesio 2009), Bohdan Nebesio focuses his contribution to this special issue on the involvement of representatives of the Ukrainian avant-garde, particularly the writers associated with the Futurist movement, in the Ukrainian film industry of the 1920s.

The article Joshua First has contributed to this issue, conversely, focuses on questions of aesthetics and on how a particular type of filmmaking—poetic cinema—came to be associated with Ukrainian national cinema as a conscious project. First’s contribution is an outgrowth of his larger effort, a comprehensive study of Ukrainian cinema and its socio-cultural contexts during the fifteen or so years of the “long 1960s,” when national cinema’s distinct features again became more clearly defined. First defended a version of this project as his Ph.D. dissertation (see First 2008) and is currently reworking it into a book manuscript.

Three articles in this volume present case studies of individual works associated with this period and trend in Ukrainian cinema: James Steffen examines Paradjanov’s unfinished project Kyivan Frescoes (Kyivs'ki fresky); Herbert Eagle looks at Iurii Illienko’s best-known film, White Bird with a Black Spot (Bilyi ptakh z chornoiu oznakoiu); and the author of these lines considers the case of Borys Ivchenko’s Annychka, an unusual hybrid of poetic cinema aesthetic with conventions of commercial filmmaking. Another cluster of articles is contributed by younger scholars associated with the leading venue of theoretically-informed film scholarship in today’s Ukraine, the Department of Cultural Studies and the Visual Culture Research center at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Olga Bryukhovetska, the Center’s director, presents an article on the cinematic representation of the trauma of Chernobyl nuclear accident. Oleksiy Radynski offers two shorter articles, one on the first science fiction film produced in Ukraine and its unusual fate, the other on a peculiar aesthetic employed by younger Ukrainian filmmakers of the post-Soviet generation, especially for short films (many of them film school graduation projects), utilizing expired Soviet-era film stock to surprisingly successful ends and culminating in Ukraine’s first Palme d’Or at Cannes, awarded to Ihor Strembitsky in 2005 for his short feature Wayfarers (Podorozhni). In their contribution, Ol'ha Papash and Stanislav Menzelevsky examine the subversive aesthetic strategies of Kira Muratova’s cinema. Finally, the linguist Alla Nedashkivska looks at the political choices inherent in the Russo-Ukrainian bilingualism observable in some recent Ukrainian films, notably the 2006 feature Orange Sky (Pomarancheve nebo).

The films included in the cluster of reviews span nineteen years, from 1991 to 2009. They should not be viewed as an exhaustive selection: due to the continuing economic troubles plaguing Ukraine’s film industry during the past two decades, many prominent films made during this period remain nearly impossible to access—which is why one of Ukraine’s leading film scholars, Larysa Briukhovets'ka, titled her monograph on the Ukrainian cinema of the 1990s Hidden Films (Prykhovani fil'my—see Briukhovets'ka 2003). Additionally, several other notable films, including the recent work of such prominent directors as Kira Muratova and Roman Balayan, have been reviewed in other issues of KinoKultura. Yet this issue’s review cluster includes such major films as Mamai, Ukraine’s first official entry for the Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards, and the œuvre of Alexander Shapiro, one of Ukraine’s most promising and productive contemporary experimental filmmakers, as well as a range of other films important for historical and/or aesthetic reasons.

Overall, this issue of KinoKultura constitutes arguably the most comprehensive examination of Ukrainian cinema currently available in English. To date, the only other materials available are books focused on Ukraine’s best-known director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko (including the recent biography by George Liber—see Liber 2002), and a range of contributions to anthologies and periodicals, including a special issue of the Journal of Ukrainian Studies on Dovzhenko (Summer 1994). There is, naturally, a wide variety of publications in Ukrainian, including a pioneering study by the émigré scholar Borys Berest (Kovaliv), Istoriia ukrains'koho kina, published in New York in 1962. The most comprehensive and bias-free history of Ukrainian cinema to date was written in French by Lubomir Hosejko and has since also been translated into Ukrainian (see Hosejko 2001; 2005). Still, much remains to be done in terms of making the history and richness of Ukrainian cinema better known and appreciated worldwide. It is the hope of the contributors to this issue that we have helped make this become a reality.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the contributors to this special issue of KinoKultura, and the journal’s editor, Birgit Beumers, for their cooperation, patience, and hard work. In particular, I would like to thank Oleksiy Radynski, who has been invaluable in forging ties with some of the brightest and intellectually exciting contributors to film scholarship in Ukraine.


1] For most of its history, Ukrainian cinema produced films in both Ukrainian and Russian-language versions (with only a few exceptions), even though Ukrainian-language versions often received considerably smaller distribution, and for some films only versions with the Russian-language audio track (or intertitles, in the case of silent films) survive. Notable instances of films existing only in a Ukrainian-language sound version due to a principled position taken by the director include Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Ivan (1932) and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv, 1965). In the contributions to this issue, original film titles are provided in the Ukrainian-language version, with the Russian-language versions supplied where those are more familiar to the English-language audience.

Works Cited

Berest, Borys. Istoriia ukrains'koho kina. New York: Shevchenko Scientific Society in the US, Inc., 1962.

Briukhovets'ka, Larysa. Prykhovani fil'my: Ukrains'ke kino 1990-kh. Kyiv: ArtEk/Kino-Teatr, 2003.

First, Joshua. Scenes of Belonging:  Cinema and the Nationality Question in Soviet Ukraine During the Long 1960s. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Michigan, 2008.

Hosejko, Lubomir. Histoire du cinéma ukrainien, 1896-1995. Dié: Éditions à Dié, 2001.

——. Istoriia ukraïns′koho kinematohrafa. Kyiv: Kino-kolo, 2005 [Ukrainian translation of Hosejko 2001].

Liber, George. Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film. London: BFI Publishing, 2002.

Mislavskii, Vladimir. Kino v Ukraine 1896-1921: Fakty, fil'my, imena. Kharkiv: Torsing, 2005.

Nebesio, Bohdan Y. "Competition from Ukraine: VUFKU and the Soviet Film Industry in the 1920s,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 29.2 (June 2009): 159-80.

Yekelchyk, Serhy. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Updated: 09 Jan 10